Evelyn Community Centre: community store and much more

DSC_0557

I recently spent some time at the Community Store in the Evelyn Community Centre in Deptford, speaking to the amazing volunteers and the families that shop there. Natasha Rickett (front left in image above), manager of Bunny Hop Day Nursery located at the centre, and Keith Walton (back left), Chair of Evelyn Tenants and Residents Association with an office in the centre upstairs, were approached by Lewisham Homes to set up this Community Store to provide  families on low incomes with affordable fresh food. Together they developed a concept, and with funding from Lewisham Homes for the first year, Natasha and Keith decided to go for it and opened their store for the first time in February 2019. Supported by over 10 keen volunteers – local residents such as Jane Walton, Keith’s wife, local councillor Silvana Kelleher, and others, some of whom are also members of the scheme, the store became an instant success. “Our plan was to make it look like a small-scale store where members could pick what they want”, Natasha tells me. “The idea was to remove the stigma of food banks and the perception of begging and to provide people with a shopping experience in their local community space. People pay £3.50 a week membership and for that price they get about £30 worth of shopping each week. Our aim was to slowly build up to 20 members in the first 6 months and to then slowly increase the number of members. However, on the first day, already 20 people signed up and we had another 20 on the waiting list. When we shut after the first day, we just couldn’t believe how well it went. For me this was a massive eye opener to see so many people in need of this. A lot of our customers are parents from the nursery, some of whom are literally on the breadline, and to see their happy faces when going home with 4 bags full of fresh food is just wonderful!”

The shop is open every Tuesday from 5 – 7pm. More information can be found here: https://www.lewishamhomes.org.uk/evelyn-community-store-opens-its-doors/ Pop down to the official opening event of the community story tomorrow, 31 July 2019 1 – 4pm with “family activities, stalls, food and financial inclusion support from the welfare benefits team” (lewishamhomes.org.uk/events/evelyn-community-store-opening-event). 

The food is collected from FareShare on Deptford Trading Estate and comes from leading supermarkets. Instead of going to waste, good quality surplus food is donated to FareShare, and places like Evelyn Community Centre pay an annual membership for a particular package. If requirements increase, the membership fee increases. On top of their weekly delivery, surplus food orders can also be made online on a live feed, depending on what is available, enabling the centres to top up their weekly deliveries with special additions. Keith then often collects the food from FareShare, or sometimes directly from the supermarket, which can then be frozen at the centre to remain fresh. “And it’s great when you can provide families with that bit of extra and special food, for example for Easter or Christmas”, Natasha says. “To see people’s faces when they leave is so rewarding! People don’t feel ashamed coming here, that’s why we have the tables out for people to sit down and talk, it has a community feel so people don’t have to come in hiding their faces. And while they’re waiting, they can have a cup of tea and some biscuits.”

All this involves a lot of groundwork and work behind the scenes, which Natasha and Keith do on a voluntary basis: going online every morning to see what surplus food is available, collecting food, freezing it, informing people, advertising, organising, etc. Sometimes they also contact supermarkets and companies directly to see if they can obtain free nappies or food for Christmas to give to families. One Christmas, Natasha contacted Aldi to see if she could pick up some surplus food on Christmas Eve. When she arrived, she was given so much food that she had to ring Keith to come with the minibus as she couldn’t fit it all into her car. They then distributed all the food among the families that came for a pickup. “Food poverty is always going to be an issue here, especially with families that are on low incomes or on benefits. Some families are on the breadline and it’s nice to see that some of these families have become members of the Community Store”, Natasha says.

Natasha Ricketts is founder and manager of Bunny Hop Day Nursery located at Evelyn Community Centre. She trained at a nursery in the same location about 25 years ago and after working there 18 months, the opportunity to set up her own nursery came up. Together with another lady who now works elsewhere, she set up Bunny Hop in 1996. Although it is a private nursery, Natasha decided a long time ago that she wanted the nursery to be available to local families on low incomes. With the view that she wasn’t going to retire early, and the fact that she has comparatively low overheads, despite increases in rent and food prices, she charges low rates. This, together with her flexible attitude to timings and other requirements (i.e. children are supposed to bring their own lunch but as some families cannot afford this, Natasha often feeds the kids), and the fact that Natasha is willing to be here all day long, has enabled many struggling parents and families, from all different cultures and walks of life, to leave their children at the nursery while they go to work, fulfil carer responsibilities or have the chance to get much-needed rest. “There are children here that unfortunately haven’t had the best start in life and if we can help them a little bit, we will”, Natasha says. Because of this, and the fact that some staff have worked with Natasha for over 20 years, the next generation of families are now bringing their children to the nursery, surprised and happy to see the same staff still work there.

DSC_0565

The nursery is located in the middle of Evelyn Estate and is surrounded by greenery. There is a large, lovingly decorated indoor space, one sheltered and roofed outdoor space and one fully open and outdoor play area. I’m struck by how green and quiet it is, meaning there are no cars or streets around and rather than high iron gates, which you usually see around playgrounds, the fence is covered in hedges so all you see is greenery. There is a lot of space, equipment and toys, and you can see it’s an enjoyable place for kids to play. “Most our children come from high rises”, Natasha explains, “and you know which ones because they’re the ones that want to be outside all the time cos there’s no balconies and a lot of the flats are over-occupied so when they come here, they want to be outside, come rain or shine.” Natasha says that three quarters of the families come from the immediate area, some from just outside the area and only about 3% come from outside Lewisham (but these are people who used to live in Deptford and attended the nursery themselves).

Because Natasha is at the Evelyn Community Centre all day, she, together with Keith have become the volunteers that deal with the day-to-day tasks that come up. Although there is a caretaker for the building, Natasha and Keith sweep floors, clean the toilets and kitchen area and do a lot of the repairs – particularly Keith. Keith says that because Lewisham Council is in the process of transferring the centre over to Lewisham Homes, hoping Lewisham Homes will take responsibility, repairs aren’t being dealt with. “For me that’s unfair because we’ve all been paying our rent and taxes to the council (there are others that rent offices) and they’re not putting the money back into the centre”, he says.  One of Natasha and Keith’s biggest questions is: “Where is all the money going? And all the money that is being saved by closing so many other centres – where is it going? It has not been put into the remaining centres so where is it? Because there is money – just nobody knows where it’s going!” With a 2-3-year wait on getting repairs done, Keith and Natasha prefer to take the bull by its horns and do it them themselves. At one point, Natasha even got a loan out to have a trip hazard fixed in the garden which otherwise would have meant that kids wouldn’t be able to play outside. It was the council’s responsibility and Natasha tried ages to get it remedied, but rather than waiting for an accident to happen while waiting to have it fixed, Natasha decided to sort it out herself.

When the centre seemed to be under threat a couple of years ago, Natasha and Keith were ready to fight. Evelyn Community Centre was on a list of centres that were potentially going to be closed, so each centre needed to compete to remain open. Natasha and Keith collected signatures, listed all the things they do at the centre and went to the consultation meetings. “It was a very scary time because you kind of get complacent when you’ve been here so long and then suddenly the thought of not being here! There’s no way they can take this down, there’s too many kids that need that place, where would they go?”, Natasha asks. Keith says there are now possible plans to knock down the centre and rebuild it within 50 new properties for rent but without parking. “How are people supposed to access the centre then? It’s all very well trying to reduce traffic and building cycle lanes, but not all people can cycle or walk. We have people with mobility issues here – how are they going to access their community centre? Not having parking spaces is not going to reduce traffic. People will just park in adjacent streets, making it impossible for others to find a parking space. Sometimes plans are really badly thought-through.”

For now, the centre remains open but with the council not willing to hire out the centre to more user groups than are currently there, and with all the council’s assets being sold off to develop flats, you never know what will happen next. “We just hope the council is going to start hiring it out again. We already have some user groups such as us, the nursery, a Vietnamese Dance Group, a Church group, a knitting and crochet group – we all pay rent, but there are a lot of other things people want to do, like an after-school-club, a dance club for the youngsters with hip-hop and street dance, and these things bring people together, it stops segregation! And it would bring in revenue too. Community centres are vital for an area, especially this one because it’s right in the middle of an estate so it brings all people together!”

DSC_0572

Since the cuts and the closure of so many vital centres that used to help people with paperwork, Natasha and Keith have also become go-to persons for people needing help filling in forms and other things.  Natasha expands: “One day this elderly gentleman came here, looking for the housing office, and I said ‘Sweetheart, that closed years ago. Is there anything I can help you with?’ So we sat down, I filled in his forms for him, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and posted it. After that he kept coming back about 2 or 3 times year to get help with his paperwork. Then he stopped coming, maybe he got too poorly. But if we hadn’t been here, what would he have done? Or the kids that are in the basketball court outside, when it’s really hot, they come in asking for water. So in the summer, we tend to put jugs of water in the fridge so we can give them water.”

Other times when Natasha opened the community centre for people in need was when shelter was needed for residents having been evacuated due to a fire breaking out in flats on Evelyn Estate on two different occasions. Being so well connected with local people, Natasha was informed immediately upon which she informed residents that she had opened the centre. Both times, residents spent the night there, had access to shelter, hot drinks and a quiet space for mourning and counselling upstairs. Another time she opened the centre during a power cut, enabling mothers to prepare bottles for their babies. Natasha loves living in Deptford, she likes its diversity, the community relations she has built up over the 30 years she’s been here, and she likes her place within the community. Despite working from “stupid o’clock to stupid o’clock”, if she can help local families that are in need, she is more than happy to do so.

Spending time at the community centre, particularly Tuesday evenings during the community store, I can see how important this centre and its initiatives are for local people. There is a buzz in the hall with people chatting, kids playing and parents doing the shopping. I sat down and chatted to a few people to hear their views and experience of Deptford, regeneration, housing and welfare cuts. I met two young mothers who shared their experiences of being homeless due to unfortunate circumstances in their lives. They talked of sleeping in a car with an 8-month old baby or sofa-surfing for months on end; of being treated as a number in homelessness statistics rather than as human beings; of the horrific and lengthy bidding process to get housed only to find yourself too scared to be in the kitchen with your children in case the dodgy boiler the council refuses to replace explodes again. And I met Rebecca, an 11-year-old girl who dreams of being an artist and who eagerly wrote a poem about how much she loves Deptford. As her mum did the shopping, she made a beautiful collage using some photographs I brought in to express her views about Deptford (see below). Also other shoppers expressed their views using images representing all kinds of different perspectives of Deptford which I’ve taken over the last couple of years (green spaces, new developments, council blocks, old and new shops) and writing comments (see below).

Rebecca

Esther

I also spoke to Natasha and Keith about their views, and like the members I chatted to, they like some things and are sad about other things. One of their bug bears is that, in their view, there isn’t enough consultation with residents and that decisions seem to be made by people not living in the area. Natasha’s particularly cross about the way Deptford High Street has been and will be changed (pavements have been flattened to merge with the road; promised parking wasn’t delivered; the planned one-way system). “When they first changed Deptford High Street, when they said the pavements need doing, they said that all the residents and tenants had been consulted by sending letters out, inviting residents to come to consultations. So I asked a few traders on the High Street and none of them had received any letters. So, I don’t know who decides what’s to be done and how but I doubt it’s people that live or work in Deptford. Some people are making these changes which they think are for the best, but best for whom? We have a major issue with parking and the change in road layout has resulted in more rather than less congestion. It has certainly made my commute worse!” Keith agrees, saying the needs of local people are not being taken into consideration, particularly when it comes to parking.

Another issue for Natasha is the proposed moving of bus stops on Evelyn Street, which, in her view, seems to be in favour of commuters and new developments’ aesthetic rather than people in the area. “Who asked the elderly whether moving the bus stops would be convenient for them? They say there were consultations but with whom? Did they reach out to elderly and disabled people who might get confused or whose journeys will be made more difficult if bus stops are moved? You can’t just put letters through the door and expect people to come to consultations. Some people can’t read, others can’t see, others can’t leave the house. And many cannot navigate online sites to put their views in. I don’t know what the solution is but if you tell me you consulted the community, then I’d like to see evidence for that!” Natasha herself lives with a disability relating to her back, which is not immediately visible. She relies on a huge daily dose of strong pain medication to get through the day and at any moment she could have an episode that would leave her unable to walk and with pain that can only be relieved through spinal block or an epidural at the hospital. She knows what it means to not be able to get out of the house or not being able to get help fast enough. And Keith knows what it means not being able to access the increasingly more digitised information and consultation processes. He is dyslexic and despite being very computer-literate and involved with the local authorities[1], he finds it difficult to deal with all the written information. “There’s never going to be such a thing as complete digital inclusion. There are too many people in this borough with disabilities and dyslexia like me, that don’t allow you to be included.”

DSC_2514Keith tucking into pie & mash at Goddard’s before it closed in October 2018.

Another thing Natasha dislikes is the rapid increase of rent prices for businesses on the High Street. “There was a flower shop next door to Albin’s (Funeral parlour) which did really well. It was lovely with little trinkets in the window, and the lady had built up a nice clientele and friendships in the area. I saw her on her last day – she looked like a defeated woman. She said the rent was raised so much in one go that she couldn’t afford to keep the shop open. I just don’t understand why they would do that. The shop has been empty since then – it’s such a shame! [2] It’s sad because there is a lot of potential on the High Street and people are investing into their businesses and a year later the rent doubles and they have to close again. Instead of making Deptford more diverse and getting people to come down and stay, they’re just shutting everywhere down so it slowly dampens everyone’s spirit.” Natasha likes the new places on the High Street, like the flower shop that’s now gone, the gym, the Gin Bar, Tony’s Daily and other places. “It’s absolutely lovely to have little shops again but how long will they be there before they’re shifted out?”

Natasha also likes some of the new housing developments, although some of them are too crowded for her. She particularly likes the Anthology Development just down the road from the community centre – not only does she think the development looks fantastic, she also likes their ethos as one day they came in, offering to decorate the inside of Evelyn Community Centre. “They came round with all the different colour charts they use, asked us to have a look and get back to them. And since the council wasn’t fulfilling its responsibilities again, we really appreciated the grand gesture! And then the builders they were using came round and donated toys made by their apprentices, among them a toy kitchen (image above) which the kids love! So that was amazing!” But as much as Natasha likes the Anthology development, she is also aware that the people who live on Arklow Road are losing much of their daylight, making their homes gloomy even on a bright summer’s day. And she is particularly concerned about the Tyre Shop who’d been there ‘forever’. “Did he have to go? Was he outpriced? Did he have to move because they’ll put housing there? Did he have to go because he doesn’t fit with the image of the development? I don’t understand because he was always busy. I would really like to know what happened to him.”

DSC_1992New Cross Tyre Shop by Arklow Road and the Anthology Deptford Foundry Development in 2018.

[1] Keith was awarded Tenant Champion by Lewisham Homes in 2016 for the good work he does in his local community. More info here: https://www.lewishamhomes.org.uk/keith-is-24housing-tenant-champion/

[2] The shop became Deptford Beds in July 2019.

 

 

Advertisements

“I like living in Austin House”

DSC_1542Quoc Ton Luu and his wife Pam live in a council property on the third floor of Austin House. They have lived here for 30 years and brought up their four children in this flat. All four children, two boys and two girls with the eldest 48 years old, have moved out already, and until 20 years ago, Quoc Ton’s mother lived with them as well.

Quoc Ton came to Britain as a Vietnamese refugee in the 1980s. They lived in Newcastle for 5 years before moving to London. “My son liked London so we followed him”, he laughs. “There were no jobs in Newcastle but there were jobs in London so we moved here”, he adds.

Quoc Ton is a retired carpenter and has put down all the floors in the flat himself and made all the beautiful doors as well. He’s also a keen gardener and the window sill in the living room is adorned with colourful orchids. He also grows Ginseng on the balcony, making the approach to the front door look very inviting. Generally, despite his age, he’s a very active man and still goes jogging regularly. Quoc Ton likes living in Austin House and would like to stay. “I like living here, I like the area. It’s near all the stations, it’s very handy.” When I ask him how he feels about the demolition plans, he takes a pragmatic stance. “If everybody else will move, I’ll move. I will follow other people. But living here is better for me. I prefer staying here.” When I ask him if he would make all the floors and doors again himself if he had to move to a new place, he replies “yes, of course” with a smile.

DSC_1549

“We tenants, we are not going to win”

DSC_2497Bernard is a pensioner who lives on the 2nd floor in Austin House on Achilles Street, which is up for demolition. Until his retirement in September 2017, Bernard was a Drugs and Alcohol Worker, helping young drug users find a way back into normal life. It was not something he had planned; he had done a moulding apprenticeship in a factory in Charlton in the 70s and became a skilled moulder/core maker for making ship propellers. When the Propeller section moved to Birkenhead in the mid 70s, he didn’t know what to do, so he went to Oxford Street to look for work, where he met a blind man from South Africa. Bernard told him about himself and that he didn’t know what to do and the man said: “It sounds like you like working with people. Why don’t you try working with young people?” Bernard was intrigued and then it all fell into place.

Bernard found voluntary work in north London to help troubled young adults, where he was taught everything from the ground up. And through some coincidences, one of the managers there, Karl, was to play a big part in Bernard’s long-term future. When Bernard took a paid job in a mental support office in Brixton, Karl was Bernard’s manager again, and after Bernard was diagnosed with sickle cell disease after coming out of a 7-week coma after falling ill at a family party, Karl offered him a job in Newham as soon as he was getting better. “Do you want a job working with young Class A drug users?”, he asked Bernard. This is how he became an Alcohol and Drugs Worker.

After being diagnosed, Bernard needed to be rehoused into more suitable accommodation. He was living in Forest Hill at the time and then he was offered this council flat in Austin House. At first, he didn’t realise where Achilles Street was, despite the fact that he grew up in New Cross, but when he arrived in 2005, he immediately went down Memory Lane. “I came to the UK in the early 1960s when I was 9 years old and grew up not far from Achilles Street”, he tells me. “I used to live in Batavia Road, went to Childeric Primary and attended the doctor’s surgery at Clifton Rise where now the new flats stand. What is now Fordham Park used to be all houses and what is now the underpass by New Cross Station and McMillan Park used to a road that would take you all the way from Pagnell Street to the Albany”, Bernard remembers. “It has changed so much; my past is all but a memory now.” Later his family moved to Brockley and Bernard has moved around London a fair bit, but he has always stayed closely connected to New Cross through school, music and friends. Sickle cell disease has brought him back to New Cross for good.

Bernard remembers Moonshot (when it was still in its original location) and Sybil Phoenix, a Caribbean woman who put her heart and soul into looking after the black community, organising youth and community projects that kept young people off the streets. Bernard was one of those kids, and all the events organised at Moonshot kept him out of trouble. “At that time, there were lots of gangs in the area and there was the Lewisham Gang who invited me to become a member. At first I said yes but then I asked them what they do. When they said they steal, rob and break into people’s houses I declined. My parents had brought me up to never steal and always tell the truth, so I said no. Unfortunately, that made me the enemy of the gang. I remember there was a fight one day between my friend George, a local guy who was part of our community, and another gang. There was a lot of territorial rivalry between Jamaicans and this gang was on our turf in the Childeric playground. It got nasty and George stabbed someone in the side; I was holding George’s coat. To this day I can hear the blade going into the guy’s body and it will stay with me forever. The fight stopped – the guys hadn’t expected to be beaten. I just ran home.”

Life in the 70s was tough for a Jamaican living in New Cross, and Bernard was part of the British Black Power Movement. He remembers his first experience of racism. “I was 12 and walking home from School in my school uniform and then three white women walking past said to me: ‘You have dirty black knees!’ I ran home and asked my parents to buy me long pants!” Later, when he was a young adult, he had a friend living close to the Millwall Den and they used to watch the games together but afterwards “I could never walk her home, I had to leave straight after the game because otherwise I wouldn’t have made it home in peace.”  Bernard was nearly killed at Dartford Train Station, when a group of skinheads who’d been drinking in the Railway Tavern, beat him up really badly. He only survived because a white girl shouted: “You’re going to kill him!” and then they stopped. The train guard put him and another badly beaten black guy onto the train. “I have no recollection of that train journey but luckily the other guy also got off at New Cross and somehow I made it home.”

Bernard is clear that racism still exists today and that we need to recognise it’s there; that parents need to make their children aware. “My parents always taught me to do the right thing, so I’m not bitter. But sometimes there is no cohesion within families, the way some kids talk to their parents! There was a difference in my upbringing, in the values I was taught, to always be honest and respectful. And there were other people that looked after me and influenced me a lot – three in particular. The first was the milkman I used to do the milk round with. He was the sweetest man I’ve ever met. He couldn’t care less that I was black; he took me under his wing. Then there was Mr Laws, an English Teacher at Samuel Pepys Primary School, which doesn’t exist anymore. He would teach us black kids how to pronounce difficult words. And there was one of my mentors when I started up my apprenticeship in Charlton – I learnt a lot from him. ‘What people say is a measure of who they are’ – is really what I have learnt. Children are not bad by default – it really depends on what they’re taught and told when they grow up. But I had a choice and I made something of my life, and if I could do it then others can do it too. People can choose to be good people.”

Bernard went to school with Jah Shaka (or Nev Powell as he was called before), the well-known DJ whose sound system, the Shaka Sound, became well-known across the country for promoting roots music and a spiritually charged atmosphere*. Before Shaka became famous, he used to DJ in Moonshot using the sound system Freddie Cloudburst. Bernard has always loved music and was part of that scene at the time and it was through a strange coincidence that he became a DJ himself. “Shaka was the DJ that night but was not known by that name at that time. We were in Sybil’s house before with Shaka getting ready. We were in different rooms and Shaka asked me to put a record on to check that the equipment was working. I was so nervous my hands were shaking. I’d never put on a record before. My hand was shaking so hard I dropped the needle onto the record. I looked up and then the strangest thing happened. All the people in the room were looking at me and I became aware how much I loved the attention I was getting. It was magic. It was then that I decided to become a DJ.”

Music became Bernard’s No 1 love. Bernard used to DJ in a club on Peckham High Street called Bouncing Ball (later Mr Bees) but he also recalls a night where he was DJ-ing in Ram Jam in Brixton. “You have to understand that people who used to go to Ram Jam knew their music; resident artists there were mostly Jamaicans and so expectations were high. If you didn’t hit the mark with the music, people would not move. There was no-one on the dance floor at first when I started but I remember that after I started playing music the dance floor filled up. It was this power of music that was greater than I. Music was the love of my life”, he says, “music, liquor and weed, this was the life. It was rough and at times dangerous, but life was good!”

His DJ career ended when the smoking of weed became so much that he lost focus. “There are times when your senses are heightened or slowed down and if you’re not mindful, the music will draw you in and distract you from focus. It was a very competitive scene so there was someone ready straight away to take over from me.” But Bernard has no regrets. This love for music is now gone and has been replaced by the love for God; Bernard became a born-again Christian. He first had doubts, but it was God that told him he would blind him to music, and this is what happened. Bernard stopped DJ-ing. But music has taken on another role in Bernard’s life: he’s learning to play the guitar. Now that he is retired, he’s bought himself a guitar and is taking lessons at home.

DSC_2501

Bernard likes living in Austin House because he’s back where he grew up. Living on the 2nd floor is convenient because of his illness. As Bernard can fall ill any time, the ambulance need to be able to get to him quickly so he can’t live higher than on the 2nd floor. Bernard also knows some neighbours who are there for him if he needs them. “There’s Bill obviously – he’s been living here for a long time. He also helped me out once when I locked myself out. Since then I always have a set of keys in my pocket. And there are some other people I know, but the community here has changed a heck of a lot. Many of our former neighbours have moved on or died. Goldsmiths has enlarged its territory and students aren’t mixing very well. They’re here for a bit and then go off again. You can talk to the older folks but the younger ones aren’t interested.”

Bernard would rather he didn’t have to move and he’s not happy about the demolition plans. “I first got wind of the demolition plans was when the council came round telling me they are making provisions for the homeless. I’m not saying no to that, of course we need to house the homeless, but it’s the way the council goes about it. They just steamroll over people’s views, and will the flats really be for the homeless? The council need to put more thought into this and think about how it will affect us. I’ve seen the full implications for our community in the past and now we’re going through the same again. All the community spirit of people living here, and the effort people have put into it over the years, that’s all going to be lost again. There’s one woman who used to live here but her rent went up so much (it’s a privately-rented flat), she’s had to move to Catford. But I can still phone her up and tell her I’m sick or without money and she’ll be here to help. Such relationships take years to build up. But everything has already changed so much. I grew up with certain things in my mind, buildings and places in the area, and they are only distant memories now. Some people call it progress; I don’t think it’s progress if all community centres and council homes are being knocked down. And if you don’t know what was there before, you won’t understand. At least my memories can’t be erased, when I walk through the area, through Fordham Park, I walk through people’s houses because that was there when I grew up. But when I’m gone, my memories will go with me and my history will be erased. But the way the whole area is changing, the local communities will also be erased.”

Bernard is a council tenant and has been promised to be rehoused. He has informed the council that he cannot live higher up than the 2nd floor but hasn’t heard back. According to him, it is only a matter of waiting now. “We tenants, we are not going to win but please treat us right, treat us fairly! We need better regeneration and think about all people. They want to build a car park on Clifton Rise and have Achilles Street free from parked cars. But I am registered as disabled; sometimes I cannot walk as far as Clifton Rise, especially on days when I’m not too well. I need close access to my car and need to be able to get home quickly. At the same time, I need to keep fit and do exercise to manage my illness but on days when I feel dizzy or weak, I cannot walk to Wavelengths to do exercise, I need somewhere closer and cheap to use a gym. I’m a pensioner now and I know what it means to live on a state pension. I used to go on holiday once a year and never worry about money, but now that I’m retired, things have changed a lot. So, I’m limited, physically and financially. I can take sick at any time and I’m very aware of that; the first sign of back pain and I need to stop everything right away and go home. So, it’s good to have people around me that I know and can trust, but I don’t know where these people are going to be housed after that. I hope I’ll be fine.”

*Reference: Anim-Addo, J. (1995) Longest Journey: A History of Black Lewisham. Deptford Forum Publishing

DSC_2498

“How can you call this flat uninhabitable and ready for demolition?”

DSC_1515

When I come up to the third floor of Austin House on Achilles Street, New Cross, where Seph lives, I am enchanted by the beautiful floral display outside her flat. Big ceramic pots align the corridor and flowers are growing in the big window boxes. The display extends to the next flat where a Vietnamese family grow Ginseng which grows to a considerable height in the summer. I enter Seph’s flat and I’m completely overawed by the beauty of her flat. The quirky corners and alcoves, high-ceiling rooms, the light streaming in from all the windows, the wonderful props and ornaments, plants and massive vinyl collection, as well as the colour orange present in every room, makes the flat look incredibly spacious, homely and lived-in.

The first thing Seph shows me is the view from the kitchen window. “I love this open view! You can see Canary Wharf and at night it looks so nice with all the lights, and when the trains go past at night the lights flicker. Sometimes I feel like I live in New York, and the green space below with all the trees makes me think of Central Park.” From her kitchen window you can see all across from London Eye down to Canary Wharf and “at New Year’s Eve I used to have parties and we used to go out on the balcony to see the fireworks”, Seph tells me. She also tells me how horrified she was when she first heard about the redevelopment plans and the big tower they are planning to build on that bit of land. “It would completely obstruct my lovely view.”

Seph has lived in her flat for over 20 years. When she first got the flat, it had been completely flooded out from above and needed driers for some time to make it inhabitable again. She was offered by the council to either have the flat refurbished or to get given the money to do it herself. She opted for the latter and did all the wallpapering herself (and still laughs at the fact she chose cheap Woodchip Wallpaper!).

In 2002, she bought the flat under the Right-To-Buy scheme. “I feel so safe here. Once my door is bolted I feel so at ease. It’s so quiet here and the spacious flat with views of trees and greenery gives you head space too. It makes you feel good.” Seph also mentions a project carried out by local residents to counter the stigma of ‘sink estates’ by looking at the plants around the estate. They invited an eco-botanist who discovered more than 120 species of wildflowers around the blocks, which included some very rare plants only found on former bomb sites.

Seph is offended by the fact that these flats are labelled as rat-infested, damp and unfit to live in. “How can you call this flat uninhabitable and ready for demolition? Yes, we have some mice around the block and some flats have issues with damp but so do other blocks and lovely Victorian Houses.” These issues could be resolved easily with proper maintenance of gutters and drainage pipes in the blocks in my opinion.” Looking around her flat, you can understand why she feels resentful about the demolition plans and you wonder why the council would pull down perfectly sound flats. It also makes you wonder what other people’s flats look like and question the whole rhetoric of crime-ridden ‘sink estates’ the government deploys.

This is not to say that there are no problems in the area. “Living here hasn’t always felt safe”, Seph admits, “and I still sometimes don’t like walking up the stairs at night, but this is mostly to do with what was going on 20 years ago. At that time, there were lots of muggings in the area, but thankfully this has improved a lot. Since better security doors have been installed things have got better too.” There have been rare occasions of people hanging out in the staircase at night, but “they are never from here”, Seph asserts. “I know many of the residents at Austin House and they are generally all decent hard-working people. I have seen lots of kids grow up here and they are have turned into lovely, polite caring young adults. It’s others who think because it’s a council block they can just come here and hang out as no-one will care who generally cause the problems.”

The rhetoric of the ‘sink estate’ and the stigma of living in council housing is very widespread and lack of transparency and consideration for local residents angers her. “The council treat us like they think we’re stupid! They say things we do not believe and we can see straight through them. If everybody was really considered; if residents were given suitable alternative homes; if like-for-like really meant that, i.e. if you demolish someone’s flat you give them another one, not a half share of one; if the elderly were given flats with wheelchair access and not coerced off to old people’s homes; and if residents were treated fairly, listened to and kept in the area if that was their wish, I don’t think I would be so against redevelopment. But this doesn’t happen, we’ve seen this in other developments – all these promises are made and then broken, the reality is a completely different story. It’s the fact that the council and developers are so sneaky in trying to get rid of certain people, which makes me so annoyed.”

Seph also mentions local councillors’ repeatedly stated mission of having to house the poor homeless and all those living in temporary accommodation, intending to make campaigners who fight against the development look unreasonable. “It will be interesting to see how many of these people will actually be housed”, Seph says. “The figures seem skewed and originally, the proposal for Achilles Street included very few extra flats for social rent, possibly as few as one extra was mentioned. And what about private renters in our block who have lived here for years and have children in local schools? Who cares about what happens to them and whether they can afford to live in the area still? The council have no responsibility to help rehouse them at all!”

Seph is unsure of what to do. Shall she jump ship before she’s pushed, before the council decides what to do with her? Shared Ownership is not an option for her, and she doesn’t trust the council to give her what her flat is worth, which would enable her to find another place in the area. The only thing she can afford now is another council property but she’s very aware that “you could move into the same situation further down the line, when it will be even harder to deal with as I’ll be older. It would be the third time in my life I have moved to a generally poor but creative area and then had to leave. I moved to Hackney in the 80s, to Goldsmiths Row, near where Broadway Market is today. I lived next to a massive waste ground and paid £40 a week; then it got trendy… Now New Cross is being developed and has all the new cafés everywhere. I don’t want to move again, but feel I have little choice.”*

DSC_1510

But what will Seph move to? She won’t be able to afford another property in the area, certainly not a new-build. Interestingly, a surveyor who came to her flat advised her not to buy a new-build as they are bad quality, he said. Also, a friend of hers lives in one of those new-builds owned by a housing association. They told Seph that they have sewage problems, that the walls a paper-thin and cannot be adorned, that the door knobs have already fallen off, that the slabs on the garden path have become uneven, leading to a fall, and that the paint on the front door has already bleached out. Seph doesn’t like new-builds anyway. “They might look snazzy but I don’t like them. The kitchen is in your lounge and the rooms feel like box-type things, rabbit hutches; they feel more like hotels. They don’t have all the lovely features I have here.” This reminds me of the 85 flats in Solomon’s Passage in Peckham, owned by Wandle Housing Association, which have to be demolished/refurbished only 6 years after they were built due to using bad quality materials.

If Seph moves, it’ll be out of London, probably to Kent somewhere. It’s a difficult decision and she’s trying to put a positive spin on it. London, particularly south London, has been a creative and exciting place to be on a personal and professional level. She has loved living in the New Cross and Deptford area, the live music on the streets, the dancers on the square, and Deptford market where she has bought many of the curious objects in her flat. I take lots of photos of the flat. I am perhaps the last person to see the flat as it is; I’m beginning to feel emotional myself. I can’t imagine what it must be like having to pack up 20 odd years of memories in a much-loved home.

DSC_1517

*Since our conversation, Seph has made the difficult decision to move.