28 April 2011

A Sense of Pride

I took this picture in Acton Park, London W3, three years ago this month. This was my local town park, two minutes from my doorstep for the last nine years that I lived in London before returning to Aldridge in 2001. I loved this park and I wasn't the only one; it was loved by the local community.

When I moved to Aldridge, one of the things that struck me about the the area and Walsall in general was the graffiti everywhere (granted not quite so bad now) and in the local parks and green areas, the dog dirt, the broken glass, the rubbish, the druggie paraphernalia and a general sense of the parks not being cared for and loved by those who lived nearby and used them. There are no doubt a myriad of reasons for this including the fact that up here a lot more people have gardens to use and so parks get left for less desirable elements of society but I would like to concentrate on something else.

Acton Park has a little pond, lots of green space, a lovely avenue of horse chestnut trees, a rose garden, paths and shrubs, a playground and a little cafe selling food and drinks at reasonable prices catering equally for the latte yummies and the burger brigade. The most important building in the park though is the play centre. This council run, council funded facility is not an unusual thing in London; it isn't just Ealing that has them and it isn't just labour controlled authorities that run them either. The Play Centre was my saviour! It was open 7 days a week from 11am to 7pm and 9pm for two nights a week. It didn't cater just for the small children but for all young people up to the age of 18. There was a craft room and a games room which contained pool tables and a table tennis table. It was open to all as long as you kept to the rules; no fighting, no vandalism, treat everyone equally and with respect.

You would often see young people of say 14, 15, 16 there accompanied by younger siblings and everyone looked out for one another. It wasn't utopia, arguments did break out, children did upset one another and now and then there would be fisticuffs but mostly the young people policed themselves with the help of the two staff that were always on duty and adult volunteers. These adults with help from the young people, organised many activities with boundless energy and I recall attending acorn planting days, drumming workshops, flag painting, paper mache this that and the other, tree and shrub planting, rubbish clearing and then there were the Park Open Days when we all had a big BBQ and a party.

Acton is a diverse area in common with other inner London places. Diverse in terms of ethnicity and diverse in terms of wealth and poverty. Just down the road from the (then) million pound homes (probably triple that now) were the terraces that I lived on and just down the road from there was the largest council estate in west London. It wasn't the best place to live and it wasn't the worst. I saw street crime in action on more than one occasion but one thing I always bore in mind was that such activities were the responsibility of a tiny minority because the majority ruled.

The park more or less cleared the dog dirt problem with bag dispensers and bins. Bins were places all over and so there was never any real amount of litter lying around. I rarely saw broken glass and as for graffiti, well if anyone did have the temerity to start tagging anywhere then there was a residents/users hit squad who would be on to it anywhere in the local area almost before the paint could dry. Consequence of this was gradually the incidents of graffiti fell dramatically. You didn't get small and large gangs of youngsters hanging around because they were too busy playing pool, table tennis or chilling with their mates at the Centre. And the park was theirs too. On hot, sunny days you couldn't see the grass for individuals and families playing and picnicking.

None of this happened overnight. It took years of dedicated work from council workers and residents together but the point is local people were proud of their space and locality and protected it and this included the young people. When I returned there three years ago after an absence of seven years it was still a place that was being cared for by all.

I shall return to this subject from a slightly different angle focussed on the locality I now live in in a few days but in these days of budget cuts to parks and youth centres for example, I do wonder whether councils really see that by cutting these type of budgets they start storing up troubles and costs in other areas for the future or is only the short term a view that can be seen now?

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