Culture and gentrification in Deptford

This text was written by Franck Magennis, co-founder of Deptford Cinema, Deptford Debates, HAGL – Housing Action Greenwich & Lewisham, the London Learning Co-operative and board member of the Deptford People Project. All photographs of Deptford Cinema are copyright of Deptford Cinema/Adriana Kytkova. All other photographs by Anita Strasser.

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I remember once visiting a squat with a wonderful, if slightly bourgeois, friend of mine. The new occupants were busy transforming the place into what would become the short-lived “Elephant & Castle Social Centre.” My friend seemed only to notice the dirt and the chaos.  But it was the chaos that captivated me.

Deptford shares some of that chaos. You don’t know what to expect on Deptford High Street. You don’t know who you will run into. Beyond the Tesco, the Asda, and the other odd representative of multinational corporate brands, the shops are mostly a mix of surprising and eclectic small businesses. Deptford is unique.

More than anything else, gentrification is about rents and house prices. Some people oppose it by focussing on the emergence of expensive coffee shops and hipster hairdressers. The brick thrown through the window of the Cereal Killer café in Shoreditch is a case in point. But a bit of diversity on the high street – of tastes and of prices – wouldn’t pose such a problem if only local people who’ve lived here for years could still afford their rent.

Real estate capital is globalised and unaccountable. It is an incredibly powerful force that hovers over communities, sometimes without us fully realising it. It controls a massive amount of land, labour and capital. It is plutocratic, not democratic, concerned not with people themselves but with profiting from our houses.

Local Authorities are supposed to act as the people’s check on the private power of those property development companies. Like a dam holding back the flood of unaccountable real estate capital. Many, including Lewisham’s Labour Council, do a very poor job. They are systematically failing to push back against the profit margins of the development companies. The dam is leaking.

Five years ago I moved to Deptford and helped to found Deptford Cinema. I feel both proud and conflicted about its impact on the local neighbourhood. Being involved with setting up a cultural institution has given me a lot of ideas about culture and its relationship to gentrification.

 

The Cinema is run entirely by volunteers. Public meetings happen every Sunday at 11am. In theory anyone can get involved, and even start organising their own events. The building that houses the Cinema we renovated from a derelict shop. In many ways, it is an incredible example of a crumbling asset revived by community-led regeneration.

 

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And yet I feel uneasy. Cultural institutions are often seen as a thermometer measuring the temperature of gentrification and its associated conflicts. What kind of films are being shown? Are they attracting diverse crowds that reflect Deptford’s multiracial and working class households? Is the price of a ticket, or a beer, too high for some people? These are important questions, the answers to which shape an institution over time.

Gentrification causes conflicts over resources. There is no permanent solution to this tension. To create a community institution is to create the possibility that it will be lost to higher prices and middle class tastes. All that we can do is to keep asking the right questions, and try to act on the answers. The Cinema, the Council, the developers – are they here to serve the local community, or to gentrify and displace them? Are ticket prices, rents, profits too high? Who belongs in Deptford, and who feels unwelcome?

 

For six years before moving to Deptford I lived in Camberwell. There most of my friends were from geographically dispersed communities from across London. But it was moving to Deptford and founding the Cinema that first helped me get to know many of the people and community institutions with whom I now organise. For the first time I felt a sense of belonging to the place where I lived.

In many ways the Cinema simply gave me a pretext to reach out to people. It started conversations. I headed the outreach working group, and we would flyer the local housing estates. Sometimes we would run a stall in Deptford Market selling second hand books and telling people about what films we were showing that month.

I made one such overture to the Deptford People Project after hearing about their community kitchen on Facebook. They explained that they had started as an attempt to create a space where Deptford’s new, middle class residents could integrate with the existing community. But it quickly became clear that there was a large homeless community who desperately needed the support DPP were providing.

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I felt very strongly that DPP should feel welcome in Deptford Cinema. We co-hosted a fundraiser in the Cinema that proved very successful. The crowd that night looked and sounded like Deptford in a way I hadn’t seen in the Cinema before. Rowdiness and energy and warmth. A Cinema volunteer later complained the guests had been too rowdy. The complaint got back to the organisers of the event, and relations between DPP and the Cinema grew distant.

The event that night, and how different people perceived it, neatly encapsulated the tensions at work in Deptford. Different communities living in the same place, sharing the same venues, trying to learn to live together and forge a sense of society despite their differences. All this against the pressing question of who can and can’t afford to continue living there.

Of all the local groups and struggles in which I have participated, the campaign to save the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden stands out. Some years ago I came into contact with Owen and Andy and the other organisers after I attended a meeting in the Dog and Bell pub. They were trying to ensure the Garden was preserved as a community asset, and so we co-organised a film screening in Deptford Cinema to raise awareness. From there I became more and more involved with the campaign, and until the recent eviction found myself in the garden several times a month.

 

Lewisham Council’s decision to pursue that eviction was, I think, a big mistake. At a time when environmental degradation is reaching crisis proportions, the local Labour Party have decided to defy community concerns and demolish a cherished community space. Councillors’ claim to care about homes rings hollow in a borough so marked by evidence of the housing crisis over which they have presided. They seem not to understand the genuine grief and pain they are causing.

Communities change. We must not fear that process. I understand that Lewisham Council is caught between the local community and the overwhelming power of international real estate finance. But we must fight to preserve people’s right to stay in the communities they created. To date, Lewisham Labour’s role in that fight has been utterly shameful.

It can be difficult to analyse what is causing gentrification in our neighbourhoods. Emotional thinking is a natural response to being forced out of our homes. But in our struggle to halt the flood of money rushing in to displace people in Deptford, we must remain clear-sighted. More than anything, gentrification is about people not being able to continue living in their communities. If together we can fix housing, the rest is sure to follow.

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Whose Garden? Tidemill and the Hierarchy of Violence

Today’s post was written by Ruby Radburn, resident of Reginald Road and member of the Save Reginald! Save Tidemill! campaign. Witnessing the violent eviction of Tidemill Garden from her front door and concerned about what is happening in the area, Ruby joined the campaign the same day. Since then she has become a key figure in documenting the violence exercised on the local community. Photographs by Ruby Radburn unless indicated otherwise.

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“Premise Four: Civilisation is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror and the fetishization of the victims.”                                                            Derrick Jensen, Endgame

 

Ever since the eviction of Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden on 29th October 2018, I’ve been forced to darkly contemplate this hierarchy of violence. For ten weeks now, private security guards from County Enforcement have been standing directly opposite my flat at all times, and there are dogs inside the garden that bark intermittently throughout the day. The garden is floodlit at night and shines through my bedroom blind, and the generator that powers these lights rumbles away continuously. The guards are the last thing I hear, laughing and talking, before I go to sleep, and the first thing I become aware of when I wake up. Even though their numbers have been reduced in recent weeks, any noise they make, or any time I see them from my windows (which must be hundreds of times a day), or when I leave the house and a guard’s eyes follow me down the street, I am reminded of my place in this hierarchy.

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The Council, of course, justifies their presence (and the huge cost of the operation, estimated now to be well over £1million) by saying that they are “securing the site”. So far, so well rationalised. On social media and in the many emails I’ve exchanged with Councillors over this ongoing occupation, I’ve repeatedly heard that their presence is necessary. Sometimes, this necessity is described as unfortunate, and limp apologies are offered for the “disturbance” or “upset” caused to local residents such as myself. Similarly, the eviction itself, in which Lewisham Council sent in 130 bailiffs and security to drag a handful of peaceful protestors from their beds just before dawn, is also presented as an unfortunate necessity. The inherent force and violence in this action is not mentioned by Councillors, but instead they focus on the actions of the protestors. If they had just left when they were asked, none of this would have happened. Which is another way of saying, they made us do it.

In order to accept and internalise this logic, which is of course the logic of the abuser, you first have to accept that the garden (sometimes euphemistically referred to as “public land”) belongs to the Council. On what do we base the assertion that the Council owns the land? Well, there is probably a piece of paper or an electronic document somewhere in the Council’s archives that says they do, and in the supposedly consensual social system we live in, this document would prove that legally the council do indeed own the land.

But the garden is not just an empty parcel of land. It is home to many living things: trees, plants, flowers, algae and newts in the pond, birds who feed and roost and nest there, hedgehogs who hibernate in the undergrowth, butterflies, bees, caterpillars, worms in the ground, and an uncountable number of other living things. Apparently, these living things cannot claim ownership of the land that sustains them and that they give back to, in an intricately connected ecosystem. Not legally, anyway.

Nor do the children and teachers who planted the garden many years ago own it. The community groups and individuals who have used the garden, who knew it intimately, who connected to it and found beauty and peace and friendship in it, who nurtured it, played and learned and laughed within it – they do not own it. The campaigners who have given considerable amounts of their time and passion in the last three years to try and convince the Council to change the plans and save the garden, while still building the same number of homes (which anyone with half a brain should be able to understand is possible, and always has been, when you consider that the new so-called “green spaces” that are part of the development comprise 83% of the area of the current garden) – they do not own it, either. The protestors who occupied the garden last summer to protect it and all the living things inside it, who ate and sang and slept there, and one of whom climbed to the very top of a tree when the bailiffs came, valiantly clinging on for 8 hours while the crowd in the street cheered her – no, none of these people can claim ownership (or even custodianship) of the garden.

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When it comes to land, it doesn’t matter if it is your home (especially if you are not human, but the same applies to humans – just ask the residents of Reginald House or read any history book). It doesn’t matter whether you helped create it, nurtured it, or fought to protect it. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether you have a piece of paper that says you own it, either. The only thing that matters is who has the means to enforce their claim of ownership, through violence and the threat of violence.

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This is where the idea that we live in a consensual social system cracks apart, and the psychological tricks of the abuser begin to show through. The Council’s rationale that County Enforcement are there to “secure the site” deliberately obscures the truth of the power hierarchy and renders invisible the violence that maintains it. It suggests that the protestors are the aggressors, that the garden must be guarded from attack, that County Enforcement are the ones “defending” the Council’s land. But the only way the Council can enforce their claim of ownership when faced with resistance – with a refusal to consent – is through violence, and the threat of violence. This is sanctioned by the larger political and social system, and of course backed up by the police. In fact, it is the Council who are the aggressors. They are the ones who have attacked the garden, and who are intent on destroying it.

In the hierarchy of power, we are not supposed to notice the violence done to trees, or to newts. And if we do notice, we are supposed to accept the rationalisations of those in power that it is unfortunate but necessary to cut down 74 mature trees and destroy an entire habitat for many animals and insects, not to mention a vital community space and pollution barrier in a highly built-up urban environment. We are not supposed to resist this reckless destruction and when we do, we are to blame for the unfortunate but necessary violence done to us. And we need to be reminded that any further resistance will be met with violence, hence the guards standing outside my window 24/7.

Ever since the eviction, local Councillors have relished any opportunity to demonise and vilify protestors, while completely refusing to see the eviction, occupation of security and destruction of the garden as acts of violence perpetrated by Lewisham Council. Cllr Joe Dromey wrote on Twitter: “I condemn any unnecessary or excessive use of force, and any assault, whether it be by the security staff, or by masked protesters trying to provoke violence.” Notice the use of the words unnecessary and excessive, and the attempt to equate the assaults of these private security guards, who are paid and authorised by the Council and fully backed up by the police, with the actions of those who dare to resist. Furthermore, is it not a provocation to send a gang of private security (many of them masked) to drag people out of bed at 6am and forcibly seize a place the local community loves, in order to destroy it?

Cllr Paul Maslin’s contempt for protestors whose resistance and expression of anger continued outside the Bird’s Nest Pub on the evening of the eviction is another example of this demonisation: “shouty, masked people who live we know not where, who act with violence, block roads and jump on people’s cars after getting lagered up in the pub”. Shock, horror! How outrageous! But where is his outrage over the shouty masked people who live we know not where (i.e. County Enforcement), who act with violence against ordinary people, including women, and who block the gates to a community garden while they smash down a children’s treehouse in front of the people who built it? Where is his outrage for the animals and insects whose habitat the Council plans to destroy?

Photos by Anita Strasser, 2018

After a protest at the New Cross Assembly on 6th November 2018, Joe Dromey posted in the I Love Deptford Facebook group that there were “a group of around 40 protesters – most of them masked” and then said: “they attacked me and a council officer”. The implication that he had been attacked by 40 masked people was quickly challenged by members of the public, some of whom had been there, and he then clarified that he actually meant 3 or 4 people. But the original wording of the post was clearly a cynical attempt to exaggerate and distort the facts to demonise protestors, which is characteristic of Dromey’s approach. I wasn’t there after the Assembly and I haven’t seen any evidence to prove or disprove his claims of being physically attacked. A Council spokesperson said in the News Shopper that “police intervened to protect them…and ensure everyone got home safely”. Just one arrest was made, by the way, for a public order offence (not for assault).

In emotive language never used by Councillors to describe the violence of the eviction or the destruction of the garden, Cllr Brenda Dacres said in reply to Dromey’s Facebook post that it was a “shocking and disgraceful scene” while over on Twitter Cllr Paul Bell was “very saddened by the events”. Mayor Damien Egan’s response in the News Shopper went even further: “The Mayor condemns, in the strongest possible terms, any abuse, intimidation and violence directed at council staff, councillors and members of the public.” Wait, let’s just read that again: “The Mayor condemns…any abuse, intimidation and violence”, including towards “members of the public”. This is obviously a ridiculous statement. If he truly meant this, he would have to condemn the eviction he authorised, and condemn the private security firm he is paying to intimidate people, and condemn the police who pushed people and threw them to the ground in order to “ensure everyone got home safely”. As a friend of the young man who was arrested astutely commented, along with clear photo evidence (shown below) of a policeman kneeling on his back, gripping his neck and shoving his face into the concrete, “This is what being attacked looks like.”

Photos by Patty Gambini, 2018

The abuse, intimidation and violence of those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is supposed to go unnoticed, and if it is noticed, it is rationalised as the natural order of things. But a read-through of the hundreds of angry comments on Dromey’s Facebook post shows that, thankfully, people are really not that stupid. As the popular local refrain goes, ‘Deptford ain’t ‘avin it.’

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From my kitchen window, I can see the guards slouching against the newly-painted white fence, now with corporate blue strips at the top and bottom. I can see the raw stumps of branches that were needlessly hacked from the overhanging trees and hedgerows in November. A couple of pigeons peck at the few remaining red berries, their usual winter store having been “fed” to a wood-chipper. The guard dogs are let out for one of their daily runs, and they race across the flattened mud, scaring the birds away, for now at least.

I think about the garden before the eviction, all that life inside it, now fenced, guarded, and earmarked for destruction. This is the state of things, not just in Deptford, but in the world. We are on the brink of a climate catastrophe and we all know it, even if we try not to think about it. Global warming, deforestation, rapid species extinction, the collapse of insect populations. Tidemill Garden is only a tiny, tiny speck in the much larger picture of relentless destruction of the earth by those in power. They claim ownership of the planet we all live on, and it is fenced, guarded and earmarked for destruction. They enforce their claim to ownership through violence, and we are supposed to just roll over and take it. But the world hasn’t been (completely) destroyed yet, and neither has the garden. The trees are still standing, and every day I think about what will happen when Lewisham Council come to cut them down, if and when the final legal route – an appeal for a Judicial Review – is exhausted. Already, the men in suits are coming to eye it up, walking around it with a proprietary air (see below). Watching from my window, at times I feel complete despair, occasionally hope, but mostly just rage, which fuels a healthy defiance.

Despite the fence and the guards and the dogs and the ever-present threat of violence, I refuse to accept that the garden belongs to the Council and I refuse to accept that they have the right to destroy it. The amazing campaigners and activists I have met since the eviction (and in case it isn’t already clear, I now proudly count myself as one of them), sum up that spirit of defiance in another popular refrain, chanted loudly at every protest and during every procession from Reginald Road, and down the High Street: “Whose garden?…Our garden! Whose garden?…Our garden!”

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When something belongs to you, in the real sense that you have helped to create it, nurture it and protect it, you have to keep trying to save it. It’s our garden, and this fight isn’t over yet.