Sunday, 18 July 2010

Big street party With Big Lunch day tomorrow, there's quite a bit of rhetorical bunting flapping over notions of neighbourly traditions and the generation of 'sense of community'. But the idea of 'an alfresco frolic with the neighbours' evokes cringes as well as cheers (Bell & Valentine 1997) and this counter-theme is never entirely drowned-out. For some people street parties are equated with a tacky false-jollity that seeks to impose an unwanted, strong-tie version of neighbouring. The trick, as always with an event that can sometimes border closely on spectacle, is probably to loosen and informalise everything and make it escapable, so that people can easily dip in and out. Perhaps we reinvent street parties - much as, in my view, we reinvent neighbourliness - according to the concerns of our age. Here's an interesting article by Joe Moran suggesting that 'the street party was ever more a romantic ideal of community than a show of genuine togetherness': 'The history of the street party suggests that a sense of community is rarely a naturally occurring phenomenon; it has to be continually created by these acts of faith.' (We're not told, but I'm assuming that this is the Joe Moran who wrote Reading the everyday, which I remember as an absorbing read). Historically, most (but not all) street parties in the UK have been a neat mechanism of the establishment, keeping ordinary people in their place with modest cheerful events, sanctioned by authorities to endorse royalty and the achievements of leaders. The Big Lunch develops this tradition, laid out on a very contemporary, tightly-branded tablecloth. As Moran notes: 'In a society fragmented by free-market globalisation but still suspicious of state solutions, a lot is being invested in this idea of the street as the model for a vibrant civic life.' The small-scale of the street may be beautiful; 'Big' almost certainly is not. Let's keep in mind, with Big Society as the new (likewise branded) all-purpose marquee under which we are invited to shelter chummily in these stormy times, that it is coerced, state-approved civic life that is of interest to the top-downers.

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