The question 'where are you from' has never been easy for me to answer, and instead I prefer the question, 'Where Are You a Local?', inspired by Taiye Salasi’s TED talk on place and identity. I would unequicovally answer that I am a local in New York City, with a sprinkle of other specific places around the world. In moving to London, I’ve had to shake old city habits for new ones, taking on the role of social observer and obvious newcomer: frantically searching for my Oyster card to 'tap out', descending a double-decker with grace and gravity-defying balance, and finally, familiarising myself with the names and locations of places that are hard for my city-on-a-grid compass to grasp. As a newcomer to London, and a newcomer to the two-year long project of Performing Places Bexley, I’m putting together the pieces of what it means to be a local in London, and specifically, the London Borough of Bexley.
I like to believe we navigate cities with mental maps, and to be a local means having personal, detailed, and invisible recollections of places we are familiar with. These are places we could get to without the aid of a GPS voice, the kinds of places that elicit a host of emotions. Mental maps are constantly shifting to account for new dimensions. We each have vastly different experiences of the same ‘places’, be they for the reasons we were there, how we got there, and where we went next. This is precisely what makes city life so varied; ask any given person, ‘why London?’ and you’ll get answers that range from ‘I had no choice’ to career or education related decisions. Every individual in this city adds a new layer of relationships to place, a new story - but how can we bridge these stories, so that they live in communion with one another?
The London Borough of Bexley seeks to answer this question through its multi-year investment in building community, through the Borough-wide project, ‘A Place for Everyone’. Using a multi-channel approach that involves cleaner streetscapes, historical archiving, family integration, and performance, Bexley is on an ambitious journey to leverage a host of tools to promote ‘a place at ease with itself’.
In the last ten years demographics have shifted in Bexley, a historically White British borough at the ends of London and the edges of Kent. As the borough becomes more diverse in numbers, the Council has observed growing residential polarisation - a pattern that might limit interactions between long-time residents and newcomers.
In an effort to cherish and highlight the benefits of a diversifying borough, all while taking into account the complexities of integrating both new and old comers, ‘A Place for Everyone’ seeks to, as the name suggests, create a place that each individual can see themselves in, and creative, arts-informed problem-solving will be critical in this process.
If we think of mental maps as a patchwork of experiences and emotions we associate with a place, drama can be a vehicle that allows us to experience another layer of attachment to a specific place. As Sally Mackey suggests in her Performing Places research, performative acts can help “engage new residents with their environment by subverting and reframing locations of the everyday through performance practices, building a palimpsest of memories that would, in the future, prompt positive, wry and even fond memories of performance-in-sites each time the site was encountered’ (Mackey 2016: 118). It is this place-making that can spark small but influential changes in the perceptions we hold.
In the case of Bexley, one of the most significant places in the Borough is the Bexleyheath Broadway: the site of a confluence of interactions and missed connections. At once a social destination, shopping district, and thoroughfare, the Broadway is a fixture in the Bexley community, but rising tensions in the Borough have fractured how the space is used and residents’ feelings towards it.
Urban planner and theorist Jane Jacobs argued that “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody” (Jacobs 1961: 238). Performing Places Bexley invites all members of the Bexley community to contribute to the reimagining of place through participatory workshops and larger-than-life street performances that bring to life the parallel universe of Par-Bexia. In toying with the narrative of a parallel universe and its associated characters - young Par-Bexians, Vists, and Vestors - current residents of Bexley reflect on their community, how it works, and what traits make it uniquely Bexley. This participant-generated information is essential in sparking dialogues about place, and will ultimately be reflected in large-scale public performance activities on the Bexleyheath Broadway.
The culminating event gives old and newcomers a unique opportunity to interact with a familiar place in a new, and unexpected way. Otherworldly characters spark whimsical occurrences in what is typically an ordinary thoroughfare, and ‘the environment itself barely changes but our perception of it does because of the less-than-usual activities enacted there’ (Mackey 2016: 119). By adding another layer of experience to this all-too-familiar place, residents are invited to 're-view' this place and share their local version of Bexley with one another and, yet again, edit their mental map of the Borough of Bexley.
Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books
Mackey, S. (2016). Chapter 6 - Performing location: Place and applied theatre. In: J. Hughes and H. Nicholson, ed., Critical Perspectives on Applied Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 107 - 124.