The very first time we opened the door and stepped into our new fully furnished house, it felt like we were walking into a John Lewis catalogue. For the first few months, we kept on setting the table back to its original Show Home staging – set for six people to have a three-course dinner.
We spent a year living as ‘residents in residence’ in this three-bedroom Show Home with a view out onto the Countryside’s Marketing suite and the Addenbrooke’s Road roundabout. We discovered that living in a Show Home was sometimes confusing – were we in a private or public space? There was a sign next to our front door that announced the ‘show’ aspect of our temporary new home to all passers-by. Often people would knock on the door or if we hadn’t locked it, they sometimes just wandered in to have a look around. Some people were horrified by the idea that they could have been intruding, others intrigued and some didn’t seem to think it at all unusual that the house came with ‘show’ residents. So we showed visitors around, often deftly sweeping up a dirty towel or a used cup along the way.
Developing on this idea of a Show Home and a public resident, we started to invite people around for visits to talk about what might happen here. We started meeting our neighbours. When Thury, who lives around the corner, first came to visit with her little daughter Elisa, we sat down to have coffee on the gleaming white sofas. As we talked, Elisa got out her pink lip gloss, showed it to us, put it on her lips and then started to climb all over the sofa. Every time we see the little pink stains it reminds us of the relief and pleasure we felt that the house had officially been ‘broken in’. Thank you, Elisa!
We worked together with other residents to extend the Show Home’s domestic space into a public one, staging a question or an issue that had arisen around public life or community life. For example, we transformed the ground floor of the Show Home into a Showground Library and Real Living Café in order to host formal and informal discussions about the new community and health centre being built in Hobson’s Square. Many of our neighbours wondered how it would take shape - physically and organisationally - so we thought we should just get on with modelling an imagined Community Centre in the Show Home. The Show Home started to slowly transform into a ‘showground of real living’; a show and tell home of public life and a test site for community encounters.
One of the questions we had asked ourselves when working on events was: which voices are not often publicly heard around here? This led us to invite a group of young people from different parts of the area to spend time together sharing ideas about ‘real living’. They developed ideas for a series of short films in response to their experience of living in Trumpington, which they then wrote, directed, shot and acted in. As part of the process of making Trumpington Show Reals, we asked them what kind of vegetable Trumpington might be. ‘A big fat potato’, was one of the answers, because: ‘It’s good for everyday cooking. It is a bit ugly but very versatile and has a lot of potential!’ There was an immediacy about the way this group regarded their local community. They didn’t choose to live here, so they didn’t have to ask themselves if they’d made a good choice, or if it was really the place that was advertised to them. They also didn’t necessarily see Trumpington as part of a future they had to invest in. While for some this might make them seem like less than ideal community builders, it became clear to us that they are brilliant critical friends and a fantastic resource for any community.
By the summer we started to feel like the show home had truly transformed into a house where the public could gather. There were two particular moments that marked this change for us. The first was when the chickens arrived to live in the Show Garden, behind the Show Home. Lisanne, better known to some as Lorelei Lodestar (her artist and gardener persona), had been caring for the chickens. Throughout the year Lorelei has been active in the garden, sharing her skills with new residents, offering a plant swop box outside our front door and bringing plants from the older parts of Trumpington to plan in the newer part. When she went on summer holiday she passed the caring responsibilities for the chickens and garden on to kids from the neighbouring streets of the new development. With the garden gate on the latch different people stopped by to feed or just look at the chickens.
The second moment was when we hosted our first Show Home pub. Unlike the other events, which had been actively initiated by looking for a ‘topic’, nobody quite remembers who came up with the idea of the pub. Maybe somebody said, ‘It’s a pity that we don’t have a proper local, a space where we can just turn up and meet neighbours.’ So that led us to set up a monthly pub night – on the third Thursday of every month. Sometimes when people come to the pub they ask if they should take their shoes off. In fact, Jussi often turns up in his house shoes. The lines between the public and the domestic have become truly blurred, which is a good thing, in our eyes.
This strange blurring between public and domestic might also make it possible to be more inclusive when community members come together. Public meetings can be quite scary for some. Sometimes it can be easier to say something important while standing in a doorway (ideally wearing a pair of slippers!). Of course, it is fair to say that sometimes we encouraged people to perform in public under the guise of a ‘harmless’ community event. It is a Show Home after all and that weird sense of being in a constructed film or theatre set has always been very present for us. Others have commented on the relationship between the Show Home and the fake town populated by actors central to the conceit of the Truman Show. That’s why it was so much fun to rearrange the space into many different sets; a museum, a conference summit table, a cinema, a library, a café, a training centre, a community kitchen, a garden show, and, of course, a pub.
The Show Home has been and constantly is in the process of becoming a community residence. Over time, others have played the resident in residence role and hosting duties have moved between different people. People have written to us with ideas for things they could run from the space – from a neighbourly exchange of skills and services to a meeting, or maybe a café or a small restaurant. The fluid, performative aspect of the space allows people to try out things.
Last May at the Showground Library and Real Living Café event, we hosted Alison Wheeler from the co-operative library system in Suffolk. She ended her case study presentation with the following words: ‘Community ownership is about more than giving people a voice. It is about giving people a role.’ We agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment and would add that sometimes it is even better if community ownership is about people taking on a role themselves. In order for that to be possible, it is important that the same people don’t play the same role for too long.
And so, in order to continue to create space for new hosts and new performances of community, we need to step aside and take our leave from the Show Home. It has been a pleasure to be in your company. Countryside Properties, the show home owner, have generously agreed to keep the space open for public use for another 6-9 months, leading up to the opening of the new community centre. While the show home will not have permanent residents in residence anymore there will be neighbours taking care of the organizational side of things. The show home is no longer modeling a space for private lives. It continues its transformation into a hybrid domestic public space - still somehow a home, but a collective one.
Good-bye show home and welcome Public Home. May you continue to serve as a stage and a safe place to perform, trial, build, plan, negotiate and celebrate this thing called community.