'Is everyone allowed the free food?'

This is a church in Sittingbourne that I went to last week.

This is the poster that is on the wall outside

Did you actually see the terrorist attacks happen though?

All those tourists there with all those cameras and not one 

caught the car actually drive into the wall?

Rice has arsenic in it, it will kill ya 

as your body doesn’t have the enzymes to break it down

I don’t know about God but I believe

 in something out there

(A sample of conversations at the South Norwood Community Kitchen)

 Conversations are beautiful things. They are even more beautiful when they are between people who have never met before or come from different walks of life. The conflicts and the negotiations that take place but often the realisation of shared experiences, and the vitality that they take away in meeting someone new and learning that they didn’t fit the stereotype that they originally presumed.

Through our community project, The South Norwood Community kitchen, the purpose was not just to enable people to have a good feed but also to create a truly inclusive, free space for people from all over the community to meet and to have this kind of conversations. To break down walls and barriers.

We believe that we are in desperate need of spaces like this in a society that has become increasingly fearful of others and public space. The pervasiveness of individualism and competitiveness in our culture has bred an anxiety towards community where difference is not positive but something to be actively suppressed and avoided. Public spaces where our differences are played out and materially experienced have lost value and hence we see the closure of our community centres, the selling off of our public land and collectivity spatially dismantled.

Public space has become shaped through a highly controlled architecture of purpose, functionality, and abjection. The presence of security, time restrictions, a lack of comfortable places to sit has engineered spaces that are just made for ‘passing through’ not as rich, vibrant, diverse civic spaces that enable active participation for everyone in society.

Increasing privatisation of public space has rendered unpredictability, chance encounters, fluidity in our communal spaces as suspicious, unnecessary and something to be controlled. What we are left with are sterile, exclusive commercially driven ecologies where social relations are transactional and placed under temporal prohibitions – even our parks have opening and closing times.

They are spaces of abjection where only certain kinds of people and certain kinds of behaviours are allowed to interact, in the pubs, the cafes, the restaurants, the shopping centres – those who have money and the appropriate ‘consumer’ capital in terms of lifestyle and affluent aspirations can take part.

Those that do not fit the normative body such as the marginal, the poor, the disabled are moved to the fringes which creates highly polarised spatial experiences that map out their everyday lives. This means that those who materially ‘fit’ and those that don’t fit will often not cross paths and this lack of contact only helps to exacerbate the sense of arbitrary ‘difference’ between social groups. This gap of ‘difference’ harbours fear and ultimately prejudice. Think of those communities in the UK who have reported high levels of negativity towards ethnic minorities but very rarely interact with different ethnic groups on a daily basis.

We are all familiar with signs that tell us ‘no loitering’ or ‘no ball games’ which often punctuate the landscape of social housing. But these signs are built into our general spatial psyche, we are suspicious of strangers, of staying too long in one place. As Anna Minton describes, there is an architecture of fear that pervades our public worlds. ‘Other’ people, unless they look like us and act like us are rejected so that we can protect the borders of our ‘knowable’ worlds, – what we end up with is a deeply segregated society with fragmented communities that interact in siloes rather than as a cohesive, dynamic whole.

Diversity breeds creativity and without it we are reduced to anodyne, beige worlds. What do you get when you put two heads together with the same life experiences? What do you get when you put two heads together with different life experiences? Something new.

Community = Space. Without spaces, community cannot exist. Without truly democratic, engaged spaces then communities cannot flourish and enable people of all walks of life to participate and create together inclusive, playful public spaces. Through the community kitchen, we want people to loiter, to linger, collide with other people and build the connections to develop an integrated and shared community. So we are no longer passive and told what to do but can have an empowered say and interaction with how our worlds work. But also to learn something new about themselves and break down personal borders that inhibit certain types of personal expression so that identities become more fluid and less rigid.

One thing that we have also found is that people are often suspicious of something being ‘free’ and how ‘freeness’ is only seen as being available to those who are less well off, as if those that are comfortable financially disregard something that does not involve a financial transaction – to get something for nothing makes it meaningless. In our capitalist world, valuable exchange is defined through financial means, whereas exchange should be regarded through social resources – life experiences, other skills and attributes that can be brought to social relationships. We need to redefine the terms of what we mean by exchange in our society based on communality and not individualism, greed and exclusivity.

These are big things, and requires a complete transformation of the way we regard others and our participation in pubic life. Our community kitchen like many other local projects going on around us are just small pieces that fit into a very large puzzle. There is no top-down panacea that can come in and change everything all at once. It will take piecemeal, small local spaces and initiatives that work on an everyday and grassroots level to bring communities together and bring all of our wonderful, messy, unpredictable lives into one space.