Union Street Party: Being Weird is Okay

 

Written by Emily Stewart

 

Photography by Dom Moore

As Vudi and I approach the Union Street Block Party on Sunday 27 September, I insist that we stop by A Tahinska, an unassuming Portugese café on Union Street. Vudi is my friend and photographer for the day; we’re both new to Plymouth. The café is packed with other party-goers who apparently had the same first-visit idea. “I have been meaning to try this place for ages,” says one white-haired Plymothian. She clutches a take-away box. I peer hopefully inside, wondering if contains some of the spicy smell wafting from the open kitchen. “It’s only chips,” she blushes. I wonder if she thinks Portugese food is a little too weird to try.

After A Tahinska Vudi and I follow the crowd to the  blocked-off portion of Union street between the roundabout and Aldi. Intending to make a beeline for Hannah Sloggett, Union Street Party chairperson, I am immediately distracted by a small gypsy caravan and pile of apples. An Efford-based community organization called Take a Part uses the wooden caravan to introduce concepts like urban gardening across Plymouth’s communities. Today’s agenda is helping youngsters and their families learn to core apples. Families of all shapes, sizes, and colors giggle at the long line of greenish-red skin produced by an antique coring machine. Before they leave, the families complete small postcards suggesting ideas for other ways the caravan can be used in Plymouth’s community.

Union Street Party

Take A Part’s Kim Wide

Patiently waiting for my lesson, I turn to the tall mother next to me wearing a sunny straw hat. It is Hannah herself, watching her her own daughter spin the coring machine. Hannah serves on the Stonehouse Action committee of eight other volunteers as Chairperson. But I already know and respect Hannah as Neighbourhood Planning Manager with Plymouth City Council. I am more impressed to see how relaxed she is at the event, more mum than manager. “The most difficult part of the event is Health & Safety,” she laughs. Noticing a less-than-healthy looking man walk by (head-down, mumbling) and the police officer watching him, I can understand why. Yet the event is wonderfully family-friendly and the crowd all smiles.

I ask Hannah more about her committee’s intentions in hosting a family-focused block party on one of the most notorious streets in the city. “It’s all about embracing preconceptions,” she says. “We aren’t trying to change Union Street. We don’t want to lose the diversity. We want bring all parts of the community together to embrace the ideas about Union Street.” Despite the fact that Hannah and her committee have “no budget,” I am constantly surprised and delighted by all the party activities.

Past a troupe of ukulele players I walk until stopping to squeal with delight at a postcard on the Pride in Plymouth table. “It’s a very rare image,” Mark Ayres gushes (he is founder of Pride in Plymouth). The photo is a black-and-white image of sailor sitting on the knee of another man. “It is from the Plymouth LGBT Archive and was taken in the well-known gay bar that used to be in the Palace Theatre,” he says. As Mark talks to Vudi and I about the history of Pride in Plymouth, a mother leads her daughter by the hand to the table. “Do you know what Pride means?” the mom asks, kneeling in front of her daughter. The young girl nods, no. “It means when ladies love ladies and men love men. What do you think of that?” The young girl shrugs, shyly noticing me watching her.

“I think it’s awesome,” I say. Meekly, she squeaks a reply: “It’s weird…” Her mom and I laugh. “Yes, it is kind of weird, but that’s okay.” Just like Union Street, I think.

The scent of coffee and biscuits wafts toward us. From the open door of its blue van, Plymouth Community Homes offers all attendees a cuppa’ and bikkie. Vudi has other thoughts, crossing the street for a hamburger provided by Oasis Café. I learn that the singing, sweating grill master is also the husband of Oasis Centre manager Maria Mills. The community-based organization provides a wide array assistance to area residents. I ask Maria and her husband how the event has changed over the years. “Needs more burgers!” her husband laughs as the last burger leaves the grill around 2PM.

Union Street Party

The scent of coffee and biscuits wafts toward us. From the open door of its blue van, Plymouth Community Homes offers all attendees a cuppa’ and bikkie. Vudi has other thoughts, crossing the street for a hamburger provided by Oasis Café. I learn that the singing, sweating grill master is also the husband of Oasis Centre manager Maria Mills. The community-based organization provides a wide array assistance to area residents. I ask Maria and her husband how the event has changed over the years. “Needs more burgers!” her husband laughs as the last burger leaves the grill around 2PM.

Vudi and I snack in front of the main stage where we watch Sam Remmer of Art of Dance spin acrobatics around a pole. I remember Hannah saying that she purposefully chose acts that “embraced the perceptions of Union Street.” Families in the crowd cheer as Sam spreads her bare legs in jaw-dropping feats around a shiny metal pole. While some members of the crowd shake their heads, and one lady in a wheelchair diverts her eyes, there is no animosity displayed by the crowd.

When I ask if a casual and tattooed passer-by if she’s local, she says yes, willing telling me her view of the party. “I love this event so much,” she illustrates. “It’s a nice event in a nice community that brings everyone together.” But she admits that many residents in the area don’t “come out for it. I don’t know why not. If I wasn’t a support worker with unsociable hours I would serve on the committee. They’re doing a brilliant job.”

While the event officially ends around 4PM, many residents and stall-holders continue to mill about, chatting casually. Vudi and I plan to attend the Word by BlackBooks spoken word session at Union Corner but can’t seem to find the venue. I see Hannah walking by, sunhat replaced by bright yellow paint streaking her hair. She points out Union Corner to me: it’s an open door under a big white wall. Hannah explains why she and other attendees are covered in bright paint: “People throw exploding paintballs at each other and sheets. Then, we’re going to hang the bright sheets on the wall over Union Corner so people know where it is.” That’s weird, I think. And very clever.

The BlackBooks event perfectly finalizes a whimsical, off-cuff, jovial day on Union Street. Miss Von Trapp hosts her typical dark cabaret bolstered by a cello. For the occasion she’s asked her daughter to join the act as an “interpretive” dancer. The little girl keeps the crowd chuckling by enunciating Miss Von Trapp’s macabre poetry in flowery twirls from under a skirt-turned-headdress. Soon thereafter, an actress under the name Emily Hayes introduces the audience to her upcoming Outpost Plymouth pop-up theatre piece. The topic: insomnia. Although Emily discusses her inclination to commit sleepless suicide, the play is delivered in such a way that I want to make Emily a midnight snack and sit up with her at the kitchen table. It’s okay to be weird, I want to tell her.

Union Street Party

Later, Vudi and I sit over a bottle of wine at A Tahinska, musing on our day. The Union Street Party was so much more than I expected it to be. And yet — and also, and more– it fulfilled all of my assumptions. In front of closed “Gentleman’s Parlours” I sat next to families clapping for pole dancers. Kids ran past, covered in bright colors, while their parents puffed cigarettes and examined City Council marketing materials. From hipsters to expatriates, all types of Plymothians hit Union Street that sunny day. It was swell.

I understand, now, Hannah’s description of the Union Street Block Party. It is about recognizing, embracing, and humanizing the natural perceptions about a place. It is about banishing fear and confusion by welcoming activity and discourse. It is about being weird. Because being weird is okay.