“Deptford is where I feel most at home”

This text was written by Annette Butler, General Manager of Deptford Lounge. All thoughts and views are her own and do not necessarily reflect the ethos of the library.

_____________________________________________________________________________

What is gentrification? The dictionary says “The process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste”. The banner on the round-about opposite the Birds Nest says “Gentrification is legalised crime”.

Me? What do I think? Well, I don’t want to put a label on it or focus on the negative. I want to focus on what we can do to protect and grow on the amazing characteristics that make Deptford a true community, something that it does the best! I have experienced this at first hand having left the North of England 10 years ago and living in most areas of London, North, Northwest and West. Finally settling in the South East and in particular Deptford, which is where I feel most at home, and how I remember community life when growing up in a small pit village, just outside Sheffield.

We need more homes and that is as simple. As the population is growing and without the new builds where would we all live? We are all living longer, medical intervention strengthens life along with everyday changes that aid us to make life somewhat easier for ourselves. You know things like hoovers instead of having to beat your rugs until the dust is removed, cars to make getting places quicker and the internet to name but a few. So maybe change isn’t all bad.

We can see this need for new homes as many flats are sprouting up all over the area and yes, they are sooo expensive but this is not indicative to Deptford but London in general. Will this change the dynamics of Deptford, yes! But not all people moving in are rich and many want to feel part of the community. Deptford is known for its diversity and the new people moving in are adding a new variety to the area. I want to share with these new residents all what is good about Deptford. I want to take them to Terry’s Discount Store and Aladdin’s Cave, which we can all guarantee will have that one thing people need for their new home and haven’t found in some big chain store. I want to share with them my favourite places to eat; I can’t get enough of the Waiting Room and M&D Japanese. I want to invite them to my favourite pub; The Dog and Bell has a great selection of beers especially from Belgium. And I want to join them on Saturday and experience the new Market Yard with them and then share my experiences of Deptford Market and introduce them to the stall holders. I want to spend an evening with them at the Albany Theatre or a Sunday afternoon at Deptford Lounge reading the Sunday papers. Most of all, I want to be welcoming, open and friendly and help the new faces integrate into Deptford.

I think fighting for what you strongly believe in is good, so I want to fight to keep the spirit of Deptford, fight for diversity, fight to keep making friends and making the best community possible.

Annette image smallPhoto: Lea Lukacs, 2019
Advertisements

“We want to open Deptford Town Hall to local people”

In May 2019 me and Jacquie from the Achilles Street Campaign visited the people involved in the Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action group – mostly Goldsmiths students who are currently occupying Deptford Town Hall. Today marks their 100th day of action to tackle institutional racism in academia and highlight Goldsmith’s role in the gentrification of New Cross. A statement by the group can be found at the bottom of this blog post. For further information please see their Twitter and Facebook pages and the Guardian article published today.

The students were keen to know about the planned regeneration proposals for Achilles Street and the surrounding streets, and we were keen to know how young people, aged 18 – 26, experience and respond to gentrification, so we organised a joint workshop.

Anita Strasser 22

We started off with Jacquie providing information about the Achilles Street Campaign, followed by me talking about the work I’ve been doing, recording the stories of the residents and shopkeepers affected by the proposed redevelopment scheme. The students expressed many concerns regarding the exact difference between social and council housing and whether local residents understand this, the oft-broken promises of social housing figures, and the impact gentrification is having on local communities. Despite all the promises of community involvement and community consultation, the students can’t see how the gentrification of areas is including and benefitting local communities at all. Above all, the students have huge concerns about the involvement of Goldsmiths in all of this and the role of universities in gentrification processes in general.

One student commented: “Goldsmiths, like other universities, got rid of the of student numbers cap, meaning that in order to break even they have to let more and more students into the area but that also means they need to take up more space. So although they are definitely culpable in some ways, it’s a systemic problem of higher education in the UK. And with Goldsmiths being an arts college, it finds itself swallowed up in culture-led regeneration, using the arts to gentrify a place. That wasn’t always the case but it’s hard to break away from that today because all these notions of culture and creativity are so swept up in these processes.”

Students already find it difficult to be able to afford the very expensive student accommodation and with Dean House (which has lower rents as it belongs to Goldsmiths) under threat of demolition, they are worried they won’t be able to afford the more expensive student dorms. At the same time, they are worried about playing a part in the ‘studentification’ of New Cross – redeveloping an area (housing, eateries, clubs, etc.) for the increasing student population, alienating existing communities. An interesting report about this process can be read here: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/dec/06/down-with-studentification-how-cities-fought-for-their-right-not-to-party

The students also feel that gentrification is not only social cleansing but also ethnic cleansing. Although unfortunately this wasn’t discussed during the workshop, it is clearly highlighted on the mapping exercise (image on left below). But it is really quite simple: with a large proportion of London’s BME population living in social housing located in working-class areas to be regenerated, such as New Cross, gentrification is a class and a race issue (Lewisham has one of the highest percentages of residents of black and minority ethnic heritage and ranks as one of the most deprived areas in London and England)[1]. For further reading, please see Jessica Perera’s recent report on the interconnectedness of race and housing (and policing) and how multi-cultural working-class areas are being eroded (Perera, 2019).[2] Another issue students are really concerned about is pollution. Again, no surprises there considering the frequent reports about the high pollution levels in the area and the world in general. And Lewisham is one of the worst-faring boroughs with regards to pollution levels. Read more here.

What really emerged from the discussions was how anxious these students feel about their presence in New Cross, anxious about being complicit in gentrification by simply being a student. Because of their transience, which often comes with being a student in an area, they are feeling the local resentment towards them. At the same time, their transience isn’t always a choice and looks to continue as most areas are becoming unaffordable for them to live in. This is exemplified by one girl who cannot afford to live in the area where she grew up – King’s Cross – and who won’t be able to continue living in New Cross after graduating. Her parents were involved in a housing campaign in King’s Cross and she has experienced the processes and impact of gentrification on local communities first hand. “Community and gentrification don’t seem compatible, with gentrification pushing local communities out of areas”, the student says. At the same time, the students feel powerless to do anything about it. Them moving out would certainly not solve the problem as others would just replace them. But as the group concludes: “We can be active though. We can try to actively resist being complicit in it. And other students need to become aware as well how their presence and actions are affecting local communities because they are not always aware of the gentrification taking place!” And indeed, this group requested this workshop in order to learn about the proposed Achilles Street redevelopment scheme and to see how they could get involved in the campaign.

Photo on the right by Simana Gurung, 2019.

What is interesting is that the Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action group are occupying Deptford Town Hall, which, as far as we know, was restored with regeneration money (Deptford City Challenge) to keep it open to the local community but which was handed to Goldsmiths in 1998. “We want to open the town hall to local people. We’ve had birthday parties, baby showers and all sorts of events here, so please let local residents know that if they want to use it for anything to get in touch with us!” They can be contacted on their Twitter and Facebook pages. At the same time, the students are concerned about what the town hall represents – close associations with Britain’s slave trade reflected in the figures celebrated on the front of this building. To the group, this is a physical manifestation of the racism that exists in the college. An interesting article about the history of the town hall and what its ornaments represent was written by the late Paul Hendrich and can be read here.

The students are aware that occupying a university is one thing but that fighting against unjust gentrification processes is another. They feel there needs to be a change in ideology, in political thinking to bring about real change. Whether that’s going to happen remains to be seen. Their positive energy and determination to effect change is a good start.

Anita Strasser 59b

[1] https://www.valewisham.org.uk/lewisham-facts-and-figures

[2] Perera, J. (2019) The London Clearances: Race, Housing and Policing. London: Institute of Race Relations

Statement by the Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action Group:

We, concerned students of Goldsmiths, have occupied Deptford Town Hall, a campus building, following innumerable instances of interpersonal and institutional racism and a lacklustre response by the institution. This movement was sparked when a student who was running for a position in the Students’ Union Election campaign was subject to racist abuse and harassment. This incident not only represents the bleak reality of racism that people of colour face even in supposedly liberal and tolerant academic spaces, but also the university’s own disappointing response reflects the fact that this institution does not take racism seriously and that this occupation is a last resort to address that. Our goal for Goldsmiths is to follow through with an institution-wide strategic plan on how the university will tackle racism and the realities of life as a BME student at Goldsmiths. We will stay in occupation until all the demands are met, which include concrete plans to address the gentrification that Goldsmiths as an institution is complicit in and exacerbates towards the local, diverse and majority-Black community. The building we have occupied, Deptford Town Hall, holds huge poignancy as itself carries with it the grotesque legacy of slavery and colonialism with statues of slave owners and imperial masters looking down onto an ethnically diverse locality. New Cross itself jostles between beloved ethnic food shops steadily being priced out by another coffee shop, Goldsmiths property or unaffordable housing. The council chamber we hold most of our living and events in, an ostentatiously decorated room, is ironically enough, where the trials of conscientious objectors of war were held. Now it has been radically transformed into a space for learning, collective care and nurturing a truly anti-racist community. We have hosted a number of teach-ins, screenings and workshops on a multitude of topics including prison abolitionism, zine-making for Apartheid Week, Kashmir, colonial imagery and decolonisation. The response from the university has been an ordeal in and of itself, from locking students in with fire exits bolted shut and unmanned, turning heating and WiFi off and sending threatening letters all the while ignoring the clear manifesto of demands. Nevertheless, we have persisted and will continue to do so for as long as needed. What fuels us is the support and solidarity we get from those who share our concerns and vision, from international students who have been silenced and isolated for so long to groups sharing our aims of racial justice and liberation working to create the same future.

How do 11-year-olds understand the regeneration of Deptford?

In summer 2018 I did workshops with year 6 pupils from Sir Francis Drake Primary School and Grinling Gibbons Primary School. Both workshops were held at and organised with the help of the wonderful team at Deptford Lounge. Pupils had already discussed the idea of regeneration with their teachers in school and were therefore prepared for this workshop that would go into more detail.

The first workshop involved 12 pupils from Sir Francis Drake Primary School, and the first question I asked them was what they could tell me about the regeneration of Deptford. Their responses were that Deptford is changing with more and more blocks of flats being built and with more and more people coming to Deptford. I then asked pupils to draw the building they are living in, place the drawings on a giant map of Deptford and talk about what they liked and disliked about living there. It emerged that most pupils from that group live in flats and that they appreciate having space, a park or green space nearby and living close to friends. What reduces their sense of well-being were not having space for themselves, all kinds of noise they can’t escape, particularly at night, rubbish lying around and strangers hanging around near their homes. There was one child in particular, whose housing situation was so bad with terrible overcrowding, leaks, noise, ill health and crime, that they could not think of anything positive to say. Another child, who was in temporary accommodation outside of Deptford, commented that the long commute to school with 2-3 buses made them feel exhausted and that they would love to be able to live nearer the school.

DSC_2342

The second task was to build a Lego model that reflects the changing face of Deptford. I deliberately gave them a vague brief to see what they would come up with. Some may have built predictable models (e.g. police station) or models of things they’d like to have for personal reasons (e.g. skatepark), but the after-discussions showed some interesting insights into how the pupils perceive what is happening. Here are some of the things they came up with.

Play areas and green spaces: they commented that there aren’t enough green spaces in Deptford where children can get away from the noise of the streets. They also thought that Deptford needs more trees to absorb the pollution, which they say is a problem. One child also commented that more “animal play areas” are needed. “There are more people now and they might want more pets, but lots of parks have ‘no dogs allowed’ unless they’re guide dogs so there are not enough places where dogs can run around and get fresh air.”

DSC_2364

A bank, an IKEA and a hospital: this is to address the amount of new people coming into the area who need to put their money somewhere, need to buy furniture to furnish their new homes, and will also need a hospital some time. I found these comments interesting as children were basically saying that there aren’t enough facilities in the area to cater for all the people moving in. Flats are being built, people are lured into the area but there isn’t enough infrastructure and amenities to cope with the increase in population.

DSC_2362

Finally, one child wanted a corner shop on Grove Street as there was nowhere in that area to get any sweets. I then asked them what they’d learnt from this workshop, and here are some of their comments:

The second workshop involved 9 pupils from Grinling Gibbons Primary School, and I also asked them first what they could tell me about Deptford’s regeneration. They responded with similar things such as Deptford’s growing population, more traffic and pollution, the modernisation of old buildings and the construction of a lot of new buildings, the loss of green spaces, posher and bigger shops. However, an interesting discussion ensued.  Whereas one girl felt that Deptford was becoming safer with fewer crimes committed, another child, who’d recently had to witness a stabbing outside his house, said that too many young people have knives and commit crimes, and that he feels scared when coming home from school. It saddened me to hear a young child talking about this; it was clear that he won’t be forgetting this experience.

I asked the children to mark on the map where they live and it turned out that most live near their school. I asked them whether they thought a lot has changed in the area. One child commented: “Convoy’s Wharf is going to bring a lot of change. They are building new flats everywhere and they are increasing the population, but they end up killing the trees because I heard from my friend that they were gonna build flats near this park [Sayes Court Gardens].”

I then asked them to build models that reflect the changing face of Deptford and place them on the map. Interestingly, most models were placed by the river and close to the Pepys Estate. Here are some of the models they built and their explanations:

“I built a park inside Fordham Park to say ‘don’t build on it anymore’.”

“I put the police and a group of people on the Pepys Estate to try and reduce the amount of stabbings and killings.”

“I put a car and a truck on Evelyn Street, close to the Pepys Estate. This was to show that there is too much traffic and too much noise from all the cars and trucks in that area.”

Because of their negative responses, I asked them to build another model of something that would make Deptford a better place. Once again, the models expressed continued concern about crime, safety and pollution, with more models representing police and green spaces. The most sophisticated model, in terms of physical and metaphorical parts, was the joint model made by two girls who explained it like this: “We think there should be more police around to put everything harmful down, so here is the police and in this part, the people put their weapons down and become friends right there. And here, there is a person who is friendly to a person who doesn’t look like them. And over here, this is to show there should be more green spaces.” They called their model ‘the harmony model’ (images below).

DSC_2458.JPG

I was very moved by that model and explanation by two young local girls who demonstrated acute awareness of the issues facing society. Their model was very much about the need for peace and harmony, and looking after the environment.