“You need to nurture communities, not just benefit from them!”

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.

20X Jade, Matthew, Jayden and Thanh in Deptford Lounge May 2019. Photo Anita Strasser

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.”

20X Thanh's Timeline of life of Deptford

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.”

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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.”

 

“There aren’t enough incentives from the council to help existing businesses to survive”

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.

DSC_247Muhammad under a picture I took of family friends in Roots Fruity & Veg in 2010.

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.

butcher's iMuhammad in Halal Butcher next door to Roots Fruit & Veg in 2010.

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!

 

Paul’s Deptford Journey

This text was written by Paul Clayton who is an IT trainer, occasional gardener and artist. Images by Paul Clayton. ___________________________________________________________________________

 

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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.

The squatted Social Centre Plus at the former Job Centre on Deptford High Street in 2011

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.

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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.

So, regeneration.

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.

daisy faces tyre plants

Paul Clayton’s Mirrorplants project, which consisted of photographs taken of plants on walks around the area and then composited and mirrored into a form of mandala. The project was a response to the amount of building going on in Deptford.

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.

Artwork by Paul Clayton in his book Colourful Deptford: A colouring book of local social history

More reading:

‘Regeneration in Deptford, London’ by Dr Gareth Potts, 2008

The Deptford Charrette

Lewisham Business Profile 2013-23

“Top-down; lacking input from community”

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.

“I want to stay here and die here”

DSC_0787A 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.

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“I dance in sites/landscapes to raise awareness of issues”

This text was written by Manuela Benini after she performed at the Tidemill Garden Eviction one year ago today. Photographs taken by Anita Strasser.

07XX Manuela Benini's Red Dress Performance during the Tidemill Eviction 29 October 2018. Photo Anita Strasser (1b)

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.

07XX Manuela Benini's Red Dress Performance during the Tidemill Eviction 29 October 2018. Photo Anita Strasser (6)

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.

 

 

No vote for business owners regarding the demolition of their businesses on New Cross Road

The ballot regarding the demolition of the Achilles Street area opens today. It’s a YES or NO to demolition vote; refurbishment and infill is not an option. The demolition plans include the businesses on the parade on New Cross Road, but business owners aren’t allowed a vote. They have no say in the decision regarding the future of their businesses. A while ago, I interviewed Angelo and his nephew Marco – owners of the Launderette on 369 New Cross Road. I met Angelo in 2017, when he was still the owner (he handed it over to Marco in spring 2019). He told me about the Launderette.

“The Launderette itself has been here since the early 60s. It used to be a Father & Son operation with launderettes in different areas”, Angelo explains. “In the early 90s, my brother Joe bought this launderette and did a lot of refurbishing work, replacing the old machines with newer versions.” Angelo took over in 2008, and now, it’s in the hands of his nephew Marco. “It’s a contagious disease, I’m not joking”, Angelo laughs, and tells how many of his family and friends have become involved with launderettes. “It all started with my brother dating a girl whose father was of Italian origin and owned a string of launderettes. The relationship didn’t last but my brother thought ‘I’ll try that’.” His brother has since bought a few launderettes, including one on Jamaica Road which is now owned by another one of Angelo’s nephews.

Marco, who runs the New Cross launderette by himself now, wanted to carry on with the family tradition and took over the business in 2019. As soon as he started, he repainted and decorated the inside, but he hasn’t invested too much as he is aware of the development plans for the area. He also got to know his customers very quickly and built up nice relationships with them. He is particularly fond of Bill from Austin House, who comes in every Friday and tells Marco stories about the past. They also talk a lot about football.

New Cross Launderette Copyright Anita Strasser 05Taking over the business was a great opportunity for Marco, especially being 21 years old. But being in the Launderette business doesn’t make you rich. As Angelo explained previously, “a launderette business doesn’t grow like other businesses do, and it doesn’t have a high turnover. Most launderettes are surviving because they are on good locations in council properties with a reasonable rent. What kills them is the high market rates, so once the new development is here, with rent prices double if not triple, we won’t be able to return. Even if we are offered funds to relocate, which the council has, and new premises in the new development, the overheads will be too high to run it.” Another issue is, Marco explains, the 2-3 years it will take to redevelop the area, during which the business would be shut. Additionally, the machines wouldn’t be running during this time and might not work anymore afterwards, so he’d have to invest in new machines, which would cost a lot of money. “I don’t have the capital to do that so I doubt I’ll set up again!” Marco still has hope that he might be able to stay but says “we don’t have the power to decide that.”

As business owners, they say, they are keen to see investment in the area and people with more money coming in but this shouldn’t mean that others with less capital, including themselves, are priced out. They agree that the parade and the area needs investment but they know that this is due to the council not having done a lot for its upkeep. “It’s a nice parade but it’s stuck in the 60s”, Angelo states. Lewisham Council did commission the artist group ARTMONGERS a few years ago to spruce it up a bit. They came into the shops asking people what they’d like to see, and Angelo, together with the artist, designed the shop front we see today. “It really takes an artist to see things from a different perspective. I was just going to suggest some writing to advertise the services but the artists said no, we need something more interesting and then he came up with the design you see today. It really makes a difference”, he says. “But that’s all that’s been done. Lewisham Council doesn’t involve itself much in making the parade look nicer, they are more concerned with housing. The plans I’ve seen for this area – 5-storey blocks across the whole parade starting from The Venue – this is huge! And I’m pretty certain the development plans will go ahead and I’m pretty certain we won’t set up another launderette here.”

New Cross Launderette Copyright Anita Strasser 08Many people might think that because of improved living standards there is no need for launderettes anymore. In actual fact, there is still demand, even if most people can afford a washing machine. “The association of launderettes merely with the working-class and people in social housing is outdated – we have customers from all walks of life. The demand today is due to convenience: the machines we have can handle high capacity and the laundry can dry quickly, so the whole laundry can be done in an hour. Drying is a particular issue today. Many people live in small flats with no space or facility to dry clothes so coming to a launderette solves that problem.” In this particular launderette the water is also treated before it’s used and people notice the change in the fabric, another reason, according to Angelo, why this launderette is doing good business. “If the launderette closes, people will have to travel further away for this convenience”, making this convenience less convenient. I immediately think of 90-year old Bill. Where will he have his laundry done?

New Cross Launderette Copyright Anita Strasser 06

“I want to live in this flat for the rest of my life”

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In September 2019 I met Christian, a young man in his mid-twenties who works as a project manager for a tech start-up. He lives in the building referred to as 363, which contains maisonettes above the shops on New Cross Parade on New Cross Road. The maisonettes and the shops are under threat of demolition as part of the Achilles Street development. From Christian’s front door you have a fantastic view into Fordham Park and over to the Pepys Estate and other high-rises scattered across Deptford. You also see the green shrubbery that surrounds the Achilles Street buildings. The approaching sunset over the buildings as we approach the door adds another dimension to the view. The first thing I notice is space – green space, space for play, for cars, space to breathe. We go onto the spacious balcony on the other side of the building, overlooking New Cross Road. This is Christian’s favourite place in his home and together with his dad we stand there for a bit and watch the world go by. It’s an interesting new perspective of New Cross for me. Being raised above the usual eye level, I suddenly see writing on top of buildings I have never seen before and I notice the sense of space you get from having the buildings set back from one of the busiest roads in south-east London. I ask them if they experience noise issues being so close to a major artery, but they say that the width of the parade does not allow the noise to come through good windows much. They can’t imagine what it would be like though if the building went right up to the road – like they will if redevelopment takes place.

The thought of having their family home demolished is very upsetting for Christian and his family. “This is our home, where our memories are kept. This is where some of our greatest memories happened, where our community is and where we feel a strong sense of belonging. I want to live in this home for the rest of my life! Having that taken away from us means we have to start building a life from scratch again because we won’t be able to afford a new place in the area”, Christian explains.

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Christian gets his photo album out and together we look through it. It contains mostly family photographs taken in this flat, particularly in the lounge. Some features like the fireplace, the wooden beams and a lamp are still the same. Other things like the photograph of Christian’s late grandmother, who passed away last year, are newer additions. There are photographs of birthday parties and other gatherings, school photographs and family portraits (see below). Somewhere in the flat there is also a VHS of Curtis’ first birthday party.

Christian’s parents came to South-East London from Ghana at different times and didn’t meet until they were both living here in the 1980s. After they’d known each other for a few years, they moved into a flat in Hawke Tower on the Woodpecker Estate in Deptford in 1989. When the mum got pregnant with Christian, they were given this flat in the 363 building in 1993 – the year Christian was born. His brother Curtis was born a year after. When being told about the flat, the councillor at the time said: ‘You are lucky, your flat is in New Cross’ but Christian’s parents didn’t actually know where New Cross was. Now, they can’t imagine living anywhere else. Gradually, the family made the flat their home – they decorated it, had birthday and family parties. One of Christian’s favourite memories is sitting on the floor in front of the hot fireplace in winter, wrapped in a blanket and watching TV.

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Christian and Curtis first went to St Michael’s Nursery on the Woodpecker Estate before they went to Childeric Nursery just around the corner from 363. The two of them were often dressed in matching outfits. “Mum had always wanted twins and since me and Curtis are only one year apart, we practically were twins. I remember walking through Fordham Park to get to nursery. I also learnt to ride a bike in Fordham Park and me and my brother used to cycle around the park. We always stayed in the area. We used the playground on Achilles Street, where we played with local kids from Azalea and Fenton House. The other kids often used to come to our flat”, Christian tells me. The boys then went to St Joseph’s Primary School on Deptford High Street before going to St Michaels Catholic College in Bermondsey. They often played football together on the parade in front of the block and they’ve had many parties and BBQs on the balcony.

Christian at St Joseph's School. Photo Stanley Baker Studios LtdChristian in St Joseph’s Primary School. Photo: Stanley Baker Studios Ltd, with the kind permission to reproduce it here

There are other close connections located within the area. Ever since they arrived, the family have been going to the Catholic Church of Our Lady of The Assumption on Deptford High Street. “The boys were baptised there, had communion there and confirmation. Now I’m waiting for holy matrimony”, Christian’s dad laughs. Christian also loves Deptford flea market. Funnily, he didn’t like it too much when he was younger. “Mum always dragged us down to the market to buy second-hand clothes. We were embarrassed because we went to St Joseph’s. Now I love the market, I always get bargains and I know everyone there. Funny how perceptions change but when you’re a kid you don’t always understand things”, Christian says.

After about 8 years living there, his parents managed to buy the flat off the council. It took a lot of hard work. Christian’s mum, for example, worked 2 jobs and studied at the same time. Christian’s dad started studying later. The parents had a plan: to work hard and build up a secure future for their two sons. “In a city like London it is especially important to have a security blanket that protects you from a life of uncertainty and instability”, Christian says.

Having the dream of homeownership fulfilled and the ‘assurance’ of providing their children with a ‘stable and secure’ home, Christian’s parents were slowly preparing to move back to Ghana. Then news broke that the council was planning to demolish 363 along with the shops and the four blocks on Achilles Street. Since then, and particularly with not knowing what is going to happening, their lives have been put on hold. The move back to Ghana has been put off until no-one knows when, and the family feel that the rug is being pulled from beneath their feet. “We’re living in limbo. It is very destructive and hurtful. We’ve worked so hard to have security and provide opportunities for our children and this is now being taken away. Those making the decisions don’t understand what they are doing to us and our neighbours, who have been here so long as well”, Christian’s dad says.

Losing this home would mean losing a kind of structure for Christian: a secure home, a sense of belonging, and the connection to the building through all the memories that have been shared in it. “Living in a flat in a new-build won’t be the same. They lack character, they don’t have the same amount of space and it would be an empty shell. We would have no connection to it, no family memories. It would be a house instead of a home.” But Christian’s family probably won’t be able to afford a new build in the area anyway (except shared ownership which does not provide the same security as full ownership). Although it seems they are being offered the current value of their home plus 10%, it still won’t be enough to buy a 2-bedroom flat in a new development or in the area. In fact, the way things are going, it won’t buy them anything in Zone 1 or 2.

DSC_0761This isn’t just about losing a safe and secure home, it is also a story about belonging to a place where one grew up and where all one’s memories are stored. Both Christian and Curtis love living in New Cross, with Christian describing his life in the area as “wholesome”. “It’s been home since I was born, it’s where my family are, and my close friends are here on the Woodpecker, in New Cross, Deptford and Greenwich. It’s a great community, it has a very diverse population, good transport links to other areas, and a great mixture of busyness and quietness. It has everything from Jamaican, Indian, Turkish, African food to Pizza for a good price, my dad gets his hair cut in Unique Hair Technique across the road (I used to go there too but now I go to a hairdresser in Deptford) and I love listening to Motown Music on the balcony and people watching. It’s a great place!”

Ever since they have found out about the potential loss of their much-loved home, their lives have been full of uncertainty. Christian says that, at first, he didn’t buy into the idea of ‘social cleansing’ and he thought that the people employed by the council to talk to residents in the newly opened community space at Fenton House really had the community of Achilles Street area at heart. However, having seen what is happening in New Cross and Deptford and noticing how the demographic is changing, and experiencing the threat of displacement himself, he does believe it is social cleansing. “You just need to go to Deptford flea market on a Saturday and then cross over to Deptford Market Yard. You can see a barrier there.” To Christian it feels like the heart of New Cross will be ripped out if the redevelopment plans go ahead.

I ask Christian and his dad whether they’ve made plans in case their home will be demolished. They haven’t. They can’t bear thinking about it; it’s too upsetting. They keep hoping that their home won’t be demolished and that they can finally follow up on their original plans.

DSC_0745View from the front door

 

 

Somethin’ don’t feel right

Photo on left: © Alexandra Waespi, with the kind permission to reproduce it here

Rachel Bennett has been running the band Raiemusic for over a decade.[1] The band (which has evolved to some degree) have performed in London venues including: The Forge in Camden, Hammersmith Apollo, The Albany Theatre in Deptford, Ronnie Scotts, Club Floridita in Soho, Cafe Concerto in Leicester Square, Map Cafe in Kentish Town, The Pheasantry in Chelsea, Cottons in Angel and lots of pubs in and around London. They have recently produced an 11 song album with renowned engineer and producer Wes Maebe. The music is Country with a hint of blues/soul and the songs are mostly narrative and protest based.

Rachel has written two songs in response to Deptford’s regeneration. You can listen to them below. Lyrics are at the bottom of the post. She explains their meaning and why she wrote them:

ROUGHSIDE

“I wrote this some years ago when it began to be apparent that it was ‘trendy’ to hang out in Deptford so we’d get news articles about how Deptford was this edgy place where you could hear live music in the bars. We got the Greenwich ‘well to do’s’ often appearing at gigs and also in the slightly less rough bars. Of course they were entitled to come but we always felt they didn’t fit in. The Albany was our stomping ground and when some theatre companies came to put on what we felt were ‘not our scene’ projects and workshops, we were a little less than celebratory … new employees coming from across town who had no experience of Deptford and who brought their ‘friends’ to do work there. There is a dark history around the Albany at that time [2] so we were very mistrusting.”

© Bennett/Cochrane 2004
Engineered and Produced by Nixon Rosembert at Studio 101A

Guitar Dan Cochrane | Lead and background vocals Rachel Bennett

 

SOMETHIN’ DON’T FEEL RIGHT

“This is a comment on the hype and night-life in Deptford and how the new faces and high-rise buildings don’t fit with the way we live. We feel we are being encroached upon and that our community ideals are put last on the list – when in fact they are the actual triumphs of a working-class area that has strived to do well for its youth. The youth clubs are gone, where those YPs who don’t want to dance or act could go and hang out. The Tidemill Garden saga is a total disgrace and we are all deeply saddened and affected by this. We are also heading for buildings with two entrances – one for the buyers and one for the council tenants … so the line … something don’t feel right … is about the above. The rest of the song describes our street life.”

© Bennett/Brown 2018
Guitar Jordan Brown | Lead Vocals Rachel Bennett | Background Vocals Abdul Shyllon

[1] Rachel also runs the famous Meet Me Choir at the Albany.

[2] More information about this can be found in Jess Steele’s book Turning the Tide, 1993, p. 204.

 

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