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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