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Following on from my previous blog on the value of serendipity and talking to strangers in order to better understand a sense of place, I visited Dewsbury yesterday to take part in an event that is part of the empty shop movement sweeping the country - in this case, the company Encounters shop as part of a two-year regeneration scheme for Dewsbury.

Following on from my previous blog on the value of serendipity and talking to strangers in order to better understand a sense of place, I visited Dewsbury yesterday to take part in an event that is part of the empty shop movement sweeping the country - in this case, the company Encounters shop as part of a two-year regeneration scheme for Dewsbury.

As you will see from the photos, the shop itself was continually shifting in how it asked people to engage but the experience of visiting was to be immersed in stories of the past and present and hopes and fears for the future. Skilled in the art of asking questions, practitioners interacted with a surprisingly large and diverse numbers of visitors - over a three month period and only open on a part time basis, there have been over 3800 people to the shop, impressive for a population of under 60,000. Throughout the shop are stories of residentsʼ lives, usually in response to prompts or probing questions. What strikes the reader of the answers is the personal and direct nature of the responses. Last night the question on the blackboard was "What holds you back?" As you will see, answers ranged from the shocking to read such as "heroin" to "having to pay the bills".

Strangers were talking about what they were reading. Clever devices to gather visions included recipe cards that asked for ideas in crossing cultural divides. There was a short performance by locally based actors reading many of these stories and the shop was standing room only and marked by such a broad range of people, unknown for the most part to each other but clearly riveted by the material. What seemed to be so effective was the interactive nature of the process, not a whiff of a passive response to someone elseʼs vision.

Benedict Dellot in his recent blog on the importance of narrative in developing a sense of place was spot on in the ability of the arts to develop a strong place-identity. In the case of this urban intervention the stories evidently acted as a catalyst for participation and, I expect, will prove to be the first stepping stone for the residents themselves re imagining Dewsbury.

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