Healing a town with shoe-shop chat

An issue that for some time neatly divides a community directly down the middle, cleaving them into two camps that seems intent on destroying all common ground between them. A debate that very rarely gets deep into facts before the ad hominem attacks, insults and threats. A political class that knows divide and conquer is a low but effective technique. A seemingly irreparable division that toxifies all it touches…

Nah, we don’t do Brexit on these pages, we’re talking about the tram. It’s hard to remember how divided things were then. We stuck down an editorial line of not being pro or anti as we could see how divisive it was, but still were accused from both sides of being a propaganda tool for the others. It was a pretty nasty time and was best summed up by the NET Tram Ranting Room on Facebook, an area of much heat and little light. Here, the loudest voices were amplified further over the quiet voices of reason, and dissent was not welcome. It was a hateful, horrible place serving to make the situation increasingly febrile. So well done to unassuming local guys, Jon Speed and Steve Orton who decided to do something about it. They set up a new group and called it ‘Beeston Updated’.

Originally the ‘NET Phase 2 Discussion Room’, its initial idea seemed to be a refuge for disaffected Rant Room defectors who wanted something less substantial than the usual ‘WHY OH WHY OH WHY fodder’. As it started to attract members, a local woman, Kirstie, was invited on board, and then I was hauled in. ‘We’ll probably plateau at around 750 members’ I predicted, maintaining my prognostic aptitude finely – I’m the anti-Nottstradamus, it seems.

As the tramlines came close to completion and the raison d’etre of the group looked set to diminish, we decided to refocus. I’d early done much work in tandem with the Beeston and District Civil Society and Sir/ Professor Martyn Poliakoff, and others, in trying to imagine what the next phase of the Square development should look like. We had run a process of asking a bunch of the finest, freshest minds in urban development together by setting it as a University of Nottingham project, with staggeringly imaginative results, fully costed and studied, presented openly for the public. Not a single councillor bothered visiting the display, and years on the Square is only just getting built on by the dullest set of buildings imaginable.

What would happen if we discussed, en masse, the future of Beeston development? Have a forum to find out what people really want, rather than the useless and skewed public consultations put out by councils? Beeston Updated took a step into the future.

And what a future it has been. Membership began to rocket and to ensure that it was well-served rules put in to allow everyone to talk in an open, positive fashion rather than the usual fate of forums: The Gobshite Takeover. Balancing this with freedom of expression is a developing, complex issue, yet I think it works, despite the aforementioned gobshites misunderstanding that ‘freedom of speech’ is the same as ‘freedom to be listened to’.

Themes, private jokes – the non-existence of shoe shops / public toilets is a perennial favourite, and memes have grown over time, as has a very welcome effect: despite the board’s occasional frivolity and trivialities, it sometimes serves an important purpose.

When the 12-year-old Rylander Owen Jenkins drowned in the Trent attempting to rescue two girls, the news first broke on BU, and the response was overwhelming. People were desperate to be able to offer help, even if it was just in the form of condolence. Owen’s family were inundated with offers of help, and as the tragedy settled into the town’s consciousness ideas were brought forth: Owen’s favourite colour was purple, so the town mobilised to display the colour all over, to show solidarity to Owen’s family. By the time his funeral happened, the streets from Rylands to Wollaton Road were lined with those wishing to pay respect. Out of tragedy, beauty.

There have been numerous such tales since, though few tinged with such tragedy. The deaths of notable local John ‘Fastlane’ Ciutiskis and busker Percy Brown saw the town come together on the group to ensure that they both received dignified send-offs. Pets have been reunited, friends bought back together, many, many small acts of communal goodness enacted. Oxjam, Street Art, and Beeston Carnival are all enhanced by the existence of the group.

It’s not perfect – what community is? It has, at time of writing, 20,394 members, which represents a vast majority of on-line Beestonians. While some of these admittedly are ex-residents of the town and confused Leeds residents perplexed at there being more than one Beeston, I’m delighted my original prediction was out by 2600%. While time and familiarity have been the greatest healers of the social wounds caused by the tram debacle, I am sure Beeston Updated has been a help in getting to understand who we are as a community, and bringing us a little closer.

And for the record, there are SEVEN places where men’s shoes can be purchased within Beeston, for christ sake.

MT

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