By Clare Seek
I’m Chloe, I’m 11 years old and I’ve always lived in Portsmouth. I hadn’t realised so much had changed in my neighbourhood in the past 10 years until I started researching a school project on community and talking to Rosemary, who’s 87 years old. I first met Rosemary a few years ago, when a group of children from the neighbourhood went into her care home to sing Christmas carols. My mum and I got chatting to her and have visited her regularly ever since, and when school asked me to choose a homework buddy, she was my first choice.
The door to Rosemary’s care home is always open. People are going in all the time in to share ideas, ask advice and gain experience. The elderly are valued within our community and whether, like Rosemary, they’re in care, in their own homes, or have moved in with their neighbours , they are integral to the diversity of our neighbourhood.
I popped in on Rosemary last week and found her sitting in the garden. I was really glad to sit in the shade with her after a hot day at school. Whilst we sat eating a cooling ice cream, I asked her for some ideas on where to start researching community. She suggested I didn’t have to look far.
‘It wasn’t always like this.’ Rosemary explained, ‘Fifteen years ago I knew a couple of my neighbours, but only to say hello to in the street. Meeting in the park for community picnics and tree planting was probably the start of the change. I then started to meet more folk when we started to bring to life the empty ground near the garages. There weren’t many community areas to grow food and flowers back then. The chickens that you look after each day weren’t there! Lots of gardens were simply unused when they became too much for households, so sharing the space meant lots of people connected more.
‘And there were a lot more cars back then, so we didn’t have our street tables. It wasn’t until people started sharing their cars that we made enough space to create the shelters and community cooking points. And we’ve eaten together at least once a fortnight ever since.
‘A few people moved out in those days and others grouped together to buy their houses. That’s how the “spare bedrooms” dotted around the patch started. Some also became permanent homes for our friends who had been stuck in bedsits with unsupportive landlords on a road on the edge of the neighbourhood. They were mainly people recovering from various challenges that life had thrown at them. The “spare bedrooms” gave them a home, a safe haven, and several were involved in the start-up of the garden, café, carpentry, renovate and big cook teams.
‘About eight years ago, some students who lived in the area started the co-operative store. It’s made affordable, healthy food much more accessible and although some of them moved away a few years back, they’re starting similar things where they live now. That also helped make sharing our possessions more practical. Why did we ever think that we each individually needed a long ladder, drill, sewing machine, paint brushes, cars? Oh, the list goes on.
‘People have saved lots of money that way and, although everything is more expensive now (the community solar panels, grey waste and composting systems have helped a bit), really early on we decided we wanted to connect with a community abroad to share some of our wealth and resources with each other. We’ve learnt so many valuable lessons from our relationships in Achacotu, Africa and improvements in web links with Africa have greatly opened up possibilities. You wouldn’t be able to chat with your web pal, Ruth, without these links! In fact, you should ask her about this project when you speak to her in a couple of weeks.
‘It’s hard to sum up what makes our community different, other than that there is a real sense of love, place, connection, value and creativity which runs through our bones and our streets. We were all reasonably happy before, and certainly busy, but when the climate emergency was declared and it became clear that we all needed to rethink how we lived and the resources we used, more people came up with ideas and started working together. And there is still more to do, and I know you’ve got some great ideas, which is partly why I love our friendship. I look forward to our chats and am excited about where the next chapter in our story is going. Imagine what you’ll be able to tell your homework buddy in years to come!’
Inspiration: I need to visualise what a different future could look like, to have something to hope for and something to work towards.
Pens of the Earth is about environmental tales from a positive Portsmouth – encouraging writers to celebrate existing environmental initiatives, and to imagine what might be.
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