In May 2019 I meet with my friend and former work colleague Jade Le, her mum Thanh, her brother Jayden, and her partner Matthew in Deptford Lounge to talk about how they are experiencing the changes happening in Deptford. Each of them created their own time-lines, writing about their experiences in and of the area.
Thanh came to Deptford in 1985, so she has been living here for 34 years. She first came to Scunthorpe from a Hongkong refugee camp with her first-born and then had Jade. They then moved around a lot and when they were living in Peckham, a friend, who was living in Deptford told Thanh that Deptford was a nice area to live, so she moved to Deptford and has stayed ever since. “The community at the time was great and soon I knew everybody on the High Street and in my block. All my kids – 7 altogether – went to Tidemill School and they all made friends there.”
Jade remembers this time well when she went to Tidemill School (then to Deptford Green and then Lewisham College) and when all the kids used to play outdoors until they were called in for dinner in the evenings. “Your friends would always come out and knock for you and say ‘let’s go out to play!’ It’s not that we didn’t have consoles, but we preferred to be outside. And it was safer then because so much of people’s lives was spent outdoors, meaning you knew the whole community who would be looking out for you. People would know you and your parents, and if they saw you and knew you’d done something wrong, they could tell you off. But nowadays it’s a lot different because most of my mum’s neighbours have gone now, and I find that there’s no sense of community anymore. So for example, a while ago, some kids bashed stones against my mum’s window and I went out to tell the parents but they weren’t interested and pretended it had nothing to do with them. I find that really disrespectful. I’m not saying we should stick our noses into other people’s lives, but now everybody keeps themselves to themselves and it just doesn’t feel as safe, and I think kids spend too much time indoors not only because of technology but because they don’t always feel safe and don’t have places to go.”
Indeed, Jayden, Jade’s 12-year-old brother, echoes her worries. “There aren’t many open spaces where you can see who’s there and feel safe. All those buildings create long and narrow streets and you can’t escape if you meet a shady person. And with all those buildings and streets and no open spaces for children to play, you don’t really know what to do! Some younger people are carrying knives and end up making bad moves because of our surroundings – there’s so many buildings, just buildings and you don’t really know what to do. Some time ago, somebody was following me after school, a very angry man so I ran back to the school because I felt threatened. If there’d been a playground nearby, I could’ve run there because then I wouldn’t have been alone and people would have seen me, which would have made me feel safer. But there are only streets and buildings.”
Losing Tidemill Garden was a major loss for Jayden, as he used to go there a lot with his friends. “There were always many friendly people there, so you were never by yourself and you could always do something there. Sometimes we helped the people cutting the weeds or planting things. There was loads of wildlife and there was also a great treehouse and loads of kids would go up (see image below). It’s all dead now.” Jayden understands that there is a need to house the homeless but says: “I think we already have enough buildings with empty rooms, which homeless people could occupy. And the new buildings they are building are not for the homeless because they can’t afford those places.”
According to Jayden, there is a need to have more spaces for children, so they are not just stuck in the high-rises or get involved in crime. And there needs to be free places, because, as Jayden points out: “Some kids are not as fortunate as others, and their parents don’t have enough money to send them to places where they have to pay. Tidemill Garden was free and anyone could go there, and it was so nice being there. I miss it. It would have been better if the council had taken down the old school building and built more flats for people who don’t have much money there and preserved Tidemill Garden to have a safe place for kids to play.”
Luckily, there’s McMillan Park, where Jayden and his friends go, and the Adventure Playground, named after Richard MacVicar, who played a very important role in the family’s life. “Mac, as we used to call him, was a really great part of my childhood”, Jade says. “We always used to go to the Adventure Playground which he built up from scratch, and he always used to help us write formal letters, complete forms, get our passports; we really used to look up to him and I would say he was one of my mentors. He helped me, my sister, my cousin get funding to become part of this new Mulan Youth Theatre. There was an Indo-Vietnamese Community Centre near the Adventure Playground, and they had funding to hire a dance teacher, so we were part of this Indo-Vietnamese Dance group, and we actually held some shows in the Albany Theatre. And so through the Mulan Youth Theatre, an oriental-Asian drama club funded by the National Lottery, we were able to open up a wider network and do shows across London, which was great. I went there from when I was 14 until I was 16; then the funding just ended abruptly and they had to shut down, which was such a big shame because we really enjoyed it and otherwise we just hung out on the streets being naughty. Being part of that project made us see that you can actually do something with yourself. I was also involved in this project called ‘The Greenwich and Lewisham Young People’s Theatre Project’ – also funded – as a teaching assistant, so I was helping young children learn drama and make puppets and things. They were based in the community centre near Pepys. And there was also another project, a photography project, Mac got us involved in, which was in Co-oPepys on the Pepys Estate. So at the age of 14 I learnt how to take pictures with a camera and the skills of how to work in a darkroom with different filters, and things like that. I really enjoyed it. Richard MacVicar always managed to get funding for us local children and to keep the Playground open. He’d get us involved in projects and take us on trips to Macaroni Woods, which is a place where you learnt how to camp, ride a horse or go cave exploring. I would never have learnt how to do these things without him.”
Jade performing with the Indo-Vietnamese Dance group (left) and her timeline (right)
Jade’s happy childhood memories are basically connected to funded community projects she was involved in – a memory Jayden won’t ever have as there is no more funding for such projects. “There were loads of things to do back then, but now there’s nothing or you have to pay for it”, Jade says. “Nowadays, children are walking around with knives! Why not have more projects in the community for these young children to have something to do? Support the people doing voluntary community work like those in Co-oPepys so they can give back to the community! You need to nurture communities, not just benefit from them!” But Jade is aware just how hard it is these days to get funding! “So many hoops to jump through to just get one project going!”
When I ask Jayden whether he can imagine his future within Deptford, he’s not sure. “If they keep putting up these buildings, I won’t want to live here because it’s too compact and cramped with too many opportunities to get robbed or knifed. I don’t want to put my life and my children’s lives at risk. If they start building more playgrounds, parks and open spaces where children are safe and where we can see them, then I might stay here. I want Deptford to be a good place, it’s my only home and if I can, I’d like to stay.”
Jayden writing his impressions of life in Deptford as a teenager
Thanh, his mum, is definitely going to stay in Deptford forever. She’s been here so long, she doesn’t want to move. And she actually likes the new look of Deptford. “Deptford itself looks better now – it has nicer buildings, better shops and it’s more lively.” But she also says that Deptford is more for students and young people now. Many of the people she once knew have either moved away or died. From all the old shopkeepers, only a few are left and there isn’t the same kind of social engagement or strong sense of community with new shopkeepers, she says. According to her, they seem less interested in getting to know and chat to her, and shopping is merely transactional. She misses the friendly chats she always used to have in the shops. It is through these social engagements that she learnt to speak English and built friendships. When she first arrived, she only spoke Vietnamese and shopkeepers like Terry helped her learn English vocabulary and feel part of the community. Despite knowing fewer people now, Thanh is still very well known in and connected to the remaining community and her shopping trips down the High Street and through the market are still full of social encounters.
In the end, I ask Matthew, Jade’s other half, to tell me how he views the changes of Deptford. He first came to Deptford in 2003, when he found work as a film editor in the Albany. He’s a North-Londoner and admits south-east London was still a bit of a mystery to him when he first came. However, he quickly developed a love and understanding for Deptford and got to know its intricate social networks after meeting Jade and her family. “I was impressed with the very tangible sense of community and the creative energy here, especially in the Albany and the different things they do with differently-abled people – it’s amazing! Then I found love at work and became enamoured with the traditional feel of Deptford and New Cross because they still had a lot of working-class culture part of their fabric, like Pie and Mash shops on the High Street, and I think that’s really important. But I could also spot the potential for regeneration there and then, that it was primed for gentrification. I mean, it’s in Zone 2 with trains to London Bridge, close links to East London, and Greenwich, it’s got lots going for it despite being rough around the edges. I know regeneration is sort of inevitable but I’m aware that it can often isolate the natives and the locals, the ones that grew up here. Change often comes at a great price and pains for a lot of people that have always lived here. There’s always that juxtaposition of the new and the old and it creates this tension and boundaries that stop people connecting with each other. Deptford Market Yard is an example of that because even though it’s still part of the market, it’s not quite part of the market; it’s its own little enclave and it does its own thing. And obviously, some people get priced out unfortunately and there’s still a lot of buildings that don’t seem to be doing what they’re supposed to be doing – actually housing people.”
For Matthew, Deptford has become his home-from-home, and he loves the fact that Deptford still has a strong sense of a close-knit community. In his view, despite all the changes Deptford has witnessed, it hasn’t lost its heart and soul. “When I go out with Jade and mum and we go through the market, we can never just go out to get something because people start saying Hello and How are you. What starts as a 5-minute trip turns into a 2-hour sojourn”, he laughs. According to him the danger that Deptford will become the new Shoreditch or Dalston is always there. He gives what happened in Islington as an example how one of the roughest areas of London was turned into a hotspot for the wealthy. But like many others, he feels that people in Deptford, who he describes as salt-of-the-earth people, have a reluctance to let that happen. “It really depends on the young people we see now and how they deal with it. In Islington, there didn’t seem to be much of a fight; they were offered sums for their houses they bought for a fraction of that years before and saw the opportunity to make a better life for them and their families. You can’t really blame them. Market forces unfortunately do determine where we live and how we live. There is no guarantee that you’re going to live where you were born and grew up and knew all your life, and it sucks the life out of places destroying their identities and making them sanitised and homogenous like everywhere else. As a community, we can only do so much, but because of the active participation of the local community here in Deptford, it’s less likely to be wholly gentrified. There’s too much love for the area and people know what they’ve got here; there’s a deep-seated feeling of ‘this is where I’m from, this is where my family is from, generations of our family have been here’. I think it’s also to do with the geography, it’s so close to Greenwich and the centre of London, and the river gives it an expansive feel. An area needs an identity, it needs to be authentic. Sadly, today the celebration of an area is more the commercial aspect rather than its authenticity. Deptford still has that level of authenticity, even if it’s the homeless people sitting outside Deptford Lounge or down-to-earth people walking down the market. We need to look after all people and perhaps the future lies in trying to re-establish a way of looking after Deptford communities.”