“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.

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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.

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[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.