I’m about to embark on a lot of travelling to different cities that have designated themselves as ‘sanctuary cities’ and welcoming to migrants in 2019 as part of the Welcoming Cities project. I know that I am most definitely in one of the most privileged categories of migrants in these cities and therefore a lot of these policies and programmes aren’t targeted at me (at least explicitly) but it made me think of the city where I live (London) and where I feel welcome in public spaces (it would be difficult not to pick my own flat otherwise).
My mind was immediately drawn to parks (perhaps because of the academic work done on parks such as Clare Rishbeth and Sarah Neal; the way conversations can flow while walking around parks; or perhaps because of childhood memories of feeding the ducks with my big sister). Regent’s Park is my favourite park in London because you can see the camels in London Zoo at one end and modern sculpture exhibitions at the other (and there’s a good duck pond).
To my embarrassment I realised I always feel comfortable in Pret a Manger (not very proud of that but sometimes I just want souper tomato soup, coffee and reliable WiFi) and the British Library which I now consider to be a second home for better or worse.
The other key place in London that I was drawn to was the Young Vic theatre. Not only does it purposely place different symbols of welcome on its balcony it seems to have some of the best outreach of any theatre. Perhaps the most telling example of the Young Vic’s welcoming nature is an incident that occurred about 4 months ago in my local gym. I was wearing a Young Vic t-shirt that had been given to me by my partner (who was given it as a gift but it was too small). A man in the gym asked whether I worked at the theatre and proceeded to tell me how he used to be homeless but had got involved in an outreach programme at the Young Vic and it had turned his life around. This was a heart-felt account of a man whose life had completely changed as a result of the support and networks that the project had provided. I have never been so deeply moved in the gym. He clearly felt so comfortable with everyone in the theatre that he came up to me to ask me about it in a completely different environment.
This is not an advert for the Young Vic (although I now realise it might seem like one). I am really interested in what places in cities people feel are welcoming and why. In particular, if you have suggestions for San Francisco, Sheffield or Toronto I would really love to hear them. Or, even better, if you are in those cities in the next year – please get in touch. And if anyone would like to join me for a trip the theatre when I’m back in London also let me know. Hope you all have a very happy 2019 and find many new places where you feel welcome as well as enjoying all the old ones.