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Made in White City

Learning to Play in a Broken City

The ways in which we process and recover from trauma and grief are not simple, and they are not short. Two tragedies six years apart, the earthquake in Christchurch and the fire in the Grenfell Tower, prompted two projects whose joyful aims seem paradoxical to their circumstances. But play provides us a path to heal on, Janina Matthewson suggests.

WORDS – Janina Matthewson

When a city or community shares a traumatic experience, the process of healing is also, in part, shared. It becomes clear very quickly that as well as recovering as individuals, you have to recover as a collective. It can become exhausting – the desire to have a conversation that doesn’t inevitably circle back to the event you have lived through. The victims of the Grenfell Tower fire are beginning to learn what I and thousands of New Zealanders learned in Christchurch, back in 2011: that survival is not enough.

At 4:35 AM on September 4th, 2010 a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck my hometown of Christchurch. It caused what, at the time, felt like a considerable amount of damage across the city, and the trauma of the event, combined with the constant aftershocks in the weeks that followed, left people emotionally broken. We were a city of insomniacs, constantly on the verge of either tears or rage. To make matters worse, there was nothing to distract us. The process of checking if buildings were safe to reopen was slow.

Into both the figurative and literal holes left in the city, an organisation called Gap Filler arrived. 

Three friends – Andrew Just, Ryan Reynolds, and Coralie Winn – saw the empty spaces across the city and wanted to try and fill one with something joyful, rather than simply functional. They saw the eerie quiet in the centre of town and wanted to bring back some life. So they found a newly vacant lot in the central city and covered it in fake turf. They pulled together whatever chairs and tables they could find, roped in a guy with a coffee truck, and hung a load of bunting.

The space operated as a mini park during the day. Come dusk there was live music, and later in the evening outdoor cinema. Intended as a one-off project, the response was enthusiastic enough that Gap Filler solidified, and began planning more work. They opened their second project – an outdoor exhibition of architectural changes in Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall – in January 2011. A month later, they were interrupted. 

The earthquake that hit on the 22nd of February was smaller in magnitude than the first one five months earlier, but it was shallower and centred much closer to the heart of the city. It was an altogether more violent experience. 185 people were killed. Most of the central city was cordoned off.

We had been so proud of ourselves as a community after September, so confident in our ability to endure. February showed us that really, we hadn’t anything to endure at all.

The Gap Filler team waited a few weeks before they started again. They weren’t sure it was appropriate this time around. Christchurch had been shaken, but now it was grieving. But the message soon became clear: this was something people wanted. They wanted the chance to distract themselves, the chance to connect with people over something other than reliving what happened to them. They wanted the chance to play.

Christchurch Earthquake Gap Filler Dance-o-Mat
A scene from the Dance-O-Mat project by Gap Filler. 

These desires, however natural, and however healthy, can make us feel guilty. You have survived where others did not. Should you not lead your life with a sense of solemnity? There are still physical issues to deal with – people still need shelter and food. Should all efforts not be diverted to those, before we give joy?

But, when you’re in the middle of things, the need for more than just survival becomes urgent. 

It’s urgent now, for surviving residents of Grenfell Tower and the surrounding areas. The response from the community and the wider city to the tragedy at Grenfell has been considerable. Like Gap Filler, Zoe LeVack and Georgia Langley of Kids On The Green have decided that simply surviving is not enough. Their priority is getting families playing again.

A youth worker in the area, LeVack decided to use Norland Open Space to mount a project that families could use as a respite. With the backing of the Edward Woods Community Centre, they put out a call for teachers and child mental health workers, and within a couple of hours had a team of four. With little more than a box of paints and a few footballs, they were able to herd families away from the immediate area, to a calm, green space where they could relax. 

In the short time since, the project has thrived and grown with the support of a host of volunteers: from storytellers to circus performers, therapists to artists. After two weeks of Kids on the Green existing solely on a volunteer basis, it became clear that this was something the community really needed.

For LeVack the needs are legion and varied. “We react to needs that we identify on an ongoing basis,” she tells me. “So a lot of our parents are having the same problems with their children. And those problems tend to be insomnia: the children aren’t sleeping, they’re afraid to go to sleep.” As well as being afraid to sleep, the children have no outlet for their energy. Many of them have been displaced to small hotel rooms, where there isn’t room for them to move.

It’s a cyclical problem: kids getting no rest, but also having no way to burn up energy, who then lash out. LeVack claims that one of their most basic functions is to tire them out, so when they go to bed they can actually sleep.

What they provide families as a whole, though, is much richer than that. 

There is a team of multi-lingual psychiatrists from Total Family Coaching present on the site, operating in a deliberately subtle way. “Nothing is forced,” says LeVack, “and they wander around, just chatting and getting involved. They make themselves available for one-to-one sessions, or private group sessions, but everything is delivered outside.”

As well as psychiatrists and counsellors, there are volunteers providing reiki, acupuncture and massage. There are a variety of entertainers and artists giving their time, proving themselves of value to adults and children alike. “Our parents get just as involved in the arts activities as the kids, and even sometimes just for themselves,” says LeVack. The idea is that if people want to paint, they can paint. If they want to make a badge, or listen to a story, or just sit and enjoy what is being made around them, that’s fine.

The lack of pressure, for her, is crucial. Nothing is set, or forced. There are a range of activities made available that children and their parents can participate in as they choose – or if they prefer, they can simply exist in this space, away from the trauma but surrounded by people who understand and share it, and with the ability to talk to a professional, without having to confront the barriers of formal bureaucracy.

She stresses the importance of strengthening the community through the trauma. Living in a city like London means not knowing your neighbours, or at least not knowing them well. That could make recovering from an ordeal much harder. “When all of the outside help has eventually evaporated, and it will, you know, this community will be left to continue its journey and we need to give them the skills to be able to do that.”

We tend to think of trauma as something sudden and violent, that we either recover from or don’t, but that’s not always accurate. It can be long and slow, and you can find yourself managing it for a long time. LeVack is very aware of that as she considers the future of Kids on the Green. They’ll be there for the summer, when they’ll face the decision of whether they can continue in an indoor space, or break to return in the spring.

Projects like these impact more than just the fall-out of one incident. Kids on the Green have provided a space for people dealing with existing crises. Or, perhaps, existing crises brought to breaking point by the fire are now able to be addressed. “We’ve had several mums on the estate that have struggled as single mums, two or three that have had quite serious post-natal depression,” says LeVack. For them, and others with pre-existing, under-treated conditions, Grenfell is a trigger. But those pre-existing conditions exist elsewhere too on a much wider scale. 

Kids on the Green is open to expanding outwards within the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, into other green spaces, to serve more people within the community. And there’s an argument for expanding this, the idea of a space for play inherently tied in with mental health care and well-being, into other struggling areas. The idea that distance from trauma creates stability doesn’t really carry weight. People are struggling and mental health is unsupported, partly because the resources available are insufficient, but also because the stigma associated it with it still inhibits people from seeking help.

Playful, recreational spaces coupled with mental health services have obvious benefits, and encouraging the idea that play in itself has a psychological benefit could have implications for how we engage communities in general. There is value in engaging with other people over the superficial, the light-hearted and the playful. It's part of how we heal following a significant trauma, but also how we deal with the daily struggles of life, and that is an idea that deserves to be given weight. 

It’s perhaps this that has led to the continued progress of Gap Filler in Christchurch, six years after the earthquake that sparked their existence. The temporary nature of playful responses to events such as these lends itself to innovation, and that innovation is always valuable. “In any city, there’s a place for temporary activity to test ideas,” says Coralie Winn, “to experiment, to engage with people, to allow people to participate. That goes without saying. There are always vacant spaces, there are always disused shops.”

Gap Filler’s ethos of using space in valuable, playful ways, rather than wholly commercial ones, has led to the concept enduring far longer than its creators expected. Over the years, they’ve put up many and varied projects across Christchurch. The Think Differently Book Exchange, established in July 2011 and still running today, is a free book exchange where members leave books that changed their minds about something. An outdoor cinema powered by exercycles. A giant, coin-operated dance-o-mat. There are plans for a parking meter that dispenses community-generated tips on finding free activities in the city, and a parking lot that engages with, and supports the community surrounding it.

Christchurch Earthquake Gap Filler Summer Pallet PavilionGap Filler's Summer Pallet Pavilion. Photo: Murray Irwin.

While there has been some push-back to Gap Filler – the continued existence of temporary activity can serve to highlight the comparative absence of permanent development – it seems clear that it still has something to give. 

“We’re humans and so what makes us human?” says Winn. If we are to survive, what do we gain by surviving, if not joy? And if that need is not fulfilled, what is the implication?

“If you’re not affected by what’s happened and you're looking at this project externally, you may not see that it is embedded in mental health, or you may not make the connection with the model that we’re delivering this therapeutic work within,” says LeVack, “Being a play and family respite project, you might not see the worth or the benefit of it. I think again you have to come down and see how it’s working, and talk to the parents, or read some of the comments on social media, to see how beautifully it is working, how effective it is.”

I wonder also if sometimes, after we have suffered, part of us needs to be given permission to enjoy ourselves again. “People feel scared of their own inability to do something, because the scale is so far beyond the individual,” says Winn. She found people appreciated the fact that someone was creating something, that someone was being proactive and productive, and creating a sense of hope. 

Christchurch Earthquake Gap Filler Summer Pallet PavilionLeft: Gap Filler's Summer Pallet Pavilion, photographed by Guy Frederick. Right: Think Differently Book Exchange, photo by Tim Church.

The trauma of Grenfell is still raw. The families who have turned to Kids on the Green have been in shock, and they’ve been angry. But the playful space they’ve been given means there is room for them to feel something else as well. They have, as LeVack says, “permission to smile, to laugh. That’s something we see every day.”

Six years ago, still unsteady, still grieving what had happened to my city and the people within it, I let a friend’s passion take me to a Gap Filler event. I took my trauma and I sat in a make-shift outdoor cinema, and I was educated and inspired. I had an everyday evening of joy and tranquility in a world that was no longer an everyday place. 

The ways in which we process and recover from trauma and grief are not simple, and they are not short. They are many and varied, they are complex and extended. But learning to play, in a world that suddenly seems all too serious, is a valuable step on that path. “We’re humans and so what makes us human?” What else but joy?

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