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Sharing stuff and socialising with strangers: right up our street?

May 25, 2013

The other day, in my local Cafe Nero, my phone calls intrigued my neighbours and led to random conversations; one with a media guy studying politics whose colleague was making a film about Iranian asylum seekers and one with a convert to Islam who had retrained as an ethical organic Halal slaughterer. I love London. Then a stranger I’d been emailing through Streetbank popped in to give me her unwanted mini hair straighteners in exchange for a redundant phone charger (she’d given hers away to a stranger on the train thinking she had a spare). I walked home full of the joys of spring and excited about the possibilities of community.

Streetbank has been blogged about before on Breathe, but perhaps it’s time for some re-inspiration. In a nutshell, it’s a movement of people (19,655 of them at the last count) who share with their neighbours. And here’s why I’m up for being part of it.

Firstly, it’s a good reminder that we don’t need to own everything ourselves. In an act of virtual curtain-twitching, I enjoyed watching the delight of one neighbour who’d borrowed walking poles from another for a weekend in the countryside. Borrowing things makes sense pragmatically because few people in London have excess storage space for occasional-use items but, more than that, it’s also a way of living counter-culturally in a society which keeps telling us to accumulate ad infinitum. It’s one little way of reminding ourselves that building bigger barns for all our surplus was never in the game plan.

Secondly, I like that its benefits are not just financial but social. In reality, it would’ve been quicker and easier for my neighbour to have ordered a replacement phone charger online for next day delivery than to go to the trouble of collecting my old one. But online shopping can’t beat the added-value of giving to/receiving from an actual person. It’s that same satisfaction you get when you find a well-fitting bargain in a charity shop. The whole experience took me back to those halcyon days of living in community when we’d scrounge a spare mattress from over the road to accommodate extra guests, share cars, pop into each other’s houses, or borrow giant Jenga from our street’s Nepalese pub to use at youth group. Spontaneous neighbourliness seems harder in London, so it’s nice to be helped along the way.

Bringing together the ideas of challenging consumerism and reconnecting with our neighbours, I reckon that Streetbank can also be a local outworking of a commitment to broader global concerns. The recent tragedy at the garment factory in Bangladesh is a wake-up call to the fact that our incessant desire for cheap stuff has led to incessant production around the world for which others are paying the price, whether through exploitative labour, impoverishing trade agreements, or forced displacement, to name but a few.  In some small way, sharing and reusing locally is one facet of our solidarity with unseen neighbours who bear the brunt of our society’s greed.

After my warm-fuzzy-feeling Streetbank experience, my mum popped my little utopian bubble by questioning how sensible it was to sign up to a scheme which encouraged you to interact with and lend to strangers. What if you don’t get your stuff back? What if you arrange to exchange goods with someone who turns out to be a psychopath?  Well, the system mitigates against free-loading by requiring every member to offer to give or lend something themselves, but even then I guess that hospitality always carries a risk. That’s just how things are and it’s probably a good way of training ourselves to be disciples of one who told us to give to those who ask and who practiced what he preached.  As for the psychopath question, I’m probably assuming that most Streetbankers are nice middle class people who aspire to community and that it’ll all be ok in the end.

Nevertheless, my mum’s hesitations got me thinking about how far we have wandered from an ideal in which people are together with everything in common, giving to those in need. I’m not sure if I’m bemused or saddened by the fact that we have to put systems like Streetbank in place to make this happen because other cultures seem to practice open-handed hospitality so much more intuitively. Perhaps this is just the reality of disjointed big city life? Or does it highlight our affluence and lack of need (I think of the generosity I’ve experienced in much poorer countries and of times in the UK when I was invited to share food with young asylum seekers who had pooled their resources for a decent meal yet unhesitatingly shuffled round to make space for me). Or does it point back to our anxiety-inducing misaligned priorities and objects of faith?

Whatever you put it down to, it’s no surprise that there’ve been so many policy efforts to unshackle good neighbours and foster social capital.  In spite of my significant reservations about the political Big Society which champions these concepts,  I’m nevertheless  grateful that Streetbank has ridden this wave and directed its entrepreneurial efforts towards investment in alternative forms of interacting both with our (local and global) neighbours and our stuff.

Assuming that community and sharing etc. etc. are facilitated through trust and relationship, my Streetbank neighbour and I are planning a pub trip next week. We’re inviting all our local Streetbankers and hope it will get everyone just that little bit more inspired. I’ll drink to that.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2013 6:08 am

    I realise how pervasive your Mum’s fears are when I read in Job this weekend, how he insisted that no one was turned away from his door, all travellers were given a bed for the night and no one slept out on the street (Job 31:32, my paraphrase) and I wondered if I would do the same. Surely it was just as risky then, as it is now?


  1. Sharing stuff and socialising with strangers: right up our street? |

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