“I like living in Austin House”

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

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

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

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“We tenants, we are not going to win”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Deptford is where I feel most at home”

This text was written by Annette Butler, General Manager of Deptford Lounge. All thoughts and views are her own and do not necessarily reflect the ethos of the library.

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What is gentrification? The dictionary says “The process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste”. The banner on the round-about opposite the Birds Nest says “Gentrification is legalised crime”.

Me? What do I think? Well, I don’t want to put a label on it or focus on the negative. I want to focus on what we can do to protect and grow on the amazing characteristics that make Deptford a true community, something that it does the best! I have experienced this at first hand having left the North of England 10 years ago and living in most areas of London, North, Northwest and West. Finally settling in the South East and in particular Deptford, which is where I feel most at home, and how I remember community life when growing up in a small pit village, just outside Sheffield.

We need more homes and that is as simple. As the population is growing and without the new builds where would we all live? We are all living longer, medical intervention strengthens life along with everyday changes that aid us to make life somewhat easier for ourselves. You know things like hoovers instead of having to beat your rugs until the dust is removed, cars to make getting places quicker and the internet to name but a few. So maybe change isn’t all bad.

We can see this need for new homes as many flats are sprouting up all over the area and yes, they are sooo expensive but this is not indicative to Deptford but London in general. Will this change the dynamics of Deptford, yes! But not all people moving in are rich and many want to feel part of the community. Deptford is known for its diversity and the new people moving in are adding a new variety to the area. I want to share with these new residents all what is good about Deptford. I want to take them to Terry’s Discount Store and Aladdin’s Cave, which we can all guarantee will have that one thing people need for their new home and haven’t found in some big chain store. I want to share with them my favourite places to eat; I can’t get enough of the Waiting Room and M&D Japanese. I want to invite them to my favourite pub; The Dog and Bell has a great selection of beers especially from Belgium. And I want to join them on Saturday and experience the new Market Yard with them and then share my experiences of Deptford Market and introduce them to the stall holders. I want to spend an evening with them at the Albany Theatre or a Sunday afternoon at Deptford Lounge reading the Sunday papers. Most of all, I want to be welcoming, open and friendly and help the new faces integrate into Deptford.

I think fighting for what you strongly believe in is good, so I want to fight to keep the spirit of Deptford, fight for diversity, fight to keep making friends and making the best community possible.

Annette image smallPhoto: Lea Lukacs, 2019

“We want to open Deptford Town Hall to local people”

In May 2019 me and Jacquie from the Achilles Street Campaign visited the people involved in the Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action group – mostly Goldsmiths students who are currently occupying Deptford Town Hall. Today marks their 100th day of action to tackle institutional racism in academia and highlight Goldsmith’s role in the gentrification of New Cross. A statement by the group can be found at the bottom of this blog post. For further information please see their Twitter and Facebook pages and the Guardian article published today.

The students were keen to know about the planned regeneration proposals for Achilles Street and the surrounding streets, and we were keen to know how young people, aged 18 – 26, experience and respond to gentrification, so we organised a joint workshop.

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We started off with Jacquie providing information about the Achilles Street Campaign, followed by me talking about the work I’ve been doing, recording the stories of the residents and shopkeepers affected by the proposed redevelopment scheme. The students expressed many concerns regarding the exact difference between social and council housing and whether local residents understand this, the oft-broken promises of social housing figures, and the impact gentrification is having on local communities. Despite all the promises of community involvement and community consultation, the students can’t see how the gentrification of areas is including and benefitting local communities at all. Above all, the students have huge concerns about the involvement of Goldsmiths in all of this and the role of universities in gentrification processes in general.

One student commented: “Goldsmiths, like other universities, got rid of the of student numbers cap, meaning that in order to break even they have to let more and more students into the area but that also means they need to take up more space. So although they are definitely culpable in some ways, it’s a systemic problem of higher education in the UK. And with Goldsmiths being an arts college, it finds itself swallowed up in culture-led regeneration, using the arts to gentrify a place. That wasn’t always the case but it’s hard to break away from that today because all these notions of culture and creativity are so swept up in these processes.”

Students already find it difficult to be able to afford the very expensive student accommodation and with Dean House (which has lower rents as it belongs to Goldsmiths) under threat of demolition, they are worried they won’t be able to afford the more expensive student dorms. At the same time, they are worried about playing a part in the ‘studentification’ of New Cross – redeveloping an area (housing, eateries, clubs, etc.) for the increasing student population, alienating existing communities. An interesting report about this process can be read here: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/dec/06/down-with-studentification-how-cities-fought-for-their-right-not-to-party

The students also feel that gentrification is not only social cleansing but also ethnic cleansing. Although unfortunately this wasn’t discussed during the workshop, it is clearly highlighted on the mapping exercise (image on left below). But it is really quite simple: with a large proportion of London’s BME population living in social housing located in working-class areas to be regenerated, such as New Cross, gentrification is a class and a race issue (Lewisham has one of the highest percentages of residents of black and minority ethnic heritage and ranks as one of the most deprived areas in London and England)[1]. For further reading, please see Jessica Perera’s recent report on the interconnectedness of race and housing (and policing) and how multi-cultural working-class areas are being eroded (Perera, 2019).[2] Another issue students are really concerned about is pollution. Again, no surprises there considering the frequent reports about the high pollution levels in the area and the world in general. And Lewisham is one of the worst-faring boroughs with regards to pollution levels. Read more here.

What really emerged from the discussions was how anxious these students feel about their presence in New Cross, anxious about being complicit in gentrification by simply being a student. Because of their transience, which often comes with being a student in an area, they are feeling the local resentment towards them. At the same time, their transience isn’t always a choice and looks to continue as most areas are becoming unaffordable for them to live in. This is exemplified by one girl who cannot afford to live in the area where she grew up – King’s Cross – and who won’t be able to continue living in New Cross after graduating. Her parents were involved in a housing campaign in King’s Cross and she has experienced the processes and impact of gentrification on local communities first hand. “Community and gentrification don’t seem compatible, with gentrification pushing local communities out of areas”, the student says. At the same time, the students feel powerless to do anything about it. Them moving out would certainly not solve the problem as others would just replace them. But as the group concludes: “We can be active though. We can try to actively resist being complicit in it. And other students need to become aware as well how their presence and actions are affecting local communities because they are not always aware of the gentrification taking place!” And indeed, this group requested this workshop in order to learn about the proposed Achilles Street redevelopment scheme and to see how they could get involved in the campaign.

Photo on the right by Simana Gurung, 2019.

What is interesting is that the Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action group are occupying Deptford Town Hall, which, as far as we know, was restored with regeneration money (Deptford City Challenge) to keep it open to the local community but which was handed to Goldsmiths in 1998. “We want to open the town hall to local people. We’ve had birthday parties, baby showers and all sorts of events here, so please let local residents know that if they want to use it for anything to get in touch with us!” They can be contacted on their Twitter and Facebook pages. At the same time, the students are concerned about what the town hall represents – close associations with Britain’s slave trade reflected in the figures celebrated on the front of this building. To the group, this is a physical manifestation of the racism that exists in the college. An interesting article about the history of the town hall and what its ornaments represent was written by the late Paul Hendrich and can be read here.

The students are aware that occupying a university is one thing but that fighting against unjust gentrification processes is another. They feel there needs to be a change in ideology, in political thinking to bring about real change. Whether that’s going to happen remains to be seen. Their positive energy and determination to effect change is a good start.

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[1] https://www.valewisham.org.uk/lewisham-facts-and-figures

[2] Perera, J. (2019) The London Clearances: Race, Housing and Policing. London: Institute of Race Relations

Statement by the Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action Group:

We, concerned students of Goldsmiths, have occupied Deptford Town Hall, a campus building, following innumerable instances of interpersonal and institutional racism and a lacklustre response by the institution. This movement was sparked when a student who was running for a position in the Students’ Union Election campaign was subject to racist abuse and harassment. This incident not only represents the bleak reality of racism that people of colour face even in supposedly liberal and tolerant academic spaces, but also the university’s own disappointing response reflects the fact that this institution does not take racism seriously and that this occupation is a last resort to address that. Our goal for Goldsmiths is to follow through with an institution-wide strategic plan on how the university will tackle racism and the realities of life as a BME student at Goldsmiths. We will stay in occupation until all the demands are met, which include concrete plans to address the gentrification that Goldsmiths as an institution is complicit in and exacerbates towards the local, diverse and majority-Black community. The building we have occupied, Deptford Town Hall, holds huge poignancy as itself carries with it the grotesque legacy of slavery and colonialism with statues of slave owners and imperial masters looking down onto an ethnically diverse locality. New Cross itself jostles between beloved ethnic food shops steadily being priced out by another coffee shop, Goldsmiths property or unaffordable housing. The council chamber we hold most of our living and events in, an ostentatiously decorated room, is ironically enough, where the trials of conscientious objectors of war were held. Now it has been radically transformed into a space for learning, collective care and nurturing a truly anti-racist community. We have hosted a number of teach-ins, screenings and workshops on a multitude of topics including prison abolitionism, zine-making for Apartheid Week, Kashmir, colonial imagery and decolonisation. The response from the university has been an ordeal in and of itself, from locking students in with fire exits bolted shut and unmanned, turning heating and WiFi off and sending threatening letters all the while ignoring the clear manifesto of demands. Nevertheless, we have persisted and will continue to do so for as long as needed. What fuels us is the support and solidarity we get from those who share our concerns and vision, from international students who have been silenced and isolated for so long to groups sharing our aims of racial justice and liberation working to create the same future.

How do 11-year-olds understand the regeneration of Deptford?

In summer 2018 I did workshops with year 6 pupils from Sir Francis Drake Primary School and Grinling Gibbons Primary School. Both workshops were held at and organised with the help of the wonderful team at Deptford Lounge. Pupils had already discussed the idea of regeneration with their teachers in school and were therefore prepared for this workshop that would go into more detail.

The first workshop involved 12 pupils from Sir Francis Drake Primary School, and the first question I asked them was what they could tell me about the regeneration of Deptford. Their responses were that Deptford is changing with more and more blocks of flats being built and with more and more people coming to Deptford. I then asked pupils to draw the building they are living in, place the drawings on a giant map of Deptford and talk about what they liked and disliked about living there. It emerged that most pupils from that group live in flats and that they appreciate having space, a park or green space nearby and living close to friends. What reduces their sense of well-being were not having space for themselves, all kinds of noise they can’t escape, particularly at night, rubbish lying around and strangers hanging around near their homes. There was one child in particular, whose housing situation was so bad with terrible overcrowding, leaks, noise, ill health and crime, that they could not think of anything positive to say. Another child, who was in temporary accommodation outside of Deptford, commented that the long commute to school with 2-3 buses made them feel exhausted and that they would love to be able to live nearer the school.

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The second task was to build a Lego model that reflects the changing face of Deptford. I deliberately gave them a vague brief to see what they would come up with. Some may have built predictable models (e.g. police station) or models of things they’d like to have for personal reasons (e.g. skatepark), but the after-discussions showed some interesting insights into how the pupils perceive what is happening. Here are some of the things they came up with.

Play areas and green spaces: they commented that there aren’t enough green spaces in Deptford where children can get away from the noise of the streets. They also thought that Deptford needs more trees to absorb the pollution, which they say is a problem. One child also commented that more “animal play areas” are needed. “There are more people now and they might want more pets, but lots of parks have ‘no dogs allowed’ unless they’re guide dogs so there are not enough places where dogs can run around and get fresh air.”

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A bank, an IKEA and a hospital: this is to address the amount of new people coming into the area who need to put their money somewhere, need to buy furniture to furnish their new homes, and will also need a hospital some time. I found these comments interesting as children were basically saying that there aren’t enough facilities in the area to cater for all the people moving in. Flats are being built, people are lured into the area but there isn’t enough infrastructure and amenities to cope with the increase in population.

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Finally, one child wanted a corner shop on Grove Street as there was nowhere in that area to get any sweets. I then asked them what they’d learnt from this workshop, and here are some of their comments:

The second workshop involved 9 pupils from Grinling Gibbons Primary School, and I also asked them first what they could tell me about Deptford’s regeneration. They responded with similar things such as Deptford’s growing population, more traffic and pollution, the modernisation of old buildings and the construction of a lot of new buildings, the loss of green spaces, posher and bigger shops. However, an interesting discussion ensued.  Whereas one girl felt that Deptford was becoming safer with fewer crimes committed, another child, who’d recently had to witness a stabbing outside his house, said that too many young people have knives and commit crimes, and that he feels scared when coming home from school. It saddened me to hear a young child talking about this; it was clear that he won’t be forgetting this experience.

I asked the children to mark on the map where they live and it turned out that most live near their school. I asked them whether they thought a lot has changed in the area. One child commented: “Convoy’s Wharf is going to bring a lot of change. They are building new flats everywhere and they are increasing the population, but they end up killing the trees because I heard from my friend that they were gonna build flats near this park [Sayes Court Gardens].”

I then asked them to build models that reflect the changing face of Deptford and place them on the map. Interestingly, most models were placed by the river and close to the Pepys Estate. Here are some of the models they built and their explanations:

“I built a park inside Fordham Park to say ‘don’t build on it anymore’.”

“I put the police and a group of people on the Pepys Estate to try and reduce the amount of stabbings and killings.”

“I put a car and a truck on Evelyn Street, close to the Pepys Estate. This was to show that there is too much traffic and too much noise from all the cars and trucks in that area.”

Because of their negative responses, I asked them to build another model of something that would make Deptford a better place. Once again, the models expressed continued concern about crime, safety and pollution, with more models representing police and green spaces. The most sophisticated model, in terms of physical and metaphorical parts, was the joint model made by two girls who explained it like this: “We think there should be more police around to put everything harmful down, so here is the police and in this part, the people put their weapons down and become friends right there. And here, there is a person who is friendly to a person who doesn’t look like them. And over here, this is to show there should be more green spaces.” They called their model ‘the harmony model’ (images below).

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I was very moved by that model and explanation by two young local girls who demonstrated acute awareness of the issues facing society. Their model was very much about the need for peace and harmony, and looking after the environment.

“It literally was a case of ‘Save The Waiting Room’ as we had been on the verge of closing for good.”

This post was written with Alec Snelling & Kevin Greenham from the Waiting Room, a vegan café on 134 Deptford High Street.

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When the Waiting Room announced its relocation in spring 2018, they did it with a Kickstarter campaign to raise £12,500 to help them cover the relocation costs. They’d been in the tiny premises of 142 Deptford High Street for 7 years, experiencing difficult working conditions (mainly heat and lack of space), leaks and structural issues, and difficulties with the landlord. They had seriously considered packing it in but when Nightingale Pharmacy moved to the former HSBC building and offered the premises at 134 Deptford High Street for a reasonable price, the guys at the Waiting Room saw an opportunity to move to bigger and better premises, only 3 doors down from their former shop. This was important as the Waiting Room isn’t just a coffee shop but is part of the community on this bit of the High Street with close connections to Kids Love Ink, Rag ‘n Bone and SWAG CITY. However, they could not afford the move without financial help which is why they started the Kickstarter campaign. The link to the campaign was shared all over social media and their plight even made it into Time Out Magazine, and within no time, they raised more than they had asked for. Information about the campaign spread like wildfire, with locals very keen to save the much-loved Waiting Room. Interestingly, when the link to the campaign was shared on Facebook, I noticed one comment: “Why don’t they just take out a bank loan?” one woman asked. Little did she know about the Waiting Room, its origins and the people who run it. Alec and Kevin were aware that the history of the Waiting Room wasn’t commonly known when they wrote on top of the campaign page: “Many of our hardcore regulars don’t even know the history of how the Waiting Room came to be in existence.” They tell the story of what happened:

“Back in November 2010 we found ourselves with the keys to a fully stocked Off Licence. We had been looking for someone to take over the lease of what had been Kids Love Ink Tattoo Studio, which moved to bigger premises next door. The Newsagent, which used to be located at the old station building, was happy to take over the lease but shortly after they had set up and stocked the place, they decided at the final hour before signing that they didn’t want to commit. The guy handed us back the keys and waved goodbye. The shop was fully kitted out with racks on the walls full of sweets and household stuff and fridges full of beers. They took the cigarettes and high-end liquor but left all the other booze behind. It was crazy.

First a Tattoo Studio, then a fully stocked Off Licence, and finally the cafe. Photos: Courtesy of the Waiting Room

We had a choice. We either had to try and find someone else to take over the lease or do something ourselves with the space. After much deliberating and looking at what the High Street was lacking, we realised it desperately needed a place that served good coffee and a veggie/vegan menu so we decided to set up just that. Vegan food was not really in the public conscience then as it is now and after some research, we’re pretty sure we were one of the first vegan place in south-east London.”

Neither of them had ever served coffee or food before – Kevin was working as an assistant in operating theatres handing surgical instruments to surgeons, and Alec was the piercer in Kids Love Ink next door. But something had to be done – they couldn’t afford to pay the rent and as leaving the shop empty and not paying rent would have meant going to court, they decided to give a coffee shop a go. Both left their previous jobs and got lots of advice and training on how to make good coffee. They simply took the plunge. But first, they had to get rid of all the booze and make the shop fit for purpose. They explain how they did this:

“We had no money at all! Doing everything by ourselves was the only way to go. So we set about selling everything in the shop… and I mean EVERYTHING! Local hero Terry took the home goods, chocolates, crisps and what else he could sell. At Kids Love Ink we hosted an exhibition by Fos, founder of Heroin Skateboards and New Cross skating legend, where we offloaded most of the booze; the remainder of which went to a local punk venue in Battersea. Even the long gone Shital’s Off Licence took all the racking from the walls. The only money we had was the money we gained from selling the stuff.

Photos: Courtesy of the Waiting Room

After many long, tiresome days but few short weeks of renovations, the Waiting Room began to shape. Using near entire back catalogues of Scorpions, Rush, Iron Maiden and AC/DC as our musical motivation we got pallets from Resolution Way, stripped them down and used them for the counter, found paint and all sorts from Freecycle, and travelled to Southend for a sofa. At one point we had 2 sofas in the coffee shop but we soon ran out of space and replaced them with tables and chairs. For next to nothing we were lucky to get our hands on our first grinder and Espresso machine, our trusty old Rancillio Epoca. Much like your first car, it was terrible but you loved it unconditionally. We still can’t express enough thanks for the help that Camilla from Union Hand Roasted gave us from way before day 1; the training and support, helping us through choosing coffees and giving a serious MOT to the Rancillio. Splinters, blood, sweat and many beers, on April 1st 2011 we opened the doors, where we held a benefit for those who suffered and lost their lives in the 2011 Tsunami.”

Photos: Courtesy of the Waiting Room

The Waiting Room was well received from the outset, with many locals happy it wasn’t another bookie, but it was very quiet to start with. Alec recently found old till receipts, a reminder that on some days they made approximately £25. Some days it was so quiet, Kevin and Alec would watch a whole film at the back before another customer came in. The first time they made around £100 on a Saturday they felt ecstatic – they couldn’t believe it. Humble beginnings indeed. Actually, it could have all gone terribly wrong and it took some time to build up a customer base, but local artists, mainly from Utrophia, local squatters and property guardians soon became their regular customers. Kevin and Alec were working non-stop, 8am starts, 7pm finishes, 6 days a week then falling asleep over pints at the Birds Nest. Although friends came in to help out every now and then, in the end they needed a third person just to give them a day off. As time went on and it got busier, they started to take on more staff. “The list is long but for a coffee shop in London, the staff turnover is small and all members have been awesome (and mostly from Laban). It was these people who truly made the Waiting Room what it was and what it still is today.”

According to Kevin and Alec, Deptford has changed a lot since they set up in 2011. “Anyone who knows Deptford now no doubt heard about how much it’s changed from its shady past, but even back in 2011, it was a completely different place to what it is now. This is not to say that we don’t like the new changes – no-one wants to walk around a place that’s falling apart. We like the mix of the old and the new and there is still enough of the old that we still want to be here. We still love Deptford, it’s a great place to be and as long as this is the case, we’re happy to be here. But there is no denying that some things have changed. When we set up in 2011, there were lots of places with cheap rent, artist studios or buildings with property guardians, so there were a lot of skint artists and musicians around because it was still a very cheap place to live. A lot of them have gone now and there’s definitely a different clientele with all the new developments around – people with a bit more money and less time, and some people with that kind of busy lifestyle, who come in with a level of arrogance and expect a certain service they have grown accustomed to elsewhere. But we also get a lot of locals now who’ve lived here ages and probably wouldn’t have come into a place like this, people from housing estates, the Bird’s Nest or like the Millwall supporter who came in today and said: ‘It took me a while to take to your place and you guys but now I love it!’ A coffee shop with vegan food and bar staff tattooed all over is just not part of their lives, but over time, people starting coming in.”

How much local people have grown to love the Waiting Room became clear during the Kickstarter Campaign. Over the last 7 years, the people working at the Waiting Room have become an integral part of the community. As Alec says: “Deptford is our home, especially the High Street, and we were desperate to stay. It really would be a shame and break our hearts if the Waiting Room were to close. We really care about our community and there’s also a wonderful community among shopkeepers here.” Being a business owner, Alec is clear that he likes to see change in Deptford, that he is keen to see new people coming into the area as it’s good for his own business too but he’s also clear that it’s important to care for the area and the local community and that it’s important for businesses to integrate and communicate with others. “It’s important to show respect to each other and respect the local character of an area!” He is especially critical of big developers with big money who show little respect for the character of an area. An example of this is when Deptford Market Yard painted over the Lipton Ice Tea sign that had been there for decades. “At what point would anyone look at that and think ‘that’s a really annoying sign that’s been here for over a hundred years, we’re gonna put a massive thing over it to advertise our shops’? How they got planning permission for that I don’t know. It was just treated with no respect at all.”

DSC_0295Small individual businesses clearly have to save long and hard just to be able to do any renovation work and it is hard to keep up with big corporations that can pay huge rent prices. An all too common occurrence these days, the landlord of 142 Deptford High Street was not looking to renew the lease so he could develop the property and probably charge much higher rent in the future, Alec and Kevin tell me. Issues began when recurring leaks, unfixed damage and an uncooperative landlord, were making it difficult to run the coffee shop, causing frustration for the staff and customers. By 2017, they had been working without a new lease agreement for a year, risking the danger of being kicked out any time. The Airbnb run upstairs called Greenwich Park Apartments (the irony!), which was full of mould, some mice and dodgy plumbing that couldn’t deal with the constant stream of people, added to the frustrations. The lack of space also made it difficult for the staff to do their work – when more than 2 staff members were on, they were in each other’s way, the heat in the summer was unbearable, food and cups had to be stored in the tattoo shop for lack of storage space, and any time work needed to be done, the shop had to be shut, losing business. They had wanted to move for a while but couldn’t find suitable or affordable premises until 134 Deptford High Street suddenly came up. Kevin jokingly says that at some point they considered, not seriously, the empty flower shop next to the Funeral Parlour, calling the place ‘Coffee Mourning’. “I don’t think that would have gone down too well”, he laughs. “Then the people from the pharmacy just came in one day and said: ‘We’re moving, do you want to take over our premises?’ We went there, had a look and just grabbed the opportunity straight away. The fact that it’s just 3 doors down was a huge bonus as we didn’t feel we’d have to start all over again. Being anywhere else on the High Street wouldn’t feel the same. The imminent move took us by surprise though. We have had no way of saving up for this eventuality! Financially, we weren’t doing great – we managed to pay all bills and wages but that was it, so it literally was a case of ‘Save The Waiting Room’ as we had been on the verge of closing for good.”

After raising more than £15,500 and doing lots of work on the new coffee shop, they moved in autumn 2018. “The new landlords are incredibly helpful and kind – they seem to understand what we’re about – and the move was smooth.” The idea is to keep the original ‘image’ of the Waiting Room just in a larger form, and as in the premises before, the look and wall decoration will change all the time for a while, until they are settled in properly. They were excited at the prospect of having more space – more space for staff to move about, more space for cooking and preparing drinks and more space for customers. “Customers will hopefully be able to stay rather than having to go somewhere else because there is no space”, Kevin said when I interviewed them in summer 2018. In the meantime, with the Waiting Room being so popular, it has become difficult again to get a seat but having recently created a seating area in the back garden, this ‘problem’ should be solved.