Deptford Is Forever

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On the 3rd of February 2018 the anchor was re-installed in its original location on the south end of Deptford High Street where it was removed from in 2013 as part of regeneration works. Anybody new coming into Deptford won’t be able to guess the story and battles fought over the newly polished anchor sitting on a new piece of contrasting paving; to a newcomer it might appear just like any other maritime monument symbolising some distant sea-faring history; they may not even notice it’s there. But to locals, and particularly those dedicated to preserving the much-neglected maritime history of Deptford, the anchor’s return not only symbolises Deptford’s heritage but also the struggle with the council to have it reinstated. And sadly, it is also a reminder of a problem the removal of the anchor was meant to have removed too: the street drinkers causing anti-social behaviour on the High Street. Needless to say, street drinking is underpinned by larger issues the government fails to look at, and the anchor’s removal did not solve that problem but instead moved it further up the road.

It took 4 years of persistent campaigning by Deptford Is Forever, which is run by the most dedicated local activists/artists (or bloody-minded and tenacious as the Deptford Dame calls them: deptforddame.blogspot.co.uk/2017/12/the-anchor-cometh.html) such as Sue Lawes, David Aylward and members of the Deptford Society to have the anchor re-installed. Seeing it back in its original location, albeit without the plinth where street drinkers used to sit, must feel like a huge victory of people power, particularly in times when battle after battle is fought to save Deptford from further capital-led partnerships between councils and property developers which tend to paper over Deptford’s heritage and its local residents. And the joy is visible in the photos and videos made when celebrating the anchor’s return which included a procession along the High Street with music, baptising the anchor with rum and the singing of the sea shanty written by Liam Geary-Baulch and the Deptford Shanty Crew.

© 2018 Sue Lawes and Deptford Is Forever

I’ve been in contact with Fred Aylward, David Aylward’s brother, who was involved in helping with the Give Us Back Our Bloomin’ Anchor campaign and led the procession in top hat and tails (see image above) which some spectators thought alluded to Brunel the famous ship builder, and Sue Lawes who documented Deptford Is Forever’s work and is incredibly clued up on local issues and writes for another local blog (crossfields.blogspot.co.uk). They tell me that Deptford Is Forever was borne out of Deptford Is, a campaign group that ran workshops to help local residents object to the redevelopment plans for Convoy’s Wharf (formerly Deptford Royal Dockyard), which features 3,500 mostly luxury homes without a single one for social rent. Ironically, the anchor was stored on the site throughout the four years of the campaign. It is also four years since planning permission was granted by Boris Johnson for Convoys, yet not a single building is yet under construction. Deptford Is also came up with alternative proposals to preserve the legacy of the site’s heritage in the form of the Lenox Project led by Julian Kingston (www.buildthelenox.org), and the Sayes Court Garden project led by Bob Bagley and Roo Angell (www.sayescourt.org.uk), which is why they featured in the Anchor campaign. And the sea shanty performed during some of the rituals beautifully sums up the campaigners’ plight (see full sea shanty below; you can also listen to a recording of the original shanty here: liamgb.co.uk/deptford-shanty-crew).

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At the start of the campaign in 2013, little graffitied anchors had already appeared on the high street anonymously (we still don’t know who) and then the newly formed Deptford Is Forever carried a giant cardboard anchor built by local artist Laura X Carlé down the High Street during a noisy procession. 1000 paper bags with the campaign logo were given to market traders and shop keepers to use for their customers’ purchases and free anchor tattoos were offered in Kids Love Ink. Anchors made using red tape and chalk began appearing in the high street in 2016 while a petition initiated by the Deptford Society gathered over 4000 signatures. The supportive comments made on the petition were plastered all over the High Street by Deptford Is Forever. For anyone regularly walking down the High Street, it would have been impossible not to notice the campaign and its interventions, and the images and videos on the dedicated website are testimony to the fun, positive and creative side of the campaign (www.deptfordisforever.net).

© Photos by Deptford Is Forever and Laura X Carle

“This DIY approach comes out of a generation of punks which we were part of in the 1980s”, Fred tells me. “We used to run club and pub nights, and we also used to put on comedy nights and music events at the Albany. The Albany provided the venue and we provided the audience, so we were helping each other out. Now, the Albany hires out the venue, but the ethos of DIY came out of the punk thing. And this is still happening today – rather than waiting for someone to approve an action, we do things ourselves using the skills we have. And David, who is a drummer, always incorporates music into his campaigns.”

© 2018 Sue Lawes and Deptford Is Forever

Eventually the Council commissioned a feasibility study to evaluate how and where the anchor could be re-instated, but, as Sue writes, the battle was far from over, battles over who would fund the reinstatement and over where the anchor would be placed. With campaigners persisting, demanding the anchor be reinstated at its original location, not hidden behind rubbish bins, the anchor is now once again the iconic landmark it once was (The campaign was also recently covered in Time Out magazine: www.timeout.com/london/news/how-people-power-got-the-deptford-anchor-back-022118).

Fred says that “winning a campaign like this restores hope that some things can be achieved”. When I ask Fred why the anchor is so important, there is no hesitation. “It’s a symbol of Deptford’s maritime history, and we need to preserve that history. History is important because it gives you roots, it connects you to the past to help you understand where we are now. It’s another big achievement that the Lenox Project and Sayes Court are now part and parcel of the Convoy’s Warf development because otherwise all the significant history of the Royal Dockyard would just be ignored. All the archaeology under the concrete, the timber beams from the old dockyard, and they even found evidence of the Romans in Deptford under the dockyard! Ship building can be traced back to the Romans; this is 2,000-year-old history, it’s fascinating! But all this will be built on because the buildings need deep foundations. But at least John Evelyn’s Sayes Court Garden will now extend into the yard, the Olympia building is protected, and there’ll be a place for shipbuilding once again. It’s interesting because the National Trust grew out of Deptford: in Victorian times a descendant of Sir John Evelyn together with Octavia Hill tried to raise the money to preserve the Manor House that once stood on the site where John Evelyn had lived. Unfortunately, it was too late to preserve it but it inspired them to create the National Trust. The Mulberry Tree in the garden is the only remainder of the garden’s history.”

© 2015 Anita Strasser; Convoy’s Wharf with archaeological findings and the anchor in the Olympia warehouse

Fred thinks there should really be a museum of Deptford that houses all the artefacts that speak of Deptford’s history, including the clocktower that once stood at the yard but is now in Thamesmead shopping centre. “The anchor”, Fred says, “and all the other projects mark the beginnings of preserving Deptford’s heritage.” Speaking to Fred it becomes clear that the anchor isn’t just about the anchor, it’s about the history of Deptford in general and about not allowing money-greedy corporations to do as they please.

When I ask Fred how he feels about the regeneration in the area in general, I’m surprised to hear that he likes a lot of it: the cafés, the art spaces, and the art and music scene in the area.  “Some years back you couldn’t get a good cup up coffee or a nice meal anywhere, but now, it’s great. And you still have other places like Café Bianca and others where people can get cheaper food. We now have 6 -8 art spaces, that’s more than in Peckham, that’s great!” For Fred, the problem is the lack of affordability and space. “The problem is with high density and the lack of remaining space as they are building on every bit of land. And there are not enough amenities: schools, doctor’s surgeries, they are all over-stretched already and they’re not building enough to deal with the rising population. The whole regeneration process seems very short-sighted. There should also be more youth projects, more clubs for young people to go to.”

Another element Fred doesn’t like is that the new developments are sold on the back of the arts. “Deptford is being sold based on the arts and Deptford’s artistic community, but the local artists are being pushed out.”  Luckily, Fred who has a background in Art and Design, lives in a council property in the St John’s conservation area with David where they don’t have to worry about their tenancy. However, David has had to move from music studios in cheap rented warehouses six times in the last 20 years because of increasing rent prices, and in order to be able to afford a space, 20 musicians have now formed a co-op and share a music studio called Silo Studio in one of the arches in Resolution Way. Fred is particularly concerned about the music scene. “Our local music scene is dying out – we’ve just lost the Montague Arms and now Vinyl is closing because of the increased rent prices. It’s going to become a cheese shop*. And opposite the Bird’s Nest Pub, they are developing all the empty spaces and as soon as people move in, there will be complaints about the music. The same happened in the Sail Loft pub – people moved into the expensive flats and then complained about the noise coming from the pub so now the pub has to shut its doors at 11pm.”

Given this context of current times, it’s not surprising the anchor’s return feels like such a victory. Let’s hope there will be further victories. The next urgent battle is to save the Old Tidemill Garden and Reginald House (more information here: www.facebook.com/oldtidemillgarden / www.facebook.com/nosocialcleansinglewisham).

*There seems to have been a U-turn on the closure. More info here: vinyldeptford.com/.

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© 2018 Sue Lawes

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“Most laundrettes are surviving because they are in council properties and have a reasonable rent”

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Angelo is the owner of the Launderette on 369 New Cross Road. He comes in especially to have a chat with me about the demolition plans in New Cross, and together we go to Mughead Coffee where the staff seem to know exactly how he likes his coffee. He chats with Mark for a bit, the business owner – they seem well acquainted – before we sit down to talk about the Launderette.

“The Launderette itself has been here since the early 60s and used to be a Father & Son operation with other launderettes in New Cross and other areas”, Angelo explains. Then, in the early 90s, Angelo’s brother Joe bought the one on New Cross Road, did a lot of refurbishing work to it and replaced the old machines with newer versions, and then, several years later, Angelo took over in 2008. “It’s a contagious disease, I’m not joking”, he laughs, and tells how many of his family and friends have become involved with launderettes. “It all started with my brother dating a girl whose father was of Italian origin and owned a string of launderettes. The relationship didn’t last but my brother thought ‘I’ll try that’.” His brother has since bought a few, including one on Jamaica Road which is now owned by Angelo’s nephew. Even Angelo’s best friend, a former banker who had a midlife career crisis, unsure what to do, took his girlfriend to Nottingham to live above the launderette he now owns.

But being in the Launderette business doesn’t make you rich. “There is no growth”, Angelo explains. “A launderette business doesn’t grow like other businesses do, and it doesn’t have a high turnover. You can’t pay the high rents big restaurants can pay for example, and most launderettes are surviving because they are on good locations in council properties and have a reasonable rent. About four or five businesses on this parade are still on old tenancies and once the new development is here, the rent price will be double if not triple. Launderettes are viable businesses only because of low overheads. What kills them is the high market rates.” So, even if Angelo was offered new premises in the new development, the overheads would be too high to run it.

Interestingly for me, there is still demand for launderettes. “Not everybody’s got a washing machine, but even if people do”, Angelo says, “there’s still a demand which has nothing to do with people’s class position. The association of launderettes with merely the working-class and people in social housing is outdated – we have customers from all walks of life. The demand today is due to convenience: the machines we have can handle high capacity and the laundry can dry quickly, so the whole laundry can be done in an hour. Drying is a particular issue today. Many live in small flats with no space or facility to dry clothes so coming to a launderette solves that problem.” In Angelo’s launderette the water is also treated before it’s used and people notice the change in the fabric, another reason, according to Angelo, why his launderette is doing good business. “If the launderette closes, people will have to travel further for this convenience”, making this convenience less convenient.

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Angelo agrees that the parade needs investment but that this is due to the council not having done a lot for its upkeep. “It’s a nice parade but it’s stuck in the 60s”, Angelo states. Lewisham Council did commission the artist group ARTMONGERS a couple of years ago to spruce up the parade a bit and to paint work along the road. They came into the shops asking people what they’d like to see. Also Angelo was asked and together with the artist they designed the shop front we see today. “It really takes an artist to see things from a different perspective. I was just going to suggest some writing to advertise the services but the artists said no, we need something more interesting and then he came up with the design you see today. It really makes a difference”, Angelo says. But that’s all that’s been done it seems, and Angelo thinks that Lewisham council doesn’t involve itself much in making the parade look nicer. “Lewisham Council is more concerned with housing and the plans I’ve seen – 5-storey blocks across the whole parade starting from The Venue – this is huge! And I’m pretty certain the development plans will go ahead.” According to Angelo, the council have offered funding to relocate but despite this offer, Angelo doubts he’ll be able to set up again. “First, the business will be closed for a couple of years and then I need funds to re-invest in a new business. Also, will there actually be the chance of getting a unit on the new development and if so, it’ll be at full market rent which will be double or triple to what I pay now. I won’t set up another laundrette”, Angelo concludes.

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After our chat we walk back to the launderette where we meet Nicola, one of Angelo’s employees who would presumably lose her job if the launderette were to close. Angelo and Nicola seem to have a very friendly relationship, laughing and joking about being photographed, and together I photograph them in the launderette.

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“Affordable housing is the joke of the century”

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I recently did a workshop with three members of the Deptford Divas at Armada Community Hall on McMillan Street. The Deptford Divas are a group of ladies over 60 who meet every Wednesday in the hall to do art & crafts, but the three ladies are also part of the Sir John Evelyn Charity Pensioners and regularly eat lunch with other Deptford pensioners at Armada Hall on Fridays. They are a lively group who have been coming to the Armada for many years and who have witnessed the many changes to the area. In the workshop we talked about Deptford and its regeneration – what we like about it, what we don’t like about it, and what a better vision for the future would be. For the workshop I used a toolkit called Ketso – an African word (from Lesotho, southern Africa) meaning action. On the Ketso website it states that “the toolkit was invented in Lesotho and has been refined over two decades of action research with communities across the globe. With Ketso, everyone can participate and be more creative. Ketso gives everyone a voice, so everyone is more engaged. With Ketso we are more creative, more productive, more committed.” (http://www.ketso.com/) With the small group I was working with, it was less difficult to give everyone voice, but the toolkit helped to ensure everybody got a chance to speak and voice their opinions. There was time to think, write and discuss, as well as listen to other’s views and change one’s opinion. The different-coloured leaves helped to organise thoughts and ideas and create a visual image of the process.

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Maralyn has lived in Gilbert House for over 20 years. “I’m not your average pensioner”, she says, “I have a busy social life and do not engage too much with local life as I’m out and about in the West End, Greenwich and other places. I love dancing, particularly ballroom dancing, I’m a member at the British museum, in Greenwich Picture House and some other theatres. These memberships allow me to access plenty of activities because being a pensioner, I do need to think about how to spend my money. I also like most of the regeneration going on in Deptford: there are now more upmarket places which I like and can try out. I’m very keen to try Marcella, the new Italian restaurant, and I like the new wine bar, the new shops and the new, media-savvy people coming in. Overall, I find that Deptford has a great variety of ethnic shops too and is generally an interesting hotchpotch of cultures. I also think Convoy’s wharf will look nice, the riverside walkway with the swing bridge is a great improvement, I love the new Deptford Train Station – I’d been waiting for this for a long time, the High Street is improving, and I feel that Deptford is now a lot safer, although I still wouldn’t walk around alone at night because of gangs hanging out on the High Street. If we had more walking PCs, I’d feel safe coming out of the station and walking home alone at night.”

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However, Maralyn agrees that most of the changes are intended for people with money. “The only thing I don’t like is that the new houses are built for people with top jobs and high salaries who can afford these places. I do worry about Convoy’s Wharf, the access to the river and whether there will be some affordable housing. The new developments do contain lovely flats but they are not affordable; even if you live in a Housing Association flat, it’s not secure tenancy and they can put the rent up when they feel like it. Housing now is not affordable unless you’re working full-time earning a minimum of £50,000 a year, so when they say affordable, it’s the joke of the century. We need new life here but we need to be able to exist together.”

Maralyn does believe that gentrification makes areas safer, but only if it’s provided for everybody. “Years ago in Southwark, you wouldn’t have walked around at night, it was way too dangerous. Now, you can walk around no problem. You might not be able to afford the restaurants but it’s safer to walk there. And, there is so much going on, for free! We have to go forward and accept change: change brings safer places, a new station, transport, etc. You have to embrace change, accept the shops even if you can’t afford them! But I can see that many older people cannot access this change, and that many of these nice new things had to be fought over as well: access to the riverside or opening gated communities, for example, was only granted after local populations expressed their views. So this can also be seen as a positive thing as issues can give local people voice sometimes.”

However, Maralyn also used to do the electoral roll for 5 years, going round to houses to establish who lives where. She got a real insight into some people’s living standards, particularly in flats above the shops on Deptford High Street, where the smell coming out of some flats used to make her ill. At times it was hard to guess just how many people were living in one flat and what the arrangements were in terms of bed-sharing. She also became aware of people living in garages and sheds. “And it’s not just here”, she says, “it’s in the whole of inner London. It’s like third-world standards here, in a country as rich as ours! It all boils down to cut-backs, whether that’s to do with the council, the police or with community centres.”

 

Brenda is a retired council employee (housing) and really likes Deptford, its transport connections, its diversity, and above all, its people. “I think there is something about Deptford people – they are easy to talk to, easy to get on with, and they are very friendly and you always find someone to talk to.” Brenda also likes the new blocks of flats being built all around, especially those along the river. “They look good and it’s quality housing”, she agrees, “but it’s not for everybody, is it. It’s bringing people into the area who want to live here because it’s convenient, but they go and work in the city or elsewhere because you need to earn a lot to be able to afford to live here. What about all the young people in Deptford? They will all want to get work some time in the future, and not everybody can work in an office somewhere and they’ve not brought any industry back into the area, it’s all been replaced with housing. There used to be little factories all around, but now it’s just apartments and they are not really introducing new jobs.” Brenda sums up Deptford’s (and London’s) regeneration as “replacing industry with outpriced housing”, making it impossible for local people to buy or rent.  Brenda is clear that this has resulted in the breaking up of families and community networks. With young adults having to move out to other areas as they are unable to afford where their parents live, the whole family structure of looking out for each other, helping with childcare instead of having to pay huge amounts of money for nurseries, and looking after elderly relatives has been broken up. “We need more affordable housing in order to keep families together! Whole families are being split and we’re also losing community because local people can’t afford all these new places and the new people coming into the area often don’t get involved in our community.”

Finally, Brenda also thinks that Deptford needs more places for local people to socialise. “Most places now cater for young and able people, but there’s a lot of people around who cannot travel elsewhere to socialise, they need a local place nearby where they can just nip in for a bit”.  All in all, Brenda thinks, change is good and many good things are happening, but change has got to be fair and for everybody.

Chrissie lives in Armada Court, just behind Armada Hall, where she maintains the community garden together with her neighbours (photos above). For Chrissie, community networks are really important and what she appreciates about Deptford is that she feels she belongs here. “When I go to the market, people always say hello even if you don’t know them, and if they see you sitting there, having a cup of tea, there’s always someone asking you ‘are you alright? do you need anything? do you need help?’” But Chrissie agrees that this sense of community is getting lost with people coming in who are not interested in getting involved. “What we do here at the Armada, table-top sales and other activities, even if we advertise, on the internet putting leaflets out and sitting outside, people don’t turn up to things we do here, they don’t seem to want to know.”

Being a mother and gran, Chrissie’s biggest concern is the lack of places and spaces for kids and youngsters (and adults). In her view, there aren’t enough parks and clubs, and with the adventure playground in Deptford now shut, there simply aren’t enough places for kids to go to. “When we were kids, we used to play on the streets, and schools used to be open at weekends and school holidays where kids could go and where volunteers used to keep an eye on them, but the streets aren’t safe anymore and the council is not putting enough money into keeping places like the adventure playground open.  Where are the kids supposed to go when their parents are at work?”

In terms of Deptford’s regeneration and housing in the area, Chrissie is clear that property now is too dear to buy and to rent. “All the new properties are not for the likes of us really, and even housing association flats are too dear for some people. One of my grandsons who’s 24 still lives with his mother because he can’t afford to rent, and another one of my grandsons lives in a housing association flat. He’s got two children and works at the museum, and he says he’ll never be able to save up for a deposit to buy because the rent is so high. Another example is a friend of mine who’s got two children and who’d moved down from Manchester because of a good job, but with the service charges so high, she couldn’t afford the flat and had to move back.” Chrissie also points out the condition of some of the flats rented out by poorer people.  “Sometimes you have 5 or 6 people living in flats on the High Street, paying high rent prices for places I wouldn’t let anybody live in, black walls and things like that, but they do because they can’t afford anything else!”

Deptford High Street is a particular discussion point for Chrissie. She doesn’t feel safe at all coming up this way (from the train station to Evelyn Street), and to her the High Street looks like a slum. She thinks the shops look disgusting and with many shops shut it doesn’t look very inviting. “The problem”, she says, “are the high rates, the lack of business because the new people don’t shop there, and because the council wants poorer people out anyway.” Chrissie points out the railway cafés and places, and how nice they look and that they should make the High Street shops look as nice as them. “If they do all the old buildings up nicely and keep the rates down so that shopkeepers and stall holders can afford to stay, then the rich, upper-class people might come in and shop there too.” But if local people don’t have work then they will move out eventually.”

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What strikes me about these comments from this workshop is that these three pensioners don’t seem against the physical regeneration of Deptford at all, and don’t dislike the new blocks of flats, cafés and eateries, and things looking nicer and cleaner. What they dislike is that these improvements are only happening to provide economic gain for others and caters only for the people who can afford the overpriced properties and who aspire to a certain kind of urban lifestyle; that these changes mean the displacement of existing residents and the breaking up of their community and family networks. Change should be for all and should be fair.

 

 

“The community we have here is the community no-one sees”

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Armada Community Hall is a community centre on McMillan Street, not to be confused with Armada Court – a small estate right next to the community centre with mostly council flats inhabited by elderly people. Bridget Perry is the Development Manager at Armada Community Hall and has worked here for more than 15 years, looking after the elderly and those in need. I’ve been visiting Armada Hall for some time now, observing all the activities throughout the week, and meeting the people who belong to the community at the hall. Bridget explains how the centre works:

“The community space is provided by the Royal Borough of Greenwich, and we are very lucky because the local councillors are very supportive and interested in what goes on. We have various self-funded groups organising activities such as the Deptford Divas on Wednesdays, Play & Stay on Thursdays (organised by Charlie Baxter), and others. The core funding comes from a local charity, and renting the space out occasionally generates some income.” Bridget explains that the hall was built around 40 years ago; the flats at Armada Court were originally built for the over 55s, but some have been bought under Right-To-Buy scheme and then sold on so now there are a few younger people living there too. Overall though, it’s mostly council flats which are inhabited by older people. There is also a community garden at the back which is maintained by the residents of Armada Court.

“The community we have here is the community no-one sees”, Bridget explains, “the kind of care you experience in tight-knit communities. Here, it’s about community networks that cannot have a value put on them through box ticking. For example, Lenny, who lives at No1, has a dog. When he went on holiday to Spain, he asked Vicky, who used to work here, to look after his dog. He then had an accident in Spain and remained in a Spanish hospital for 6 weeks, and all this time Vicky continued dog-sitting, making sure the dog had food and walks. Another example is Les at No2, who has problems with his eyes and came into the Armada once with a loose frame. Although he can kind of see, he can’t judge how far people are away from him and was worried he’d drive into people with his mobility scooter, so I went with him to the opticians. When we arrived, they were still shut so we went for a coffee at Rough & Ready. When the optician’s opened, we got the frames tightened and went back to the Armada. Altogether, it took just over an hour. It’s not always signposting people need, sometimes you just need to take people somewhere.”

According to Bridget, “the biggest problem in this day and age is loneliness and mental health, and sometimes people just come in for a chat and a cup of tea, or to use the loo.” She says you might plan your activities for the day and then the day pans out completely differently and you don’t get done what you set out to do. “It depends on what happens – one conversation might end up as one-month’s work, or somebody needs help with repairs and I email the council for them. Sometimes I might end up just chatting to people all day long but this is just what some people might need – a chat, company, getting out of isolation and loneliness.”  People also often pop in and help out; there are lots of volunteers that go out of their way to help: fixing things, getting some shopping, bringing biscuits, calming down a mental health patient on the estate, and other things. “What box do you tick for that?” Bridget asks. “There’s no price to put on that!”

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When I ask Bridget about the regeneration of Deptford, she says that the Right-To-Buy scheme in itself was good as it gave ordinary people the opportunity to own their own home. However, she thinks that the money the councils made should have been put back into housing, but they were not allowed to do this. Not doing that was “the biggest mistake and has now resulted in this shortage of really affordable housing. Some people who bought their homes under Right-To-Buy then sold the places, and now rent them out. Just look at the neglected gardens in Watergate Street, they all used to be lovely. Now you can tell which house is privately owned and rented out. People come and go, sometimes you have 10 people living in one house because they can’t afford anything else.”

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Bridget is clear that nobody can stop the regeneration of the area but that little things like keeping spaces open to the public can be achieved by getting involved. “Realistically, just because we can’t afford it [new housing] does not mean they should not be built, but they should respect and listen to the local community. If we just let them, the developers will just walk all over us so it’s important that we don’t just sit there and do nothing. Personally, I think pensioners who live on their own in larger accommodation which they don’t need should be rehoused in nice 1-bedroom bungalows to free up larger houses for those that need it, but then there are no such places available, so this is not an option.”

During my visits to Armada Community Hall, I have met some of the people that come in regularly: the Deptford Divas, Deptford pensioners, community workers, volunteers and other wonderful people. I recently also met the Sir John Evelyn Charity Pensioners who meet regularly at the centre for Friday lunches and who invited me to their annual Christmas Dinner and told me about the work the charity does.

“The John Evelyn Charity is for the relief of the poor of the parish of St Nicholas and St Luke’s only. It grants a small pension to poor-worthy pensioners (as Evelyn defined it) in the ancient parish of St Nick’s, and gives grants to organisations within this ancient boundary. If there is any money left, small grants are given to organisations of St Luke’s as well. Sir John Evelyn invested his money well, and since the 17th century there has been this exceptional source of money for the elderly of the area of benefit. The money is used to help pensioners financially and to combat isolation; it is used to organise an annual trip (including some spending money), a Christmas Party with a financial gift, and a small amount of money paid to eligible pensioners each Friday at the Armada, where lunch is also provided on that day. The Armada Community Project is incredibly important as it is the hub where everybody can come with any issue they have. If the issue is not within the remit of the centre, the volunteers of the Armada will try and help in any way they can, often signposting people to the service they need, such as signposting homeless people to the 999 Centre.” (The 999 Club is a charity that helps the homeless in Lewisham and South London: https://www.999club.org/)

 

“Need has increased in recent years, but also changed”, they tell me. “The pensioners we know are fairly comfy – the main problem is isolation. Isolation is a major issue, people are lonely, but food brings people together and so the Friday lunches are great for that. However, those really struggling are the young and families unemployed or on low incomes – they feel the impact of welfare cuts the hardest. What we really need is a food bank, right here, but with Lewisham on one side and Greenwich on the other, this area doesn’t really fit into any category. The biggest problem is food because when one doesn’t have enough to eat, everything else becomes an issue too: work, well-being, health. It’s crazy that in this day and age we’re talking about hunger! Kids go to school hungry and come home hungry, and this has a knock-on effect on everything else.”

When I ask about the regeneration schemes going on in Deptford, they don’t feel it’s for local people. “People feel that they are being pushed out, they are unable to afford property, even the rent. There’s not enough social housing and yes, they are building Convoy’s Wharf but that’s not for the locals. And these café’s, they are not for local people. Many here are ex-dockers, they want a bacon and egg sandwich in a Greasy Spoon – not an arty-farty cake in some expensive café. Some new properties are advertised as being in West Greenwich rather than Deptford – well why is that? It’s just a way of getting people in because these people wouldn’t move to Deptford. The area is still very poor which is not acknowledged at all. It’s all done very subtly, it’s all just sticking plasters over people’s history – some families here go back generations!”

 

“You have all these fancy flats and the Waitrose, all of which entice barriers of segregation. On one hand you have £800,000 flats and on the other flats infested with mice. There is also a major alcohol and drugs problem here; there is a major undercurrent – people are scraping by, kids grow up in an environment thinking ‘I’m not gonna get a job’; the schools are bad, many people are illiterate, so they need to find another way of getting by. We’re not supporting this but it explains why people might go down that road.

Deptford is unique, you will never find anything similar anywhere else, and it could still be a good area but now there’s so much resentment. Look at Watergate Street – some people pay nothing for their house and others pay £500,000+ for their house, of course there is going to be resentment, on both sides. Wealthier people are being sold a fake dream too. They think this area is so up-and-coming and posh, but once you go beneath that posh layer, you see reality and we need to get people to understand this. We seriously suffer from overcrowding with people living on top of each other. This here is the reality, but it’s all covered up with sticky plasters so that the arty people don’t see this.”

When I comment on the amazing amount of volunteering and community work that’s going on in the Armada, they say that “people here do community work not because they want their name out there but because they care. More funding would enable the community centres to do more, open food banks. We need to keep things together, people have a need and they should be taken into account. We need to make life easier for those struggling; if everyone is better off, everything else will get better by itself.”

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“The council has not fulfilled their part of the deal”

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Emma Zhang is the owner of YIP Oriental Store on 361 New Cross Road, a shop which will be demolished if the redevelopment plans for this area are going ahead. Emma has had her shop for 7 years during which she has built it up to a thriving business which has a good customer base, particularly with students from Goldsmiths. The shop serves local students but also the Chinese and Japanese student communities, and many of the students signed the petition to stop the demolition of the shop because it would mean that they would lose the store where they buy their products. Emma has built up a very good relationship with all her customers, who, according to her, are very kind people and often come in every day. Some of her customers have become friends over the years as well.

“We don’t want them to knock down the buildings. The council posted a letter and then we had a meeting in Deptford Green School where we told them that we’re not happy about the plans. This is about 2 years ago, and we haven’t had confirmation yet about what’s going to happen. Demolition will be very expensive and really affect our business, and there is no guarantee that we will be able to move back or stay in the New Cross area. We have invested a lot of money in setting this up and if we have to find another location, this will lose us earnings and we’ll have to invest more to set up again. It’s unlikely we would be able to stay in this area, and so we would lose all our customers as well. We would have to start afresh.”

 

 

Emma agrees that the area is and looks run-down and needs refurbishing. She and her colleague also have experience of knife-crime in the area, and the shop has been robbed a few times. Just 3 days before I met with her, somebody tried to break into the shop again. She says the area is dangerous and that there is not enough police presence in the area, not enough CCTV and not enough protection for local residents or businesses. However, Emma does not think that this is a reason to demolish the existing blocks and shops as the run-down character and dangerous feel is due to the council’s neglect of the area.

“We have an agreement, a contract with the council. As tenants we have to look after our property inside, and it’s the council’s responsibility to maintain the outside and the building with the rent we pay. We have paid our rent, and before we opened the shop years ago, we changed the terrible shopfront into a much nicer one so it looks much better now. But the council has not fulfilled their part of the deal which is to look after the outside. Maintenance and regular repairs cost much less than to redevelop everything. If a little money had been invested over the years, the area wouldn’t be in such a state now. You could improve the area a lot by refurbishing and looking after it rather than demolishing everything.”

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Emma also says that the council needs to consider the local area more: “It’s quite a special area with lots of interesting people who come into the shop. We also have many working-class people who shop in here. If you build more properties, the rents are going to be more expensive. The developers are promising people that they will have the same conditions afterwards and people might think ‘oh great, I’m moving into a nice flat in a new development for the same price’ but they just don’t realise that prices will go up in the near future and that the service charges for shared equity properties are really high. We’ve seen this happening in other areas.”

How do children see Deptford’s regeneration?

As I’m keen to find out what children think about Deptford and what is going on in the area, me and Adam, a licenced Lego® Serious Play® facilitator, and assisted by Scout leaders Peter and Michelle, recently ran a workshop with the Cubs (8-10-year old Scouts). We started off by asking the kids in what kind of buildings they live and what they like and don’t like about living there. With the majority of the kids living in blocks of flats, they complained about being unable to sleep because of noisy neighbours banging and stamping on the floors and playing loud music in the middle of the night. When I asked them what they liked about where they live, most answers were related to space: a spacious bedroom, space to play football, and having parks nearby where they can play and relax. When we shifted the conversation to Deptford itself, and all the new buildings being built in the area, they all commented on the huge amount of flats being built and that there aren’t enough schools and surgeries for all these new people coming in. In their view, there are too many flats; flats that block out the sunlight for others, flats which stay empty and flats built for the rich.

We then asked them to build buildings with Lego and place them somewhere on a giant hand-drawn map of Deptford. In the first round, we left the brief open to see where their imagination would take them. After talking more about Deptford and the regeneration of the area, we asked them to build something that is missing in all this, something that would make Deptford a better place. This is what they came up with: a hospital because there are so many new people here but no new hospitals or doctor’s surgeries, a police station (located next to the hospital so that injured people found by the police can go straight there) as there are too many robberies in the area, a few new schools with one that involves animals in education, a café where people can overlook the Creek, a garbage centre that recycles automatically, situated near the river to stop all the plastic bags being thrown into the Thames, a ‘safety place’ in Deptford Park where people can relax and feel safe, and more parking spaces outside schools and nurseries.

When we asked them at the end what they’ve learnt from this workshop, aside from the realisation how big Deptford is (as they commented), two children said: “If we used our imagination we could make Deptford better” and “I learnt that if we put into Deptford what we have here, then Deptford would be a lot better place.” Finally, one child is put forward to be the next mayor to which he responded: “When I’m older, I’m gonna get a job, go in a crane and get a wrecking ball and break down some of the flats and build more schools. That’s what I’m gonna do for the future!”

What I learnt from this workshop is that children are more aware of their surroundings than we might give them credit for. Their ideas in this workshop were incredibly valuable and insightful. This workshop was a really enjoyable experience, and I’m looking forward to working with them again in the near future.

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Before I did this workshop, I’d met the kids and the leaders and observed a couple of Wednesday sessions with the Cubs, led by Peter Hulcup. Peter also used to be in charge of the Scouts, but Charlie Baxter has recently taken over as Scout Section Leader from him, and his main responsibility now is looking after the Cubs. Being leader for both sections is simply too much work for one person and so Peter is relieved Charlie has taken over (there are also other people involved such as Liz and Michelle, but I speak mainly to Peter and Charlie). Peter tells me a bit about the history and the workings of the different sections.

“Scouting started in 1907 and already in 1909 we had 2nd Deptford St Luke’s (now St Nicholas’ & St Luke’s) and we’ve been here since then. Ron Hoskin, a local business man and Scout leader, did all the fund-raising at that time to have the scouts hall built, which is why it’s called Ron Hoskin Hall. It stands on Lewisham land, but the building is owned by the Scouts.  There are three different sections: the Beavers on a Monday, age group 6 – 8, the Cubs on a Wednesday, age group 8 – 10, and the Scouts on a Tuesday; they’re age group 10 – 14. There’s also a group called the Explorers (aged 14 – 25) but we don’t have any of them here – it’s harder to get older kids into the uniform. The uniform is good, it means that we’re all the same. It doesn’t matter if you come from a millionaire family or a poorer background, we’re all the same. We have 7 laws and a promise to which we adhere. Each child pays £3 per night and £1 if they’re not present to pay for the insurance.”

Charlie then continues to tell me about their work, especially the issue with funding. “We constantly need to fund-raise, and the kids do a lot of the fund-raising from families or people they know. It’s difficult sometimes as we need funds for the activities and to maintain the building. For example, the roof has been leaking for 5 years – we really need to do the roof and also paint the outside as the walls are chipping off. But we also need the time to do it…time is always an issue. It’s really difficult to find volunteers. Many young people come for a bit and then disappear again, so we’re desperate to find committed volunteers as this is eating into our family life. I won’t get home till about 9 o’clock again tonight – it really affects your family life. There’s a lot of work to do that no-one sees, all the organising and planning, and we could really do with some help with grant writing. We’re also working on getting a new kitchen, the old one is too small and not well-equipped, and you can’t really teach kids how to cook in here. We’ve got money to do the electrics, and then we need to do more fund-raising for the rest. We have to do it slowly, bit by bit. Conway, who are doing a lot of work in the area, have promised to give us disabled access because we’re not being inclusive without an entrance suitable for disabled people, but they haven’t come back. We’ve been chasing them but there’s been no response.”

Charlie joined the Scouts because having 3 boys and 2 girls growing up in London “scares the hell out of me, and this keeps them off the streets!” Charlie first started helping out, then she became Secretary and now she is Group Scout Leader. “There’s still a lot of stigma attached to Scouts, people say it’s only for boys but it’s not and the kids are proud to wear their uniform. And when they wear the uniform on the way here from home, they’re insured as well, which is good.” Charlie says that about half or 60% of the kids come from deprived backgrounds and from single parent families. If families can’t afford to buy the uniform, the group helps them with that. Charlie says there are clear benefits to being a Scout: “We have a couple of kids who came here angry – they’ve obviously been through some really difficult situations in life…it makes you wonder what they’ve been through and also what kids that are not here are going through. Then they came here and they have become the kindest children. They still have their moments of course, but overall they’re very kind now. One has also become a Sixer, this means that he looks after 3 others here.”

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I can see why the kids really enjoy coming here and why it is so beneficial. Charlie explains what they do: “We start off with the basic skills in life such as cooking, sewing and doing maths before we go on to sailing and other things. But we do lots of other stuff such as woodwork, working with hand-powered tools, first-aid, particularly CPR, bike maintenance, building a grotto for Christmas with stuff from the garden, we go bowling, they’re given compasses and a map to find things, team-building, we have a cinema night with popcorn – that’s always a fun night, they love camping, and they can also earn badges. The Beavers do a bit more art and craft.”

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During the first evening I observe with the Cubs, they do team-building exercises. The second time, Peter shows them how to make a fire and how to grill Marshmallows without burning them or their hands. It’s a fun evening and the roasted Marshmallows taste lovely. I can see how important this place is to the kids and leaders alike.

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Banners in Deptford

 

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Banners appeared in Deptford over the weekend, accusing Lewisham Council of social cleansing and gentrifying Deptford, and calling on the public to fight against these practices. The banners went up near sites under threat of demolition and redevelopment: Creekside and the boating community on Deptford Creek, the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden and Reginald House, where planning permission has already been granted to build on the garden and to demolish Reginald House to make way for more luxury flats. One banner appeared on Deptford Bridge DLR station, and two more banners were hung on either side of the underpass between New Cross and Deptford, leading to Achilles Street and New Cross Road, where plans have been announced to literally rip out the heart of New Cross to make way for luxury developments. Most redevelopment in Deptford has so far taken place on brownfield sites, post-industrial wasteland, which has not necessarily meant the direct displacement (evictions) of local residents (although the effects of indirect displacement such as rising rents, difficulties with making ends meet, feeling unwelcome in a place they have called home for years, and living in a constant state of anxiety and insecurity about what might happen should not be underestimated). However, with current plans to demolish whole council blocks, blatantly and radically reducing truly affordable homes including boats, and to build on important community spaces and green spaces, the imminent displacement, direct and indirect, of the local population is threatening to break up whole communities in the process. The messages written on the banners are a stark reminder of the grim reality faced by many residents, and the dark passage from Deptford to New Cross, particularly at night time, and the dimly lit haunting messages above the underpass reminded me of the inscription above the gate to hell in Dante’s Inferno: ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’.

There is still hope of course; otherwise the banners wouldn’t have appeared, housing campaigners wouldn’t be collecting signatures on Deptford market on Saturdays and sending Freedom-of-Information requests (FOIs) to find support for alternative solutions, and people wouldn’t be having meetings to discuss how forces could be joined to stop some of the proposed plans. I say some because what I have generally found is that people are not against regeneration per se, not at all. They are against the kind of regeneration that caters only for the desires of the few and not the many, only for the privileged and not the ordinary, for newcomers and not the existing, for the wealthy and not for the less well-off. It’s about striking a balance so that people can co-exist and work together, and if local people were consulted and considered in the plans, there would be much less resistance and more co-operation. “Deptford has always welcomed all people from all walks of life, this is what makes the area special”, a local resident tells me, “but now we, the uneducated, the disabled, the working class, are not welcome anymore and are being pushed out.” There are academic debates around the term ‘social cleansing’, whether it is apt and appropriate or too leftist and aggressive. For many local people the term symbolises exactly what is happening: the pushing out of people who have not reached a certain income level that would enable them to pay the extortionate rents and house prices and to live the trendy urban lifestyles advertised on all the hoardings. And even if you can just about pay the rent, the daily reminders that redevelopment is not intended for you creates this us-and-them segregation, making you feel out of place.

There is still hope to be able to make decision-makers, authorities and developers, see sense in this senseless pursuit for greed, profit and private gain. It is a case of changing the political will to consider alternatives. There is hope to succeed in the fight for more humane development plans that do not result in losing essential green spaces that enable local children to have essential contact with wildlife and nature, do not result in people losing their homes where they have lived and loved for decades, and do not result in depriving people of the right to stay in the area they call home or to feel welcome and valued. There is no shortage of solutions: campaigns have put forward viable alternative solutions that would prevent the aforementioned impact of current plans, and data received from FOI requests shows that managed decline, the deliberate neglect of council property in order to make it ripe for development, is a political choice rather than a financial necessity. The data also indicates that refurbishment and maintenance would be cheaper and a better investment for the council and the community than demolition and redevelopment. Many schemes frequently deploy the term community, luring people into the area selling them the romantic dream of quaint and authentic urban living but also to appear as considerate firms that have Deptford people at heart. This ubiquitous use of the term in their brochures has emptied the concept of any real meaning, being mere rhetoric to sell luxury flats. But for the locals, community is at the heart of Deptford, indicating a feeling of belonging, membership and home in a place (places) where friendships have formed over years through proximity, collective action and shared experience. As one resident told me: “If you’re taking the people out of Deptford, they will take the community and everything Deptford is with them, leaving behind an empty sterile shell.”

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Pauline, a resident at Reginald House since 1995, who will be losing her home in the planned Reginald Road redevelopment scheme, tells me about the importance of her community who have been living together on Reginald Road for years, saying that if she were to lose this community, it would be like taking her family away from her. She tells me of how people have looked after each other’s kids and how she could leave her daughter with the lady upstairs without any worry. She also tells me about the surprise birthday party for her daughter, where many neighbours hid in Pauline’s flat to surprise the unsuspecting daughter for her special day. Pauline is upset about losing her much loved home and is angry and frustrated at the same time. She shows me the confusing correspondence and mixed messages received from the council over the last couple of years. One letter from the Regeneration Project Officer in November 2017 is particularly worrying, not least because of the language being used. After introducing herself, the officer writes that she ‘will be working with residents to assist in the decant of 2-30A Reginald Road’ saying that ‘there are still a number of residents that need to be visited to discuss the decant’. The upset this letter caused is understandable.

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Pauline is intent on fighting the plans together with local housing campaigners. “This is my home”, she says, “I brought up my daughter here and my grandson was born here.” They now live elsewhere but come most weekends to stay with Pauline. She has been promising her grandson a new bedroom for some time now, but with the knowledge that her home might be bulldozed, there seems little point in investing the money. “How do you explain to your grandson why he is not getting the promised bedroom?”, she asks. If the plans go ahead, Pauline’s grandson will never see the new bedroom, and as Pauline will probably be moved into a one-bedroom flat, it will be impossible for her daughter and grandson to come and stay at weekends. “What are we supposed to do? Sleep in one bed? The three of us?”

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There is still hope. An appeal was sent by Deptford Neighbourhood Action to Sadiq Khan to re-examine the planning application and to support a new community plan for the site. And the banners put up in Deptford over the weekend are an indication that people will keep fighting. We keep hoping.

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For more information, please visit:

https://www.facebook.com/nosocialcleansinglewisham/

https://www.facebook.com/oldtidemillgarden/?ref=br_rs

https://achillesstreetstopandlisten.wordpress.com/2017/07/12/fact-sheet/

http://www.eastlondonlines.co.uk/2017/12/lewisham-residents-fighting-save-homes-demolition-accuse-council-social-cleansing/