This event is now fully booked. If you’re interested in buying the book, please get in touch: Anita.Strasser@gold.ac.uk
This event is now fully booked. If you’re interested in buying the book, please get in touch: Anita.Strasser@gold.ac.uk
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’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.”
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.”
In 2010 I photographed Muhammad and some of his friends and family members in Halal Butcher’s where he worked for 35 years. It was a project designed to meet my local shopkeepers, learn about Deptford’s history and find out what people thought of the proposed changes to the area. I had recently moved to Deptford and wanted to understand its political and social complexities through people’s experiences and perceptions. I went back to see Muhammad at the beginning of 2019 but this time I didn’t find him in Halal Butcher’s but next door in Roots Fruit & Veg, which I also photographed in 2010. Muhammad cannot do the hard work of a butcher anymore and so he runs Roots. Muhammad is actually of retirement age, but he says it makes him too tired to just sit at home. Instead, he comes every day to work a few hours over the morning. “I like coming here. It’s nice to see people I know, have a chat, be in the shop and have work to do. At home I would just sleep and feel tired of life”, he tells me. Although he also feels tired after a few hours of work, it is a different kind of tiredness – a satisfied tiredness, satisfied with having been in work, having served customers and having had interesting conversations.
We start chatting about Deptford, how it’s changed and whether the changes have had any impact on how business is going. I asked Muhammad what it’s like to be a trader on the High Street these days. “It’s not what it used to be”, he says, and as Muhammad says this, a customer comments: “Yeah, Deadford!” Muhammad explains that in times when trade was good, many people used to come up from Kent to do their shopping on Deptford High Street. Due to the busy market in the past, traders used to have fairly high takings and could therefore charge lower prices, which made the area attractive for shoppers. But today, even if prices are still fairly low on the High Street, Muhammad says that people go to Lewisham or Peckham because it’s even cheaper there. Muhammad blames the lack of (free) parking spaces in the area, meaning that people who drive up from Kent to do their shopping go elsewhere because they cannot park here. “What is the point of doing up the road and the pavement if people can’t come here?”, he asks. “The council are saying they are improving the area but for whom? The new people coming into the area don’t do their shopping in our shops. And the people that come from elsewhere, even if they spend £100 on shopping, they still don’t want to spend £2 on parking so they go elsewhere and we’re missing all the passing trade. If only parking was free on Saturdays, for example, it would make a huge difference to the takings of local businesses.”
According to Muhammad, the majority of traders on the High Street are struggling. “Business isn’t going well and the rents in this area are going up and up. With the little trade we’ve got now, we’re not even covering our costs and we’re lucky to get any wages. I recently had to take out a loan to cover the rent and all the costs and I am not able to pay it back because we’re barely surviving here. In the butcher’s next door, we used to have 10 people working there, now even 1 is too many. Deptford High Street isn’t even expensive but we just don’t have enough turnover.” On the day I spoke to Muhammad he needed to go to a meeting to discuss the rent with the landlord. “If the rent increases again, I won’t be able to continue, I simply cannot pay it anymore!”
I ask Muhammad what the best times were on the High Street and without hesitation he says: “The 90s. People were working hard, they were happy and smiley, there was good trade and good earnings. I miss that!” Overall, Muhammad feels that the council aren’t doing enough to support existing businesses. The Halal Butcher’s has been on the High Street since 1975. “There aren’t enough incentives from the council to help existing businesses to survive”, he says.
All Muhammad would like to do is carry on working – carry on coming to the shop as long as possible. “I like the contact with the people, like you coming in today to talk to me and other people. It’s nice and you feel good at the end of the day. If only I can come here a couple of hours a day.”
As I was leaving, Muhammad’s grandkids came in to say Hello – it was the twins I photographed in 2010 on the same day as Muhammad in the butcher’s next door. How they’ve grown!
This text was written by Paul Clayton who is an IT trainer, occasional gardener and artist. Images by Paul Clayton. ___________________________________________________________________________
It’s been an interesting reflection of my activities here as a journey. I’ve recounted a story as much to place some factual bias, alongside my own subjective bias. All are stories, all are narratives. We’re all blow ins, but the ones that love being here join in and make more stories that are retold. All are accepted. Deptford does this if you let it.
Cue video cut to London in 1997, wanting to set up an Internet cafe, finding that there was no money in it. After moving around various parts, the starting in Notting Hill, then to well-heeled Docklands and settling into SE London as The Millennium started. This is where I found things really interesting, my northern sensibilities warmed to the area’s lack of pretension, but having place to be odd and creative; especially around Deptford and New Cross. Always interesting and fun, especially as an old rocker that was at home hanging out in pubs with live music. I’d already been an occasional visitor, making an internet radio station (archive link to Meantime Radio) with a friend and publishing event listings of what was going on in Greenwich, New Cross, Deptford and Woolwich. A labour of love with fun. It was great moving from Charlton to Deptford in 2002, but getting knocked over in 2003 celebrating my first wages as an IT trainer certainly made things traumatic.
Standing as a ‘champion’
As part of Meantime activities, we attempted to host ‘It’s your News’ in a couple of venues; the idea stuck, my sensibilities intrigued by the possibility of getting involved in the area more. The Council of Champions appeared. Part of the early noughties trend for parish councils, the idea was coordinated by a local consultancy, based on New Cross Road. A local marketing company created their outreach materials for the project – one-word postcards, banners and posters (e.g. demo-crazy), which were impenetrable, almost as if the whole exercise was a means to just show ‘community engagement’? I did wonder what this was, and joined in. My pitch was to host regular News Parties to get people talking about the local news as well their own. This promoted some interest, with 80 or so votes, a result in my view – didn’t make the council though.
Afterwards I noted that other parish councils had websites inside their local council, which would surely have been a possibility? The council of champions outreach evidenced no such liaison, apparently the youth council lasting a little longer than the adults, but not very long; the link to the Wayback machine shows that the site disappeared in 2005, which reflected the apparent lack of real local power. Demo-crazy, huh?
The consultancy seemed to be riding a wave of Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) money and this showed more an infrastructure approach than supposed community development – my naive view of the initiative was preparation for regeneration, giving the area some cushioning to the shock of change. The consultancy worked with developers it seemed to me. The Ha’penny Hatch was built, a return of a local pass through to Greenwich, and the town hall was sold to Goldsmiths University (where are the details of that purchase and public access?).
Around the same time, Broadway Fields was created in exchange for the Seager building converted to flats, or so I was told. A loss of a huge artistic and creative space.
Pepys estate at that time was a place unexplored, though there was plenty of apparent activity there on a community level. I interviewed Malcolm Cadman in 2018 for a Lewisham heritage project which later filled in some gaps of knowledge.
Cut to my next scenario. Kicking around and wanting to get away from computers and get gardening. I found the McMillan Herb Garden near the McMillan Nursery School and all of a sudden was chair of a gang of volunteers wanting to make an interesting and peaceful community space. This was reclaimed waste ground turned into a community garden. The artist and caretaker of the space had trouble communicating his vision, but it did transpire and indeed it was a great place to get into some nature. The man is a great artist and a good gardener, but not always the easiest to collaborate with. It could have been me, granted. After a few years it meant a moving along to a different scenario, still keen to get into community gardening.
A wonky Prong, space by St. Paul’s and a garden hidden in full view
Community gardens started popping up around the centre of Deptford after 2010:
The Wonky Prong – a Crossfield resident took the initiative and got funding for a great little garden backing on to a nature reserve, installing some table tennis tables nearby. This was great. I knew the venerable guerrilla gardener, a wonderful and magnanimous human being if there ever was one. He ensured more trees in the area, a great attitude. My involvement was especially marked with a riding an ice cream making tricycle from East Greenwich and back. We made ice cream with fruit from the market because things weren’t quite in season.
Thames Tideway developers provoked a response by locals to get together in solidarity and plant some raised beds in the space by St. Paul’s Church. This was a bit of a landmark moment for me as I then noticed the real speed of change in term of the development in the area. If there was a metric, it surely was the amount of big trucks moving building materials and black cabs that suddenly decided to go south of the river.
Hidden around the back of Tidemill school was a garden in plain sight.
The Tidemill School has a narrative starting with Mark Elms who infamously was reported earning more as a headmaster than David Cameron. I’m wondering what comparisons are to be drawn other than wealth for an educator and a politician. My narrative would be to make Mark Elms poorer than the Prime Minister of any time. Much poorer.
The school had been left to its own apparent devices after being decanted of pupils. Lewisham council strangely bought in a North London Guardian company accompanied by a gang of artists, musicians and other creative people.
It was interesting to note that another local gang of artists (Utrophia) that I knew and supported (I did try to rent a studio space from them, but was foiled by an internal politic) were at that time inhabiting the Jobcentre space, which is now the bar. The Job Centre is only, what 100 steps away? Utrophia artists came to the opening night for the new artist’s residence and walked out not very happy; could understand completely. From my own view, the Utrophians provided a humorous, inclusive and very local set of situations, which the council didn’t seem to be interested in, yet these new people didn’t seem to offer anything in the same vein, inclusion was not on the agenda. This is a form of story telling when you ignore local artists.
Hidden by fencing was the Tidemill garden leased by Assembly, a creative bunch of artists and gardeners.
The gardeners however did have a local agenda. I got involved. We talked, fell out and yet the proposed scenario was pushed. My goal: an event to bring all of the community gardens together, but this was not to be. Instead my work was facilitating an event hosted by Madcap Theatre Company in 2014, in what was called ‘Deptford Gardens’, or DIG for short. This was a promotion of local community gardens in a garden fenced off and directly experienced by few. The hope was to bring more to a garden, no matter where it was. Everyone enjoyed themselves, and a friends group formed as a result; which didn’t get appropriate support from the gang of gardener artists constantly seeking funding. As the narrative of the council continued, there was a campaign.
I’m still here.
There are many activists with a community passion that Deptford does foster, but the shiny shoe brigade of smartly dressed people in suits and the well-heeled young couples investigate and look up (cough, bring money) but don’t want to integrate – businessmen (yes even councillors) and community integration for rich people is very simple. Just support local business of all kinds. Even the ones that went to Kent, after all this area was part of Kent apparently. As a firm believer in keeping economics local:
Support the street markets, the high street – talk as well!
Ask how long that barber/hair stylist has been in the area.
Loving the interaction of people in a place with a great diversity. Everyone is a blow in.
Say hello to the guy that sells coffee on the second hand market, he has a great attitude.
Talk to the lady emptying out snails into a bucket, talk to the cheeky lads at the fish stall.
Say hello to older folk slowly making their way down the high street and give them space.
What I do see with these young folk on the street that are insular yet seeking interaction, is a sort of shyness mixed with the arrogance of privilege? Mental health issues, poverty, and homelessness have been themes of the Deptford / New Cross area for some time. Yet as an exercise in saying ‘I live in Deptford’ is some cachet of cool then the new faces have to be accepting of others. Artists seek patronage and sponsorship, local business needs to be encouraged – to fill a gaping maw of emptiness. People that make just make money, just make money, just make money. No inner world to cultivate, so culture fills a void. Voids in housing associations and councils are empty houses. Not sure if that’s a metaphor for anything.
It is interesting to note that the work in Neighbourhood 1 (according to the council) is all about development of building flats, rather than negotiating proposed change. Instead there were (and still continue to be) supposed consultations as token presentations, ‘This is What You’ Getting’. Nothing about working with churches, charities, services and businesses providing a network for the vulnerable folk; promote a sense of dare I say, community coherence? If that is a dialogue, then I’ve never heard about it. This area has evidently been a hub for homelessness and associated aspects for many years, more than three generations? Building expensive flats must alleviate those ever present themes for not including vulnerable people? Surely that’s a strategy I’ve never heard of in housing planning documents. Although Lewisham Council once promoted the housing of students and graduates in the 1980’s on Crossfields Estate, next to a stinky summer creek never mentioned by letting agents. Amazing.
I wander around taking photos of trees, bushes, walls and gates and make them into simple kaleidoscopes, also painting jobcentre signs and streets. There are a whole bunch of reasons for this. The everyday is in front of us, and without any form of nature around it becomes boring. Imagine walking around with concrete everywhere. Just concrete. Really boring, just like privilege trumps being poor generally.
The faces and characters are changing in the area as people die, get sick, tired or move away before they get sick and tired. Tired, then sick too? Integration with services and people has fallen by the wayside in Neighbourhood 1 in favour of developers and building – with associated traffic.
So much going on in the town centre of Deptford; yet there are community efforts from Pepys and Evelyn estates promoting open space for community use in all sorts of ways. The best safe spaces for public use are generally green and given some wildlife, especially in urban areas. Gardens are great places to share a good chat, pick some blackberries, make seed bombs, get creative, catch a newt and so on. People are definitely calmer in a garden, no doubt about it.
Planning an offset to increased local pollution and working with local networks is definitely a building block for community development, promoting healthier living to everyone, especially when joggers are around – another metric of change? Gangs of joggers (instead of lone lycra wearers) would go and be happy around the parks rather than the streets, cutting up old people and buggies with their bad street style? I just don’t know. People in the area talk to one another, it’s a basic form of respect, something to be perceived as ‘old school’ and depreciated. Something that used to happen, like nostalgia, a form of utopia, a place that doesn’t exist.
Buy my book?
2016 was the collection of some Deptford photos as a social history colouring book. Copies available from The Word bookshop. Colour in the pages with whatever you want, make your mark if you’re interested.
The Deptford Charrette
Lewisham Business Profile 2013-23
A while ago, I did a whole-day drop-in workshop at Pepys Resource Centre to see how people using this library feel about the regeneration of Deptford. It was an interactive workshop where people could choose how they wanted to express their opinions: by drawing, building a model, chatting and/or writing some comments in response to four questions. The latter two were the preferred choices.
I set up in the main library space where everybody could see me and I invited people to join me as they came in. It was a Wednesday, which meant Luciana and Joyce were there with many others. Luciana was assisting whoever came in, Joyce was teaching people to cook in the morning, the befriending club for the elderly was present and stayed for a community lunch, and downstairs there was a training course for local women. In the morning, before people arrived, Joyce showed me how to cook a simple, cheap but healthy and tasty meal in just 20 minutes. I also joined the community lunch where we all sat together and ate all the different things that were made that morning including ‘my’ dish. In the afternoon I chatted to the women on the course. Throughout the whole day, I engaged in interesting discussions with various people who came in about the changes happening in Deptford and collected views and comments. I leave it up to the reader to interpret the comments.
A week before the ballot starts for residents to vote for or against the demolition of the Achilles Street area, me and Jacquie went to see Nancy who lives in one of the maisonettes in the buildings known as 363. These maisonettes are above the shops on New Cross Road, overlooking the estate on Achilles Street at the back. They are part of the redevelopment plans and face demolition. As soon as we walk in, Nancy tells us how distraught she is about the council’s plans to demolish her sanctuary, the only place where she has felt safe during a life that hasn’t always been easy. Almost in tears she shows us her beautiful home, which is filled with family photographs, perfectly arranged ornaments, tastefully chosen wallpaper, lace curtains and tablecloths, and chandeliers. The love for detail is immediately visible. I feel like I have stepped into a cabinet of curiosities, a cabinet of wonder. She points to the Italian-style floor tiles in the lounge, which look new but have been in the flat for 25 years. She also tells us about the wooden floors upstairs which she put down. Nancy and her family took out everything the council had put in and decorated it themselves. The only thing that’s now from the council is the new walk-in shower that Nancy needed after two hip operations. You would never guess this is a council flat simply because of the personal investment that’s been made. “It’s my home!”, Nancy says, visible upset at the prospect of losing it.
Nancy and her whole family (she is the eldest of 10 children) came to the UK from Cyprus in 1968. She was in her early twenties then. They first stayed in Battersea before moving to the borough of Lewisham, where Nancy slept on a mattress on the floor because there wasn’t enough space for such a large family. Nancy was desperate to get her own flat and was told to move into a hostel to speed up the process. When she hadn’t heard back after 3 months in the hostel, she moved back to her mum’s to sleep on the floor again. Then, after another month, she was finally given her own council flat on the Pepys Estate. This was in the late 1970s. Nancy lived in that flat for 7 years, but it wasn’t a good experience as she felt very unsafe on the estate. She remembers frequent fights, drug problems and other troubles. Her worst experiences were getting burgled and having firecrackers put through her letterbox. “I lived in a flat at the end of a horrible corridor that resembled a hospital corridor. I never felt safe there. One day I got burgled. They came through my window after climbing onto the scaffolding. I was at work – I used to work as a seamstress and sew buttonholes in a Deptford factory. All my lovely jewellery got stolen, even my shopping in the fridge was taken. I had no insurance at the time. I lost everything. Another time, somebody put a firecracker through my letterbox. It was around Christmas and teenagers were playing with firecrackers. I wasn’t in at the time. When I came back, the carpet was burnt. Luckily, the fire went out by itself. I was lucky the flat didn’t burn down. This was just after I had got pregnant, so I told the council I can’t live there anymore.”
During that time, Nancy passed the 363 building and noticed that the flat she now occupies was empty. She asked somebody how many bedrooms there were in the flats – she was told 2. She asked the council about the place and was told that it was unfit to live in and that she would have to wait until the flat had been refurbished. Eventually she got the phone call to view the flat. Although the council had only done basic decorating, she immediately liked it and said: “I’ll move in!” Nancy was 8 months pregnant when she moved in.
Her son was born in Guys Hospital in January 1987 and now Nancy has one grandchild. She also used to mind Chris sometimes (interviewed previously) when he was growing up on the estate. Her life in the 363 building has been a happy one. “I’m happy here. I have my GP down the road, Lewisham and Greenwich are nearby, Guys hospital is not far. The flat and the building are really good quality, there is no damp or any other issue here.” Nancy shows me her spacious balcony where she keeps her garden. There’s even space for a little wooden shed. She talks me through all her plants: the plumb tree, which carried lots of fruit last year and whose leaves have turned red during the early autumn start, olive trees, a money tree, a chilli plant with really hot green chillies, a lemon tree, a citronella plant and others. There is dill and mint, and there is a very special rose bush: one year for Mother’s Day, Nancy’s son bought her a rose, which has since grown into a whole bush with lots of flowers. As she tells me about each plant, she gently touches the leaves of each of them and clears away any dead leaves, making it very visible just what the garden means to her. There are also ornaments everywhere, and necklaces with blue evil eyes to prevent bad things from happening. After I tell her that I love dill, she cuts off the whole bush to give to me. She also asks me if I like mint and cuts off a bunch of leaves for me. She says having this outdoor space allows her to stay at home where she feels safe while having the opportunity of being outdoors at the same time. She can’t go out as much these days although she still likes going to Lewisham to do some shopping. She’s had hip operations and looks after a very ill husband. Her garden and the open space outside her front door give her much needed breathing space and allow her to keep in touch with her neighbours.
“I’m so happy here”, she exclaims with her eyes filling up again. “I feel safe! I have never been burgled; nobody ever knocked down my door, never been in any difficulty here. I feel safe here because I know all my neighbours. I’m afraid to move into a new place because I won’t know who lives in the building, I won’t know who the people are and what they’re like. I just don’t understand why the council want to demolish perfectly good flats which have no damp, no issues with the electrics, no problems whatsoever! If I wanted to move, I would have moved a long time ago! Nobody from the 363 flats wants to move. The new buildings are built with low quality – cheap wood, cheap materials – with kitchens in the lounge and no outdoor space.”
Nancy takes me upstairs to show me the rest of the flat. Every corner is decorated with love and attention to detail. The neat array of family photographs, ornaments and lace cloths continues in every room. Every time I take a picture, she double-checks nothing is lying around and that there are no creases anywhere. In the end, she says: “Money is not important. Most important is being happy and the place where you live is so important for happiness. What are you doing in life if you aren’t happy? My home, this home, is where my happiness is. Here is where I feel safe, where I feel happy. I want to stay here and die here.”
In the end, Nancy shows me a photograph of herself in Cyprus in 1967. She was going to a friend’s wedding. It was the year before her family moved to the UK. 51 years on, she is still that same good-looking woman as in the photograph. Forcing her to move out of her home at this age will destroy her.
This text was written by Manuela Benini after she performed at the Tidemill Garden Eviction one year ago today. Photographs taken by Anita Strasser.
My name is Manuela Benini and I have lived in south London for more than 24 years, so I consider myself a Londoner who was born in Brazil.
I have a life-long performance art project called “the red dress project”. As part of this ongoing series of outdoor interventions all over the world, I dance in sites/landscapes to raise awareness of issues that I believe are important to myself and communities in the places I live and perform.
I have lived in Lewisham for 8 years and have many friends who live in Deptford. I’m currently an MFA (Master’s of Fine Art) student that studies in Deptford at Trinity Laban. When I found out about the Save Reginald Save Tidemill campaign I felt not only the sadness of the idea of losing Tidemill Garden – what I considered a gem of a place in the middle of the city, an oasis of wildlife, different people and a place where I could just be – but I also felt I wanted to support the campaign in whatever way I could. So I danced.
I feel the loss of a true community garden was a massive oversight by Lewisham authorities in the name of affordable housing, that we all know is only affordable for those who are in secure well-paid contracts, which is not the reality for a vast number of us Londoners. This is affordable housing for whom?
So my question is: How can the loss of a public space like Tidemill Garden, where a truly mixed Deptford crowd was represented, where trees and wildlife thrived, where the air was cleaner in a very polluted area, be justified for “affordable housing”? Who are the winners in this terrible loss of public green space?
We can’t change the fact that London is a growing city and affordable housing is a serious issue that many of us Londoners face. So the development of Deptford is a welcome initiative in my opinion, as long as it is developing opportunities for the community as a whole: building new schools, places where young people feel they belong to, activities for the elderly and people with different learning and physical abilities where they can thrive AND keeping green public areas. Pollution is a big challenge this city is facing and the loss of green spaces in the light of a climate emergency should NOT be allowed under any circumstance.