Frances Foley is a resident at Pembroke House. She led the 2019 annual street party organised by the settlement. She used Method-C described in the previous entry (24) as a guide. Here is her report on the event.
Pembroke House (PH) Street Party report – August 2019, Frances Foley
In this reflection on the street party, on Saturday 13th July 2019, I am looking to capture something of the day, but also to examine what worked and why and what might be improved. I’m using the headings of Space, Time, Content and Efficiencies for the preparation, delivery and review stages, in order to explore why we might be better hosts and hold events which foster a sense of joy and openness.
It wasn’t easy to work out the space in advance, since it is hard to envisage what the street will look and feel like on the day. Nonetheless, this was important for the party’s overall success.
I knew that certain elements had their specific spot and decided to mark those out and not to ‘over-organise’ the space. I didn’t want too many people sticking to a rigid structure that was arbitrary. That can be useful, but in this case, I wanted people to feel like they could make their own decisions based on common sense, timing and effort. But telling people where certain things would be did make it easier to slot in the rest – not being too strict, but not starting with blank sheet of paper either.
We had a meeting with Lucy, Marcela and Anna-Marie to talk about where things had been last year and whether it worked, drawing on their experience. We decided the stage should be just in front of Pembroke House (because of electricity and sealing off the street). The kids’ zone was on the grass – we could lay out a tarp to identify the space and make it feel softer and mess-friendly. The info stall would be in front of Pembroke House – the closest to the building. The gardening stall should be close to PH, so they could be close to the plants for potential gardening activity. The BBQ stalls would be opposite one another at the far end, since they would also enclose the street, tempt people in from the other block of flats and be slightly removed from the music area, most stalls and the animals. This would mean something was happening at the other end too. We recorded all this information and A-M made it up into a map, with just a few stalls marked on it, to avoid confusion – and some info about toilets, first aid, water and food items.
We didn’t measure the street or work out the stalls in advance – I thought we’d have enough room for them all (15/16 stalls had expressed an interest). Yet, on the morning of the party, I had a few major concerns and two of them were about the space: the residents moving their cars and having enough tables for everyone. It was only when the street started to look ready and the stalls had all arrived that I relaxed into the event.
Previous experience suggested that the day had gone on too long. It should feel full, people should enjoy it and the party should build up to a peak and then go off with a bang. As such, we decided to keep it much shorter to keep the energy high and so that the team would feel like it was manageable –it was a Saturday after all! It was advertised as 12.30 – 4pm, and we anticipated that most people would start arriving by 1pm, and it would fill up between 2 and 3pm, with people staying once they’d had food. It would reach a fun, high-energy conclusion around 4.30. We also knew that the performances would go on longer and that we were in control of that – the council were told that the entertainment would finish by 5pm. We made the programme with the intention that my band would go on at the end, so that we could test the mood and either draw to a close or play a bit longer.
Ali and I spent a long session doing the programming – thinking about the time in relation to the street as well – where performers would be, who would take time to set up, how we could make sure things were happening in different parts of the space at different times so people wouldn’t lose interest and we wouldn’t lose the energy (see Content). I communicated this all to the team running the stage too, so they would understand the intentions behind our schedule and help to implement it by making and keeping good relations with the performers and ensuring we stuck to this. I made it clear that their role was pivotal to the whole day.
Making sure we got a good mix of stalls at the party was important as the stalls were the static, permanent and substantial parts of the event. The stalls could be understood as the architectural framework of the street party and would keep people on the street.
A few months out I asked the staff, volunteers and the party committee which stalls we’d had last year – we didn’t seem to have a list – and which they’d particularly found interesting and engaging, and then contacted these first. I told the stallholders that they weren’t allowed to sell things and should have some kind of ‘offer’, but other than that, there were no real restrictions.
Whilst most stalls were free, we did invest in a couple of things. The donkeys were pricey but worth it as they were a big hit. PH covered equipment for several stalls: fish stall, arts and crafts, BBQ, gardening group, but, apart from the food, most stalls were low-cost and we covered them since we were putting on the party.
In the end, most of the stalls were PH-run or affiliated to us, helping to promote our activities and emphasising that we were holding the event. This also meant I could ask people to sort out the equipment themselves and to be part of making the party a success- which they did.
The stage was the other major aspect of the content. Once again I asked around to find out who had played before, who was good and who might be willing to participate, ideally for free. We also wanted there to be a real mix of styles, performances and performers – mostly from Walworth. The exception to these conditions was Ida Barr, who was a real draw – an experienced performer who could rally the crowds, get the party going and who was able to break into the open space. We felt paying for a performance like that to open the event was worth the investment. We also paid for Uncle Aug’s troupe and Shem, both experienced performers and who we could rely on. My band was happy to play for free.
We explicitly asked those acts, but the others either offered themselves or had been part of the party last year and wanted to play again – and they were all from Walworth. The more professional acts – the drummers and Shem – bookended the Basement Crew, in part because we thought they could keep the energy up after the first act, then re-animate the crowd afterwards and because they could perform in the crowd, rather than the stage area, to allow the BC time at the start and finish.
The performances spanned a range of styles, even more of a range than we originally planned: a drag/music hall plus rnb act, African drums, classic popular tunes, church choir, folk music, modern rock and blues. We scheduled my band last so that we could round off the party with energy and noise and since we would be able to gauge how long to play for. We knew the music would go on more than 4.30, but hopefully people would be into the party by then and it would feel like a natural end – slightly overtime, but not strung out or fading away.
I spent a lot of time thinking about efficiencies for a number of reasons. Firstly, there was a lot to do – it takes a lot of emailing and following up. Secondly, it felt like the thing that would upset people if it wasn’t sorted– and we didn’t want to be panicking on the day that we didn’t have everything we needed. Finally, I felt this was a weakness of mine: I’m not the most organised, efficient forward-planner so I spent lots of time to avoid mixups.
Thinking about time, space and content helped with efficiencies: they slotted into the Master Plan and if they didn’t fit, the Plan came first. That’s how I work best anyway – thinking about the concept and slotting in the logistics and practicalities around it; also it gives me motivation to pursue the sometimes boring efficiencies, because I understand they’re all contributing to effecting the vision –a wood is made up of trees, which each need to be carefully planted, monitored and attended to. But the efficiencies themselves do take ages: lots of emailing with potential stallholders, participants, people we were borrowing things from and performers – and endless soul-wrenching applications to The Council.
In any case, once the other things begin to take shape – especially the content – we only then started to see what we needed. Of course this doesn’t happen if you don’t start early – you need those emails, sometimes over months, but if you get your main set early then you can make a firm call in the final week or two on everything else. Do we need that stall, can we afford those final materials, where do we get those bits of food from? The efficiencies just kept coming and kept me awake at night – but if I’d trusted in the work we’d done on the other aspects, I may not have felt too daunted by them.
1. On the day
In the morning, I was most distracted by the space, wanting it to be set up quickly and for it to look like a party. Patrick arrived earliest and said that he thought he had the upper hall for ballet for today and I realised I had booked it for them and forgotten! So we went and surveyed downstairs and realised we could begin to set up the street and clear the things so the dance could happen in there as normal. Luckily, the set-up team were arriving at that moment, and set about moving all of the equipment for the stalls out onto the street. In the space of around an hour, the original set-up team grew to around 20 people, the barriers were erected, gazeboes were set up and hauled into position, people carried chairs and tables and populated the street, the stalls started to set up their displays and decorations and the street began to look busy, exciting and like a real party.
It was incredible how quickly and fluently the set-up team worked. The only moment of possible confusion was when the set-up team started asking me where each stall should go: I explained that only a set number of stalls had specific spots, as indicated on the street party diagram – and showed them the map – and the rest could just set up wherever was left in the end. But this took some time to sink in, as what I was really saying was – as long as the stalls indicated on the map are where they should be, it’s up to you guys! Once the team understood this – and I retreated – they were able to start creating the space, using their own initiative and guided by the map, but not restricted by it. At the same time, my bandmates were setting up the PA system, very quickly and thoroughly, with the help of James. The second the sound came out of the speakers, it felt like a real party was about to happen. The larger gazeboes gave it a sense of grandeur and the colourful stalls looked bright, fun and merry.
The space worked well on the day, in the way originally intended: the stage and the food stalls bookended the street and contained the activities in a short space of Tatum Street, so it felt busy, but not too full. It also felt quite intimate at times, with people moving up and down the street to investigate the stalls and chat with one another. The main queues, as anticipated, were at the food stalls and they were busy and popular, but also never heaving. Clusters of people formed in the middle, which enabled introductions of strangers and encouraged mixing.
The peaceful tea and coffee area downstairs was used, mainly by older folks and young kids, though we should have made clear – to guests and hosts- that the garden space was open and free to use. The donkeys positioned around the corner also seemed a good call – they were out of the way of the smoke and the noise, had space to move and it was a peaceful spot. But we did have to remind people about them, through the maps, signs and announcements. The kids’ zone on the lawn worked, though some stalls on the grass were a little frustrated that they had to encourage people to come around the barrier to interact with them.
The timing of the day worked as planned, with the whole street set up and ready to party by 12.00. A few stalls arrived a bit after the 11.30 scheduled time, but we were able to fit them in around the others. It added to the mood that the stall holders had to be a bit self-sufficient: this was a street party, not a large-scale, tight-ship festival.
The food was ready to serve by 12.30/1pm too, and certainly drew in a further crowd, which kept coming for the rest of the afternoon.
The stage kicked off on time – at 1pm – and, astonishingly – ran to time, far more than we were anticipating, with groups arriving on time, being shown to the stage and finishing when they were supposed to! This happened because a lot of thought had gone into the scheduling, so the acts which needed more attention and time had that space in the programme and didn’t push it – and James and John were great at working with the groups in advance, setting up and managing the relationships so no one was put out. This was one of the biggest successes of the day and allowed the event to run smoothly. My band was the final act – and that worked because we could play a full set, knowing there were plenty of people and there was appetite for it. But, because I had underestimated how long the raffle would be (it was far too big anyway!), we used some of that time at the end for that. Amazingly, people stayed – probably as they could see everyone would go home with something! – and we were able to end with thank yous just before 5pm.
What made the street party was that the stallholders and entertainers all showed up, on time, with the equipment and really gave it their all. The stalls looked very attractive – especially the WLR, Messy Church, the knitting group and the garden group – and there was a good mix: things to buy, games and activities and conversations to be had. We had good, tasty, filling food which was served on time and was free, but our team was also briefed that they should point out the donation buckets – which were filled, when people were surprised and delighted to find out it was donations-based. There also wasn’t an overwhelming amount happening: there wasn’t so much going on off the main street, just tea inside.
As with any event, there were some things on the day which could be improved. The raffle was interminable and needed to be shorter! On staff/shifts: I could have prepared better briefings for the staff on first aid and reminded our First Aiders of their duties. People needed to be told to check the garden area. We needed extra volunteers, as some didn’t show. The food rota was too confusing – but people made it work. It was good that people knew who to come to – Ali for food, Lucy for volunteers, me for everything else. On equipment: we needed sterilised cups downstairs, better children’s face-paint and to work out how to provide water whilst avoiding plastic waste, and getting better recycling facilities. We should have a plan to reduce our waste and environmental impact next year – even aim for no non-compostable waste.
The street party did feel like a day of celebration, communal being-together and joy. There was a lot of fun, cracking jokes and spontaneity: Niall getting his face painted, Ida Barr’s rendition of Jerusalem with everyone waving whatever they were holding, when the Lunch Club gang got dancing to the Basement Crew, or James joining my band on stage and aceing his solo. There also seemed to be a lot of receptiveness – different groups mixing and making connections, like the people from next door joining hands with the older locals, or the Church folk joking with the kids’ zone team.
In amongst this, there were connective characters, who introduced people, brought them together and also kept the day running – Ali, Frances, James, Mother Ellen. In fact, most of the PH team did this in one way or another. There was also plenty of folks bigging up others – people coming to the front to dance for Ida Barr at the beginning and get the party started. That felt like a demonstration of openness – doing and being differently, trying things out and being grabbed by the moment. It takes certain people to step into that, to spark it in others and the atmosphere and occasion has to feel conducive and supportive of that. It did feel that to me: intimate, lively and welcoming of all kinds of good spirits.
One of the things that sticks with me about the day, and on reflection part of the reason it was so gratifying, was that there was a lot of different kinds of contribution. By virtue of asking others to be part of it – partly an ethical decision (we want to share the party), partly pragmatic (we need your help and can’t do this all by ourselves) – people were drawn in. This might have been through asking them to run a stall, perform or even just donate or give some equipment for the afternoon. But then they had a stake and they had been part of making the party. When you’re involved like that, you feel you have achieved something important, so also deserved to enjoy it. You can be host and guest at the same time.
This contributed to a greater sense of agency, of ownership, of reciprocity and communality – which I hope we can build on and develop. We were saying: we’ve set up this space, but please come into it – infect it with your you-ness; respect what has gone before but don’t be constrained by it; bounce off others and make something greater between you, rather than separately; be inventive and don’t do what you normally do; say yes to things, try things on and out, test it and develop it – and do it if it feels interesting, different or inspiring.
In terms of reach – some people estimated that we had more people attend this year than ever before – “the street always felt full”. That might have been a perception – it just seemed busy, but even that is an achievement of sorts – we had used the space better and shortened the event. We did see some people come along from other parts of the neighbourhood, which is really encouraging – and even from the blocks neighbouring us – drawn by the smell of the BBQs. We’d like to keep building on this in future.
We could do better with reach perhaps, by engaging with local businesses and institutions more – inviting them to come and become part of it. The Latin American community was a bit more absent this year than previously, when they had performed and provided food. There are also certainly groups living very close by who might be put off. This might be for reasons we are aware of– a rival church – or some we don’t – which we should find out about. The street party should be used as a hook for this kind of work prior to the event.
We might want to think about curation in future – which groups could have a part of the event and made it fully their own. In terms of quality, as defined by how the organisers expected it to be, the party topped what I thought it would be. It felt far more united, smooth and happy – and less chaotic, frantic or tense than I had anticipated.
It also felt more of a team effort. A team effort which made the team feel proud of themselves, as individuals and as a team. And the team spanned both PH and the broader community – those who come to PH and those from the local residents’ associations, the local groups who participated and even the people who donated and participated – it felt like one community.
In thinking about impact, we must judge against our stated aims. In the case of the street party, the aims of the event seemed much clearer to me than other events that I have organised. We wanted to put on a great event, which would foster new relationships or deepen existing ones; we wanted to generate a feeling of pride in Walworth and Tatum Street community in particular; we wanted people to feel part of something bigger, something specific, something open but also cohesive; we wanted people to show off their talents and skills; we wanted to draw in new people, who might not otherwise come to Pembroke House; we wanted to practise creating and holding a space – taking a lead on this but collaborating with others; we wanted to show everyone what’s going on in PH but in the area at large; and we wanted to have fun, spark something off, celebrate our community, throw a party to remember – and repeat!
This felt part of our role as a local institution, as someplace permanent, somewhere which is creating a sense of regularity for the community – this has happened before, and it’ll happen again – and you’re part of that now. I feel like the street party hit most of these notes.