The power of work in public

Eleanor Lee

For two decades we lived in an environment that was extraordinarily degraded – surrounded by dirt, dereliction and decay that was truly staggering and all-encompassing.  It meant that two generations of children went to school past derelict buildings and heaps of rubbish. There was such a level of casual brutality and absolute disregard to the people who lived here. As if in fact, we didn’t exist. It said: you are utterly redundant to requirements – dispensable. It said you are worth nothing. You have no value.

And finally, with a kind of slow-burning resentment and rage that’s necessary to go in for the long haul, we started to take some very small actions.



And because all our lives were dominated by the degradation of the physical environment, the long haul began with cleaning and clearing rubbish and endless brushing and painting –  and the very female/undervalued domestic activities that normally take place in the home but now moved in public space and started to stretch over entire streets. And this breaks taboos – it’s not always all that easy to do – doing it can take many small acts of courage. But as it turns out, it’s a powerful thing to do, and because we occupied abandoned space it kind of freed us up, and a rather joyful wildness took over.  We could do pretty much what we wanted, as long as we didn’t ask anyone’s permission.

And because nobody in authority cared about our neighbourhood nobody noticed until it was too late. So over the past 10 years or more, in Cairns Street where about 10 houses out of approximately 65 were inhabited, residents created a fantastic green space – planting green links across the voids, so that the entire length of the street had green frontages which spilled out onto the pavements. 

We painted over a hundred boarded up voids; we created murals; we pulled up weeds, hacked up concrete, dug up rock-hard soil, dragged bricks to build containers, planted herbs and fruit trees, lavenders, clematis and honeysuckle…and we’ve cleaned and brushed and talked and eaten together at permanent picnic tables in the street. We also built long wooden raised beds, grew runner beans, sweetcorn, strawberries and raspberries.

And this spread to neighbouring streets –  both the planting and the painting. The next street painted murals on all 40 breezeblocked voids – which they’d looked out at for 15 years. When one side of another beautiful street was demolished, we sowed a wildflower meadow – over 30 people of all ages came to help rake and sow it. And threading through all these years and holding it all together was the determination and ongoing work to maintain it all.

One thing does definitely lead to another. The street market started about 6 years ago – the most recent had around 40 stalls, live music, spoken word poetry, screen-printing, arts and crafts, great food and people coming from all parts of the city.  As virtually the whole of Granby Street - previously the retail, social and political heart of the community - has been demolished and replaced with housing, the Street Market kind of replaces it once a month. It reclaims and re-invents public space - where people can come together, eat, speak, buy, sell and generally party a bit really.



We literally laid our hands on our area. We dug, dragged, painted, brushed and planted. We made our mark. And in so doing, we began to make it ours again. It’s a kind of creative care-taking – of people, buildings, plants and place. It is care-taking that has moved outside – from domestic space and family relationships to public space and new community connections, creating a sense of ownership and belonging. But the care-taking isn’t cautious and containing. It needs to be as bold and expansive as you can manage.

Planting and painting – and carrying out tangible, concrete actions that make a visible difference to where you live, somehow also changes the invisible – the atmosphere in a place, and the strength of people’s relationships with each other as well as their environment. It gives a sense of what’s possible in the face of apparently overwhelming odds. So out of the void (well right in the midst of them actually) we’ve done some good work. It reminds me of a community action, community building version of this description of DNA:

DNA is long and skinny, capable of contorting like a circus performer when it winds into chromosomes. It’s skinny as a whip and smart as one too, containing all the information necessary to build a living organism.

We weren’t all so skinny but we have been long, smart as a whip and done so many contortions it would outdo most circus performers, and apparently we contained all the information necessary to be part of the process of re-building this community.

Eleanor Lee is a resident of Cairns St and a board member of the Granby Four Streets CLT.