Category Archives: Housing

Estate, by Fugitive Images

10401119Estate, Fugitive Images (Myrdle Court Press, London: 2010)

The pursuit of public Housing provision was one of the 20th century’s redeeming contributions. Yet, in the first decade of the 21st century, public housing as an ideal is a contradictory territory resulting from policies that value entrepreneurial charities or a subsidised private sector over state funded and administered housing.

Estate is a timely contribution to the debates entangling millions of individuals and countless neighbourhoods. The starting point is a visual essay on the Haggerston West & Kingsland estates in Hackney, east London, in the process of demolition and re-building. The 56 photographs document the spaces left behind when people were moved out. Despite residents living in limbo for over 30 years as refurbishment plans were continuously proposed, shelved and re-proposed, the images highlight their innovative solutions to the difficulties of continuing to live while an idea and a set of buildings were being abandoned around them. 

This is an incredible book that will move you deeply, even if the true meaning of home and the trauma of losing it hasn’t been burnt into you by life itself. As someone who has experienced eviction and poverty and loss, I confess I have strong feelings about how people write about it, document it, photograph it. But here it is done with a beauty, love, and respect that comes closer to capturing the many shades of what it means and how it is experienced than almost anything I have read. There is no sentimentalization here, no glorification of the working class or a home that after years of landlord neglect has become much less than anyone would wish. Instead it is a deeply felt exploration of meaning from many angles, a teasing out across perspectives, a contextualization of loss and change through words and images and theory.

My favourite section is the first one by Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Lasse Johannson, the experience of living on Hackney’s Haggerston West Estate and watching it slowly emptying of people, introducing the incredible series of photographs from Haggerston and Kingsland Estates, with captions that add another level of depth to what the images make so vivid. I took the photo that heads this review in 2011, wandering down the Regent’s Canal and finding it beautiful and extraordinary long before I met Andrea and Lasse or heard about their work.

Followed by a more literary piece by Paul Hallam, exploring estates in the plural and the singular, winding around the meaning and making of place and poverty, extracting quotes from residents that I confess made me shed a tear or two on the tube. There is much to ponder in Victor Buchli’s Archeology of the Recent Past, and a clear contextualization of the particular within the broader history of Britain’s social housing by Cristina Cerulli.

They come together in a thought-provoking, moving whole. No one can ever have the last, the final, the entire say of what estates mean to those who live in them, what it is like to live in them, what it is like to lose them. That is the point. Estate is simply a gift to those who read it, the gift of a view, a taste, an experience that will make you think and feel deeply.

You can buy it here, from the wonderful Myrdle Court Press. This is an old review, brought forward in anticipation of seeing the film from Fugitive Images, Estate, a reverie, that I have seen some powerful clips from and long been waiting to watch as a whole:

an artist’s film, song cycle and installation to be created and performed by the disappearing community of the Haggerston Estate. It is the final and most ambitious project in a trilogy of collaborative works on the estate led by artist resident Andrea Luka Zimmerman, working closely with architectural researcher and writer David Roberts, following the public art/photo-installation i am here (with Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fenell) and the artists’ book Estate (Myrdle Court Press, with Lasse Johansson, Paul Hallam, Cristina Cerully, Victor Buchli), both of which have gained international acclaim.

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Labour in the Hot Seat at Cressingham Gardens Question Time

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The Question Time session on housing and regeneration in the borough last night, hosted by residents of Cressingham Gardens and the Holy Trinity & St Matthias Church, was quite brilliant.

I think this is at least one of the things democracy looks like. On a panel chaired by Dave Hill (sitting in the centre above) from The Guardian were, from left to right, Jonathan Bartley of the Green Party, Michael Edwards from University College London, and Cllr Matthew Bennett (Gipsy Hill and cabinet member for housing) and on the other side of Hill, Chris Brown of Igloo Regeneration, Cllr Marcia Cameron (of Cressingham Garden’s ward), and Dr Paul Watt from Birkbeck University of London.

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You can follow the live blog from Single Aspect, with a lot more detail through the second half that I had to miss. I didn’t quite catch the first question from Judith as I was taking pictures, but it was a general one on housing and the council’s commitment to social housing.

It elicited some of the following facts from the panel. Apparently no one knows the facts better than Matthew Bennett, Lambeth’s cabinet member for housing, the situation is that we collectively face in the borough:

  • The waiting list for social housing has risen from 20,000 to 21,000
  • There were 1500 homeless (I think families, but possibly individuals) in April, now up to 2000
  • Over 1300 families known to the council are living in severely overcrowded conditions

It just gets worse every time I hear the statistics. So what are they doing? Bennett stated that their benchmark for regeneration schemes is that there is no reduction of social housing, only an increase. He mentioned a draft of regeneration principles on Lambeth’s website, but a google search doesn’t turn them up easily.

He mentioned the Somerleyton development of course, I applaud the fact that it will provide around 100 genuinely affordable flats, the only genuinely affordable flats now being proposed in the massive development of central Brixton. I have no idea where the other 900 he says that Labour hopes to build in the next five years are to come from.

Bartley from the Greens was quite vociferous in defense of the Cressingham Garden tenants. He noted that after going over the accounts, the number of units of social housing has dropped from 29,000 in 2006 to 24,000 today. Only 1000 of those have been lost through right to buy, the rest are gone through stock transfer, regeneration and demolition.

And then there was Cllr Marcia Cameron.

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She was the only woman on the panel, and the only person who wasn’t white. I think a little more thought should have been taken on that, and I wanted to be supportive but she made it really hard. When asked why she supported the regeneration of Cressingham Garden she was open about having initiated it.

Her story is that tenants came to her saying the property was unlivable, so when funding became available for regeneration she saw it as an opportunity to put the estate forward. Tenants in the audience didn’t appreciate that at all, but she never dropped that line of argument. I don’t know how we can be thinking of the same estate.

Another question noted the number of vulnerable people living in social housing and asked how they were measuring the impact of regeneration. Dr Watt talked about the devastating impacts of regeneration, a long and drawn-out process proceeding over ten to twelve years, and people not knowing will happen to them and to their homes suffer sleepless nights, anxiety, worry that builds and steadily builds. Regeneration produces sickness.

Cllr Cameron made a slight miscalculation I think, trying to claim that leaseholders and social tenants were divided on the issue of preservation with social tenants being in favour of regeneration to obtain repairs.

Probably unaware of how many social tenants from Cressingham Gardens were actually in the audience she asked them to raise their hands almost as a challenge, and a whole lot of hands went up. Awkward. She clung to the line that how health was impacted when people live year after year in properties in disrepair.

The hall erupted then, laughter, anger, disbelief. Because Judith had already captured the generally shared sentiment of the audience earlier, when she replied that it was a bit duplicitous of the council not to mention who was responsible for repairs to social housing in the first place.

Cllr Bennett urged us to remember how stressed and anxious all those people on the waiting lists are, just like all those without homes. He seemed to imply a selfishness of the few wanting their homes to remain as they are.

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This raised one of the key questions for me, what do Labour think they stand for? Do they really think these deals with developers to build more market rate housing is the only possible to maintain the social housing we already have, much less build new? How did they get into this box around their thinking?

I understand they are in a really hard place with the coalition in power and the drastic budget cuts, but surely this was the point a real opposition party would have put forward a different platform for dealing with the housing crisis.

I heard nothing of a real alternative, absolutely nothing, it’s private developers with their market rate housing (and their driving up of rents and land values across the borough) or nothing.

Cressingham Gardens residents understand this is a process of social cleansing, pushing working people further and further out of London. The picture below is from one of the Saturday marches to the town hall as part of the campaign to save their housing:

A concrete plan for building 100 units of social housing and a goal of 900 more over five years is better than nothing, but not so much different than nothing given the numbers that the Cllr Bennett himself rolled off: 21,000 people on waiting lists, 2000 without homes at all…what are they doing?

I almost felt sorry for them, as clearly there is no party line on actually building the housing we need.

Dr Watt kept saying over and over again, the regs governing regeneration are too loose, you never know what you will get as everything changes over the many years these projects drag on with changing councillors and development partners. But he is unaware of a single project able to actually provide more social housing than existed before it started. Generally, social housing is lost.

The Councillors had no real response to that, nor to the question from Bill about the larger context for this regeneration, either, which is the privatisation of land and rent, the drive to eradicate social housing. He made the point they had to choose where they stood on that, but they didn’t.

Nor could they take a position on whether they would unequivocally support the tenants of Cressingham Gardens if they chose Option 1, though that ‘yes or no’ question was put to them by Bartley and the audience. Option 1 is refurbishment, versus Option 4, partial demolition, the chart below shows the different levels of cost and debt:

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This in spite of going on and on about process, workshops, tenant democracy. Ultimately it will come down to money and political will.

So the series of questions on transparency, promises made and then broken, advice for other tenants already in the middle of regeneration projects who need accountability for everything going wrong only highlighted what was lacking from the process…

I’ll end on the situation of another large constituency in the audience, residents and former residents of the so-called Short Life housing, cooperative housing that has cared for buildings that otherwise would have long ago have become totally derelict.

Promised by labour councillors that they would be supported in formalising their residencies, they have instead been involved in a long process of evictions, their housing being sold for millions.

When asked about the council’s lack of accountability to former promises made to cooperative tenants, Cllr Bennett claimed that they were not social housing, had never been social housing.

The response from the Lambeth United Housing Coop is that these tenants were on the list to receive social housing and believed they were in social housing when setting up the cooperatives. Their testimony was eloquent on the irrevocable loss caused by eviction, the damage to lives and to community that the council has inflicted — after promising them their support and praising their work in preserving housing.

I left early, just as Cllr Cameron was once more going on about the derelict conditions and the place was in uproar. It’s frustrating to see such complete lack of vision or understanding of the broader dynamics at work here. These are problems being faced across London as the academic panelists made crystal clear.

They also made clear that regeneration is not the answer, but very possibly part of the problem.

Ultimately the fight the tenants of Cressingham Gardens, the housing coops and other estates have taken up is about the right of regular people to remain in Lambeth.

[Originally posted on Brixton Buzz, you can also discuss this on the urban75 forums.]

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Islington Fights Buy-to-Leave: First local policy steps to a Lambeth we can live in?

Islington Council is moving to penalise landlords who buy flats in new highrises  and leave them sitting empty, using a new term I haven’t heard before but describes perfectly a new phenomenon of housing assets instead of homes: Buy-to-Leave. In summary from the Guardian:

Property investors who leave homes empty just to make money from property price rises could be fined or even jailed under proposals made by a London council.

Islington plans to force owners of newly built homes to prove they are occupied. If homes are left empty for longer than three months owners will face high court injunctions which if breached, could bring fines, repossession and, in the worst cases, jail for owners, the council said.

The drastic action has been proposed as the north London borough revealed that 30% of 2,000 homes built in the last six years have nobody on the electoral register and, even when students and foreign tenants are discounted, close to a quarter of homes in five of the newest residential developments appear to be empty.

I’ve been wondering for some time just how many of these new highrise flats going up all over the city were occupied — and racking my brains as to how to measure it — especially as a lot of them are being built in Vauxhall, and there is a possibility that they will be appearing in Brixton. Islington Council has tried to use the electoral register to look at how many are actually serving as permanent residences. The Guardian states:

The boom in investment in homes is being felt across the capital. Research consultancy Molior has found that in developments of more than 20 units in London, over 70% of new-build sales in the £1,000-£1,500 per square foot range were to investors, and over 50% in the £700 to £1,000 per square foot range. It said some are “held as permanently available hotel suites” by the owners.

So I imagine that data is where the below graph published with the story comes from — but aside from being an indictment of greed in a city where so many people are desperate for housing, the sources of the data are remarkably opaque. Perhaps because Molior is a high-price research service for real estate interests.

Islington’s announcement has, of course, caused a ripple of shock and horror across the business community. I saw a link to Forbes, clicked it, and while it was loading this quote appeared on my screen:

Those who condemn wealth are those who have none and see no chance of getting it.
–William Penn Patrick

It made me throw up a little in my mouth. In a world facing sky-rocketing inequality and still reeling from the crisis caused by bankers, not to mention environmental collapse, the condemnation of wealth is not just sour grapes. But such a quote just tells you to expect to a string of cliches rather than any kind of considered response to a council fighting for its constituents and their quality of life. Tim Worstall’s An Englishman’s Home Is No Longer His Castle does not disappoint. In claiming that the council is ‘micromanaging the London housing market’ he writes:

But the most important point really is that property is property. You own something then you get to do as you will with it. If you can’t do what you will then in a certain sense then you don’t in fact own that thing. So this is another step along that road of killing off the idea of private property altogether:

But leave that aside: if people wish to leave a house empty, given that they own that house then they’ve a perfect, nay an absolute, right to do so. Just because that local council isn’t issuing enough planning permissions for new homes doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to overturn this most basic right to the ownership of those things that, umm, one owns.

This ignores centuries of restrictions on property, because we’ve had centuries of comfort, nay better lives all around, due to a concept of the public good. He’d probably be the first one to complain if a strip club was built next to his house (lowered property values, nuisances, loud drunks, licentious behaviour, umm, I can hear him rant now). Luckily he’s probably protected by zoning or other planning measures. For the public good. We have parks for that too, and public drains and shared streets and street lights even, all sorts of things he takes advantage of without second thought.

Just imagine the terrible impact that vast amounts of uninhabited housing have on a community. I don’t have to imagine it, because I’ve been interviewing older folks living in the remaining social housing in Limehouse. It breaks my heart to hear them mourn the destruction of their communities, as their children have had to move miles away to find housing they can afford.  They don’t feel safe because their neighbourhoods no longer bustle, no longer have life. Those people who do live in those new highrises tend to be there only for a few months at a time, or from Monday to Thursday. Churches are sharing their pastors and shutting down almost all their services and events, local businesses are disappearing, pubs are closing, the streets are empty come weekends. Flats sit empty when council waiting lists for housing run to the tens of thousands. Worstall asks:

What is it about “private property” that the local council doesn’t get here?

But really, what is it about not just urban planning, but the value of the public and society and a community safe to live in that you don’t get?

Islington Council member James Murray writes in the New Statesman the reasoning behind this effort, and he is certainly eloquent (this is for you Tom Bridgman, delivery lead on Regeneration for Lambeth Council):

Off-plan profits hit the headlines last week with reports that a studio flat in Battersea power station, sold for close to £1m in the spring, is now due to go back on the market for up to £1.5m before it has even been built. The old free market assumption that building more housing meets demand and makes prices fall is turned on its head – in this case new housing is not helping the crisis and, by pushing up prices generally, could actually be making it worse.

And among these flats that are sold off-plan, people get particularly outraged when they are bought as “buy-to-leave” investments – flats which are built and then left empty as their values rise. It’s one of the grimmest expressions of how new housing built in London can become a prized asset over a place to live.

It shows, I think, at least a little bit more sophistication in understanding London’s housing market than that shown by Lambeth’s council I’m sad to say — and they really should know by now given what’s happening in the rest of the borough, particularly Myatt’s Field — and more willingness to work to find solutions. This is just a start in addressing the bigger problems, as Murray writes:

Of course ending buy-to-leave would only take the very sharpest end off the housing crisis in London. We also need to help councils build more, to elect a mayor who takes affordability seriously, and to make the private rented sector fit for purpose. But we need to challenge the injustice people feel when new towers rise out the ground and sit there empty. We need to stop a cynicism that threatens to undermine support for building when people can’t see how new homes will help.

When we’re building homes in London, buy-to-leave shows it really matters what we build – and at the very least, new “housing” must provide homes. That really shouldn’t be too much to ask.

It’s definitely something Lambeth’s council should be supporting, looking to implement, and at the least learning from as the planning measures move forward through the challenges from developers.

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Brixton Central Masterplan: Another Nail in the Coffin?

I love community planning. I love sitting in a group with neighbours I don’t know and thinking about how to make our community better —  from the kinds of community space and green space we need, to where housing for families should go, to pedestrianising streets to what kind of new buildings we should have and how tall they should be. I like thinking about how design can improve people’s lives and bring us closer together as a community, how we can fill community needs and at the same time create spaces where it is easier to meet each other, get to know each other, take care of each other.

I was the at Brixton Central Masterplan workshop on Tuesday, and we did a lot of that. And at the same time we did none of it. Let me explain.

What did I love about the workshop? That about 30 of us came together and sat there from 6:30 (ish) to 9:00 pm on a Tuesday evening with only biscuits to nibble — because you know, I probably wasn’t the only one tired and hungry after a long day of work. But it makes you feel good putting that kind of time in to your own community. I enjoyed hearing about the proposals and discussing in our five groups our reactions, thoughts and dreams about Central Brixton. We were fairly diverse, though probably a little too old, a little too white a group to fully represent Brixton. I doubt many (if any) parents of young children were there (how could they be easily given that time slot?), for example. No youth. But even so, a pretty good group.

Fluid and AECOM, the architectural consultant brought in to help with community participation and planning, put together quite a smooth process that really got some good discussions going. They had wonderful staff (though strangely absent any women) to facilitate at each table, and I enjoyed thinking about all those things I don’t usually think about that are still key to making cities work.

Best of all, I had the chance to think about planning in a room full of community members who seemed to be in broad agreement on the key things that matter most to me. Everyone wanted this development to enhance Brixton for the people here (if we’d had to fight about that I would have not enjoyed this at all), and so it seemed to me there was little argument that:

  • Brixton is awesome the way it is now. We love the mix of people in the community  in terms of its awesome diversity (race, nationality, students, professionals, families etc), its vibrant culture, and the wonderful local businesses and artists that now exist in the market and under the arches.
  • Above all we need truly affordable, genuinely affordable, housing. People who want to stay in the community are getting forced out, and there is not enough affordable housing for families.

Looking into the results of the special consultation Fluid did with the ‘youth’, it’s cool to see they want the same things:

  • “that it is suitable for the current population of Brixton and everyone feels comfortable in it”

  • “that is does not become overcrowded and that everyone knows each other with a family environment”

  • “that Brixton can develop while keeping its originality and diversity”

  • “for it to become safer and gang free, and affordable”

In the consultant’s own findings presented in the graph below, it’s clear that housing is the priority and principal concern for absolutely everyone (It’s that green bar at the top):

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So we talked about how this plan can do all of these wonderful things through design, and especially through easing the housing crisis…

Problem is, it can’t.

I hate to lose that feel-good vibe, that I-contributed feeling, that excitement of imagining Brixton even better than it is. But this development is not building housing for people who live here now. The council is treating the three developments — Brixton Central, Brixton Hill and Somerleyton Rd — as one development in their treatment of housing. They are looking at building 750 new homes across all three with 40% of those being ‘affordable’. The consultants made the point that the term ‘affordable’ does not actually quite mean ‘affordable’.

People at my own table really struggled with this terminology — and I think that’s kind of the point of it. To confuse the issue, to confuse people, to redefine a word so that it sounds good while meaning what developers want it to mean. Because affordable doesn’t actually mean affordable now, you have to say ‘genuinely affordable’ or talk about ‘target rents’ to actually mean what you think you mean. So ‘experts’ can throw around the word affordable and get nods from everyone in the room who don’t actually understand that they are using a specialist definition that describes 80% of market rent, which means 1 bedroom flats renting for over £1000 pcm.

The current average market rates in Brixton according to home.co.uk, a rental website that tracks actual letting information and properties for rent in real time, are currently:

No. of properties Average rent Median rent
One bedroom 188 £1,345 pcm £1,352 pcm
Two bedrooms 278 £1,672 pcm £1,603 pcm
Three bedrooms 84 £2,319 pcm £2,264 pcm
Four bedrooms 27 £3,085 pcm £2,947 pcm
Five bedrooms 7 £3,736 pcm £3,640 pcm

So when we say ‘affordable’, we mean approximately 80% of these kinds of rents — no actual numbers on rents have ever been presented at any point in these consultations, and I am embarrassed that I have failed to ask for them. For the flats built as part of the Olympic development in Stratford, ‘affordable’ rents are between £1,244 and £1,688 a month.

So what are families to do with this? What are their kids supposed to do when it comes time to move into their own place? What are older single people (or those of us surviving at a distance from our partners like myself) supposed to do, who don’t really enjoy want to live in shared flats their entire lives? This housing, even the ‘affordable’ 40% is geared to bring wealthier people from outside into Brixton — admitted as much by the projections that this new residential population will be injecting a few more million into our economy through their spending.

This housing is not for us. I’m not even one of the 20,000 people on their waiting list.

When you ask, the council will say that it is building some ‘genuinely affordable’, ‘target rate’ housing, but that’s only in the Somerleyton development. So 40% of those 250 flats will be ‘genuinely affordable’, all the rest will not be. 100 affordable flats out of all this millions of pounds of development.

So 650 flats mostly for newcomers to Brixton, a huge new makeover for the central area, a revamping of the overground train station — which it desperately needs but this will only make Brixton more attractive to people working in the city — a refurbishing of local business facilities which is great, but I fear that it puts the smaller businesses I love even more at risk. This will of course have a ripple effect on speculation and land values, putting even more pressures on rents and forcing people out.

I asked about that, and Tom Bridgman, delivery lead on Regeneration for Lambeth Council, said fairly patronisingly that mine was one view. But their view was that building more homes at market rent will decrease the pressure on all of the housing. Besides, they were following the mandate of the mayor to build more housing. Which was just so crazy I didn’t really have an immediate snappy response. Trickle-down housing? Really? A Labour council happy to carry out Tory housing policy?

If Brixton was an island in the sea this might possibly make sense, but it’s part of London, and thus one of the hottest property markets in THE WHOLE WORLD. Our problem is not a lack of housing in London–look around you, we have a horizon full of cranes being used to build more housing. Our problem is a lack of housing people can afford.This is from a recent article in the New York Times:

With property at a premium, it’s renters who are paying full market value just to stay where they are. The average home in London costs nearly 20 times the average salary in Britain. The imperative to get a return on that capital investment is passed on to the renter. According to the housing charity Shelter, Londoners spend nearly three-fifths of their monthly income on rent.

London’s housing is no longer for those who need it but for those primarily concerned with accumulating capital. When bricks are cash and houses are savings accounts, the meaning of the word “affordable” is warped beyond all recognition.

So this development might be helping some of the young professionals roaming the city who can’t pay the even higher rents required to live in the new Nine Elms developments in Vauxhall or those massive towers going up in Chelsea or Limehouse. They can’t afford those because they are all being bought up by investment banks and elites from around the world as real estate investments or occasional crash pads, not as homes to love and cherish in a community they care about and want to make better. This is the worst case scenario, that these flats will be bought by such investors and left to sit completely empty, or occupied for a few months of the year or from Monday through Thursday. The best case scenario under this plan is that we’ll get an influx of the youthful white middle-classes, which will not help ease the demand for genuinely affordable housing coming from people who live in Brixton now. How can this not transform even further the vibrant culture and diversity we love and that we are losing?

No one in that room wants that to happen, not even the council member sitting at my table. We all want genuinely affordable housing, the more the better. Instead we were part of a process that will serve to legitimise another nail in the coffin of the Brixton we love.

No, it’s too big for that. This might be the coffin itself.

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Utopia London

DVD_coverDirector John Cordell (2010)

Utopia London opens with a statement:

‘Buildings leave the mark of past ideas on a city.’

You see a print of London in which St Paul’s Cathedral stands prominent, to show the power of God. Today, we see everywhere monuments to money. But this is an exploration of a period that fascinates me as much as it does Cordell, the early part of this century when for just a little while an alternative to both of those two visions unfolded as an ideal of constructing a society of equal citizens – this is the filmmaker’s journey through the city he grew up in ‘to map the life and death of London’s egalitarian dream’.

I still find it hard to write about film, particularly a documentary so packed full of actual information I want to master rather than just emotion or spectacle. This has some great shots of the city and the modernist spaces created there, alongside information from architects and historians that I am afraid is mostly paraphrased here as I took furious notes. I miss the clarity of the printed page, a misplaced nostalgia I know, when compared with the ability to experience space through this medium, hear and see these wonderful architects speaking about their buildings and the ideals behind them even as we experience the physical spaces they created in a way that books just can’t manage. Anyway, where I am sure of a quote I put marks around it, I just didn’t have time to transcribe more closely.

Drawn from the website, this is a part of Director Tom Cordell’s statement about the making of the film:

I grew up in the London of the 80s and 90s and it’s still my home.

I’ve always been drawn to the excitement of its post-war landscape; concrete and brick textures, unadorned clean lines, neon glow and dark shadows.

And most Londoners my age that I know feel the same – the modernist city is our landscape.

Yet all our lives we have been told that the same urban spaces are ugly – symbols of a failed, arrogant technocracy. While we’re comfortable celebrating 60s pop culture, many people still hate the buildings of that time.

Worryingly, while I had once thought that popular taste would catch up with the urban building of the 50s, 60s and 70s, it’s now under attack. Major symbols of that time are being destroyed – often with gruesome delight on the part of the wreckers. We urgently need to defend what is left before it is all gone.

I feel the same urgency, hopefully growing among an ever larger population and helped along after seeing much of the footage of the urban slums from the times when such housing was still a dream. I thus appreciated greatly the interspersing of quotations like the following, the filmmakers signposts to how to preserve these spaces:

‘Freedom for the pike is death to the minnows.’
–RH Tawney

The film looks at a series of modernist buildings in chronological order, I think perhaps I shall just share the notes of my main impressions for each, as much of this was still new to me and I am treating it as an introduction more than anything. I am so looking forward to revisiting and reading more about those who built them.

Finsbury Health Centre

Part of the birth of the NHS, and it could not have come too soon! The architect was from Russia, Berthold Lubetkin,  and deeply influence by the Russian Revolution he believed in the linkage between radical art and social progress. He believed that a new architecture could reshape society, whereas our previous architecture had only served to reinforce the split between rich and poor.

This building showed what architecture could do, calling upon a new idiom that was ultra-modern, almost SF, in which to build a new future. The film has a wonderful picture of this building at night that I could not find, but the picture below (and read the article it’s from) shows just how extraordinary this building was in comparison with what had come before:

finsbury health centre

During WWII and the search for national strength and will to resist the bombing, Churchill’s mythologisation of a distant and heroic past was counterposed by a utopian dream of a better future, and this health centre providing free health care was one of the symbols of that as the poster below shows.  The image is from a WWII era poster shown on the website of those who fought (and won) the saving of this wonderful building — and the dream that it represents. Of course, there is still more to do:

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Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space
— Mies Van de Rohe

South Bank

I never think of South Bank as utopian dream, this has forced me to it. This is the section where a little background on the County of London plan comes — and the footage presenting it is amazing. Patrick Abercrombie is standing there explaining that you plan a city just as you would plan a garden, you have to give shelter from the wet and cold, there needs to be room to grow, protection, no overcrowding. In 1943 they created a map of London envisioned as a series of interconnected villages, and saw their goal to be the bringing up the poorest to the level of richest. Makes my planner’s heart beat faster this does:

Close-up for upload

South Bank was to be ‘new symbolic heart’, a ‘counterbalance to symbols of money and power facing it across the Thames’. I shall never be able to see it as anything else now, though I didn’t before. In the face of gloom and despair over continued rationing and hardship after the war, the South Bank Centre was built in 1951 with a ‘technicolor launch party for the welfare state’, festival and fun, open air cafes and an attempt to fuse Churchill’s heroic past and dreams of future. This was an effort to show how modern architecture could rebuild public spaces. I have only ever loved it at night when it is beautiful glowing in the lights (so many modernist buildings are their best lit up in the darkness), and of course when it appears in Dr Who, but now I shall remember the hope it brought to a post-war society starved of light and colour and all the food and drink you could want.

Lenin Court

One of the first modernist social housing schemes was also designed by Berthold Lubtekin, on the site where Lenin lived while in London hiding from czarist police. There was supposed to be a bust and monument to Lenin, but with the coming of the cold war, Lenin was buried under the central column of the wonderful central staircase.

My favourite story.

This was supposed to be  ‘An El Dorado for the working class’. Amazing. His apartments were are all given equal weight in design, none better than others, everyone equal. Lubetkin’s slogan? ‘Nothing too good for ordinary people.’ He believed residents should live in a work of art, and that is what he tried to build for them.

I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few or freedom for a few.
— William Morris

Alton East

‘We were trying to build heaven and earth, some of us’, said architect Oliver Cox, his utopian attitude in part based on his respect for Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement.He and his colleagues critiqued the then modern style as being a bit arid, they felt that something had been lost in the idea that people could be enriched by design. I love thinking about people are enriched by design.

The original plan was to build vast estates of council housing on edges of parks, and wealthy communities. Thus the tower block came into being, with layouts designed to preserve trees and give all of the tenants stunning views of a landscape once only enjoyed by the wealthy. They tried to pay as much attention as possible to detail, Cox is shown in the building’s stairwells which are beautifully tiled. They meant to show that quality and love had been put into an area that is normally unloved. A good quote from the film: ‘Architects building in the present for a future they can only imagine.’

Alton West

This was designed by four other architectures in something of a rebellion against Alton East, yet whose inspiration was Le Corbusier (I find that surprising, but no mind).  This western extension was more of a designed formal landscape dominated by massive slab blocks of concrete, a pattern of building ‘that would come to symbolise the welfare state’, but was never meant to. It was meant, again, to maximise views of Richmond Park and integrate the buildings into the landscape they were designed for.

By the time they were building Alton West, however, Labor had lost the 1951 election. The recent hardships ensured that the Tories continued with the welfare state, but they abandoned the idea of a ‘coordinated egalitarian society.’ The LCC was forced to drop plans for building in wealthy park areas like Hampstead, Greenwich and Blackheath and to hand over sites to private developers, building social housing instead on previous slum sites. Thus there was no ability to move beyond designs for Alton West that had been developed for park sites, and these plans were simply reproduced in poor areas. Stepney and Brixton’s Loughborough Estate are examples, and this kind of building began to symbolise the opposite of the original architects’ and planners’ intentions. Instead of the utopian dream of a classless society, they began to symbolise the class divide itself, with concrete a new signifier. Thus East and West Alton still remain separated, with a class barrier even here.

The Alton estate was also the site for much of the filming of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, its architecture used to symbolise the dystopian. But I’ll come back to that in a later post I think.

1964 – Lambeth Towers

I have always loved this building, and always think of it as that wonderful estate where my friend Rosanne lives — fighting a long battle against steadily rising rents.
LambethTowers-2-GF-1967-GI Designed by  architect George Finch, it contained doctor’s offices, a lunch club for pensioners, the registry office — this estate got the closest to what he wanted to do with his architecture, putting all things together into a block so it was interesting and lively and everything was close.

This was in some ways a renewal of the old left vision in struggle with the consumerism of 1950s and 1960s, an attempt to make labour relevant again. The 1960s also contained the promise of technology making possible the dream of less hours, more free time, putting human contentment within reach. This alongside Finch’s belief that everyone deserves this kind of wonderful space, that everyone’s work is important to a society. So he built this place, and man, the views are amazing.

He built eight more of these tower blocks to eliminate as much of the terrible slum housing as possible. In the paraphrased words of Elain Harwood, (architectural historian and author of forthcoming Space, Hope and Brutalism which I am definitely checking out) this showed Lambeth’s commitment to building housing in one of the worst slum housing areas. It represented Lambeth saying ‘look at us’, look at we can do. It makes you sick to see what they are doing now.

Finch built a set of tower blocks and tried to give them a sense of ‘dancing around’ rather than being staidly lined up. His humour and hope overflow, particularly in his sketches of space. He designed Brixton Rec as well, and put himself and his son in several of the wonderful pictures he drew to envision a lively, well-used and well-loved space:

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The same Brixton Rec that is currently at the heart of a very different kind of development driven by a very different kind of council. One that has lost its conviction in the belief and social vision these buildings tried to make material: housing and public space as rights, not as assets.

Alexandra Road

I didn’t know this development at all and fell in love, totally and utterly. It was designed by Neave Brown for Camden as a large development that would address some of the problems of 1950s – 60s building.

It is a wonderful long terraced building, reminded me of pyramids with its splendid concrete and lots of greenery, or perhaps more of mountains. Everywhere has splendid views, and Neave says he was aiming to create a seamless building and ‘continuous public realm.’ I loved his notion of a ‘coherent seamless society’, one that doesn’t say that everyone is the same, but instead buildings  are not simply the markers of status but in the reach of everyone and thus simply markers of difference and personal preference. They are just  buildings you might or might not want to live in. What a wonderful world to aspire to.

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The pictures don’t do it justice the way video does as it takes you through the space and the changing, unexpected views. There is great footage of a woman who grew up there, talking about how she saw it as a big playground, its stairs strange and magical, full of secret places you could find and be alone in. While interviewing Neave you see children running up one of the concrete slopes, and Neave is delighted saying he designed it like that just so they would do it. It is wonderful, even if, as Neave reflects, it is a little too big and he didn’t consult people as he should have.

Econmics are the method, the object is to change the soul
–Margaret Thatcher

Dawson’s Heights

Just before the big change in everything ushered in by Thatcher, we come to Kate Mackintosh, and her vision of humanised modernism. She found London very claustrophobic coming from Edinburgh, so to design Dawson’s Heights on a hill — she realised how special this sight was. Wanted to create a scheme that had unity, that grew out of the hill. She notes that there was almost certainly a ‘Castle image lurking’, and designed something that was imposing from the outside, but protective of what was inside and underpinned by cooperative ideals. She designed Leigham Court as well, which is another wonderful building Lambeth Council is trying to sell.

So we come to Thatcher, there is footage from her celebration of the 12,000th council house sold. Local governments were required to sell council housing to tenants and unable to build new homes to replace them, rent controls were abolished, more rights to evict were given to landlords.

The 1980s meant collapse.

There’s footage also of Professor Alice Coleman — a geographer who worked for Thatcher, and who argued that these modernist physical designs of council estates encouraged crime and anti-social behaviour. Her words were quite vile in comparing the ethic of council housing to suburban homes, attacking the buildings as much as the dreams behind them.

The documentary ends with the loss of Pimlico School, an incredible modernist building also representative of the new visions for eduction.  With funds long ago cut for its maintenance, the land was recently sold and the building destroyed to build a new academy. The architect John Bancroft was splendid in his rage at ideals betrayed.

This film is just one more effort not just to save buildings, but to save dreams of equality, a struggle for a better society, homes that are safe and secure. Things worth fighting for.

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Future Brixton Open Day 22 November, 2014

I have a lot of thoughts about the enormity of the developments planned for Central Brixton that will completely transform the place I live in and love and won’t be able to afford to live in much longer. This is the extent of the area shortly to become one enormous construction zone if the council gets their way (and you have to factor in construction on the Lambeth College site too):

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So after a few days of letting it sit in my mind my primary question is, why the hell are they doing it now?

I wish I had asked them that. Though I’m afraid of the real answer.

The number one perceived need in the community as identified by every focus group and survey they themselves have carried out is housing affordable to people who live in Brixton now. They had a graphic even, housing dwarfed all other concerns, even jobs. And the one thing this development can’t honestly provide in the current climate without federal government funding is social housing. This ensures that this transformative development will only speed up the skyrocketing rents, the displacement of local residents, and the transformation of our community diverse in class and race to one that is homogenous, wealthy and probably overwhelmingly white.

We are in a period of ideologically driven austerity — all the evidence points to this government policy not working, even by Tory benchmarks, except in the sense that a massive transfer of land and money is taking place from public to private hands. It makes my heart hurt to see the infrastructure of social care and the urban fabric itself destroyed in this way. The slashing of central government funding has left the local councils scrambling to fund the provision of the services the community needs — and working with private developers out for as much profit as they can get rather than forming any kind of effective opposition to the destruction of a state that takes care of its people. Lambeth council has accelerated its sell off of community owned resources and housing to fund basic services.  They are in fact selling off the housing we so desperately need. Once it is gone only a nationalisation of land will ever get it back given the inflated prices of land and the costs of building things anew.

So what does the council say about the housing situation now being exacerbated by their own policies? Future Brixton’s latest newsletter, handed out at the open day, shows on page two the three priorities of the council from this development: ‘Bringing new jobs to Brixton’; ‘What’s good for business?’; and ‘Desperately needed new homes’. Under this last, it says this:

With over 20,000 people on Lambeth’s housing waiting list and over 1,600 families in temporary housing, new homes are desperately needed. Since 1981, the council has lost almost 40% of its council housing stock, largely as a result of right to buy and of properties transferred to Registered Providers.

Over the same periods council rent levels have increased by approximately 500%, private rents and house price have increased by much more and the population of Brixton has risen by almost 18% to over 78,000 (according to the 2011 census). The Future Brixton developments will see about 750 new homes built over the next 10 years with the aim for at least 300 (or 40%) to be affordable housing.

At Somerleyton Road, building new homes for rent is the priority and as many of these as possible will be at council rent levels. It’s expected that all of the 300 new homes here will be managed by a housing cooperative. Read more about this on page 8.

20,000 people on the waiting list, and they are transforming all of Central Brixton through massive development and only providing 300 homes? It’s worse than that though, first because of how they are defining affordable housing, and second because they can’t even agree on what number of homes will potentially be built. As the Brixton Buzz reported, they originally stated the figure (as described clearly in this newsletter I’m holding in my hands) of 750 homes to be built, and received back an official letter from the council saying that only 250 homes will be built (of which 40% will then be affordable?). The number reported at Somerleyton estates alone is 300, are a fraction of those then the only ‘affordable’ units to be built? Confusion confusion.

We need to redefine ‘affordable’ as well, I hate the dishonesty of current definitions that ignore the deepening inequalities driven by low wages and unemployment to focus only on artificially inflated housing markets. The new and widespread meaning of ‘affordable’ in relation to housing is where rent is simply set as up to 80% percent of the area’s market rate rents, rather than what people can afford to pay. This is hardly affordable to any working people in Brixton (or anywhere), and also means the more expensive housing becomes (note the council itself is well aware of how private rents are steadily spiraling upwards), the higher rents will rise. This will ensure the steady displacement of the tenants who do manage to qualify initially as they are priced out.  This false idea of ‘affordability’ is very different from the traditional methods of calculating rent for social housing, which work to ensure a better level of true affordability and are usually set around 50% of market rate, if not lower in more expensive areas. A good description of both and the differences between them can be found here.

So we have a massive development that provides almost no homes (and a very questionable number of them set at very questionable levels of true affordability), that will also serve to send property prices (and therefore market rents) throughout the area soaring. What are we paying for it? Brixton Buzz reports: ‘What is clear is that Your Nu Town Hall will cost £50m. Cllr Paul McGlone, the Cabinet member for Finance has stated that this will NOT be borrowed money.’

I find the big picture of this, then, slightly vomitous. A massive development that, rather than produce the housing the community desperately needs, will instead force market rents and land prices higher, accelerating the displacement already rampant here. Worse, it’s funded partly through the sell-off of local cooperative housing and estates like Leigham Court, Cressingham Gardens and the Guinness Trust that the council is carrying out to make up the shortfall between their budget and central government funding. Talk about social and ethnic cleansing.

It seems to me that some people working on the project must understand this, but that many probably do not. The project itself in its details has quite a lot of very nice things that are much needed by the community. Perhaps some people on the council genuinely believe that to get any housing at all they have to do something like this. I’d say they should wait until Labour get back in power and start funding social housing and social services again, so this development can include a high proportion of social housing as demanded by the community, and the council can once more work to provide the services their constituents really need. But wait…that isn’t Labour’s policy now is it. Makes you want to punch walls.

So instead this lovely community process has been held, the primary request for housing has been essentially ignored, but some beautiful public spaces will be created (how wonderful that they are developing and opening up that terrible area behind the town hall?), some help will be given to local business and more market stalls created, the train station will be improved which it desperately needs, and I love the idea of a chef’s school at Somerleyton Rd. Sadly, this will all go to benefit the new people moving to Brixton, replacing all of those who participated in this community process in the first place. But that’s not part of the discussion at the Open Day. You walk into a room like this:

2014.11.22OpenHouseInsideIt is full of details and pictures and helpful people to answer questions about the development particulars. It focuses you in on things like the proposed 14 story building replacing Olive Morris House, the terrible cookie-cutter architecture, the innovative opening up of more railway arches. You notice things like how all the pictures of community consultation show a vibrant Black community, but most of the individuals wandering many of the artist representations of what will be are white (a huge problem with computer generated renditions visible all over this damn city). You see that the consultants have tried to address some aspects of the problems with ‘affordable’ housing, but without grappling with how this development in its entirety will make the need so much greater. It’s frustrating, because you know most of the people involved have without much thought accepted right-wing defined limits of what is possible and just haven’t thought through the big picture.

There are lots of details on the Future Brixton website, and I’ll probably be looking more at those as I drag myself to future consultations, but really. This development just shouldn’t happen until a very large block of funding is included to develop a very large amount of social housing. That would help stabilise the community who make Brixton what it is. Given they are the council’s constituents, their right to remain as the community should be the council’s first priority.

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Cressingham Gardens

Cressingham Gardens Estate is a lovely place, leafy and green with warm, comfortable beautifully designed housing on a very human scale. A place that fosters community, and indeed, it is part of that post-war building of social housing whose architects believed in just that goal. There is a wonderful summary of how the utopian social vision of Lambeth Council and architects came together to create estates like Cressingham Gardens (built between 1967 and 1978) at the Municipal Dreams blog, so I won’t delve further into that here. I will, though, just share one of the wonderful quotes it has highlighted from Cressingham Garden’s architect Ted Hollamby:

We are not just dealing with housing as such.  We are building a community.  We don’t look at this in terms of so many houses. Rather we think in terms of the functions of a community. We don’t, you see, have club rooms for tenants but centres for a community.  We don’t have old people’s homes set aside on their own. We integrate them into other things we are planning (1).

Hollamby’s team also designed the homes beautifully both inside and out in the ways that they connect to Brockwell Park, making the most of the park’s beauty and open space for every resident of the estate (you can read more here and also at the Single Aspect blog, which has a bit more history of the site itself and design schematics). Community is what he created, and now that Cressingham Gardens is under threat of redevelopment by Lambeth Council, the community is very effectively fighting to keep their homes. We marched on Saturday from the estate to Brixton Town Hall, and you can see from the gathering here just how lovely the estate is (apologies for the phone-photos as well, I grabbed my camera without the memory card I’m afraid!)

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We marched around the estate, again, it is lovely:

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And then on to Lambeth Town Hall.

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Why the march? I give you the words from the petition that you should sign in support of the Cressingham Gardens tenants:

Lambeth Council is considering the partial/full demolition and rebuild of Cressingham Gardens instead of simply repairing it. To fund the demolition and rebuild, they will be building extra new flats and homes on the estate that will be sold to raise cash for the council. This will destroy the existing vibrant community and affect every user of the beautiful Brockwell Park.

The tenants are awesome and organised, you can follow what’s happening at cressinghamgardens.org.uk, there’s a short film about the estate and campaign here, and you can also watch and listen to more video documenting their stories and their love of their estate at the older site savecressinghamgardens.co.uk. There’s an older article from last month’s Brixton Bugle here, but yesterday’s protest generated a lovely amount of press. More on the protest can be found again at the Single Aspect Blog, and Brixton Buzz has some more photos from the march when it reached the town hall. But the Guardian also printed an article from tenant Joanne Parkes about why they are fighting for their estate. She writes:

More than two years after Lambeth council told us our estate had been put into a regeneration programme because they couldn’t afford to repair it, we are marching to the town hall to show our opposition on Saturday.

We’re frustrated that no one from their side is listening to us, so we hope the protest will now catch their attention. The message must get through, before the borough’s cabinet committee decides our fate in December.

ITV also covered the protest, you can see that here. Hopefully this protest and its coverage will get the message through to the council. The health and safety issues and the way that the redevelopment at Myatt’s Field is pricing out previous tenants shows the pitfalls of such plans for redevelopment by Lambeth Council, and we need to stop it before the Cressingham Gardens community is similarly smashed and social housing lost to our wider community.

I went from this to the TUC march — the Cressingham Gardens protest was so much better. I think with Unison and UCU calling off strike actions this week and the TUC just being generally useless, this march was a general lesson in how together they have demobilised the labour movement. It’s quite shameful, I know we can do better, we must.

(1) Quoted in ‘Lambeth – Edward Hollamby talks to Peter Rawstorne’, RIBA Journal, July 1965

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The Alternative mipim Conference

Cities for People not for Profit…

The speakers were on the whole so impressive, a big thank you to all of them for coming together and sharing what they know about the crisis and what is happening to housing. A full listing of the programme is here.  I made it to two sessions last night — well, maybe I should say one full one. The website had the wrong time on it, so I was very late to ‘Mapping the Crisis’, but I did hear the Q&A for Beth Stratford’s talk, Rita Silva on the situation in Portugal, and Anna Minton on public housing. I’d been looking forward to hearing her speak, because her book has been on my to-read list forever, but I still haven’t gotten to it:

6354582A good summary of the building of public housing and the ideals behind it, and in a metaphor I really liked, she looked at the way that the current government is now taking a wrecking ball to those socialist ideals. My only caveat with her talk was that she gave them the benefit of the doubt that this might be unconsciously done. I don’t know I’d be willing to go that far…

I stayed for most of the second evening session as well, chaired by Michael Edwards who is wonderful. James Meadway of the NEF saying that the housing crisis is being caused by too many low-income jobs being created in London driving housing demand driving prices up seemed a little crazy, maybe I misunderstood. But there was definitely no talk of global capital and investment, why only luxury housing is being built, and etc. His solutions? Rent control, more jobs in the rest of the country, and build more housing. All good, not enough to solve the problem though I feel. Mary Robertson was pretty awesome and brought global capital back into the picture, giving a quite technical run down on financialisation and how it works, and her qualifications of Meadway’s recommendations were both good ones: get rid of the myth of homeownership as the ideal, and the creation of more social housing. Louis Moreno‘s talk I really enjoyed as well, a very different tack on how financialisation is internalised, a discussion of Zola (hurrah!) and his discussions of the Hausmannization of Paris and the desire to have the wealth that others have, thus to do as landlords do. This was the set-up at 67 Guilford St:

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But last night I was in this same second room where the lights didn’t work, so sat in darkness, and the room was packed (I couldn’t get into the parallel sessions upstairs at all on the occasions I tried as the room was smaller) — a good thing really — but strangers leaning into me and hitting the back of my head when they went past was quite distracting. So I confess, I didn’t get as much as I wanted from the sessions and left early. This morning it was beautiful though, as you can see. And there was a cat, which made it all better.

wattThis morning’s speakers were also awesome – I’ll just summarise the highlights. Paul Watt on the ways that Camden and Islinglington councils saw the incipient sweat-equity driven gentrification in the 60s and 70s and actually bought up a lot of private housing to stabilise the working class neighbourhood – that story made me happy. This early phase of gentrification was followed by phase two, massive development and regeneration schemes, and now phase three which is state led — them flogging of housing through stock transfers and PFI (Private Finance Initiative – read more here) after having themselves created a rent gap by disinvesting in social housing. Stuart Hodkinson was great too, getting into the nitty gritty of PFI, how councils have been forced (though what he calls the ‘neoliberal straightjacket’) into redevelopment schemes to repair housing that consistently puts them into increased debt even as it privatises social housing, transferring massive amounts of wealth from the public to the private sector. While the councils are undoubtedly between a rock and a hard place, none of them have chosen to get out of the straightjacket, just make themselves more room within it. His work on Myatt’s Field in Lambeth was fairly illuminating, both of the dangers of the redevelopment of council estates causing the loss of public housing, but also the ways that private capital have totally outclassed the council in terms of contract negotiations and profiteering. That needs to stop. And finally Nick Mathiason from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with some great graphics on the social cleansing taking place in London. You can find their archive on the housing crisis here.

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the afternoon sessions or final plenary, nor the actions…life has been busy! So I’m not sure how much this moved practical actions forward, but the talks were certainly illuminating in thinking through how social cleansing and privatisation is happening and being justified, as well as where leverage lies for future struggle. There is another conference coming up around building a campaign against PFI — called the People vs PFI. It looks great, with a fairly brilliant mix of speakers in the room. More information can be found at www.peoplevspfi.org.uk.

Bourgeois Utopias

utopiasRobert Fishman (1989)

Cited in everything really, finally got around to reading this and it was both better and worse than I was expecting. It takes the origins of the suburbs back further than I realised, to Georgian London. But first the main thesis on the suburb:

Its power derived ultimately from the capacity of suburban design to express a complex and compelling vision of the modern family freed from the corruption of the city, restored to harmony with natured, endowed with wealth and independence yet protected by a close-knit, stable community…Where other modern utopias have been collectivist, suburbia has built its vision of community on the primacy of private property and the individual family. Suburbia has founded its hopes for community stability on the shifting sands of land speculation and based its reconciliation of man and nature on teh capacity to exclude the urban world of work which is the ultimate source of its wealth’ [x].

Here it is suburbia and suburban spaces as bourgeois utopias, but what I found most fascinating were its earlier religious origins in Clapham, and on class fears in Manchester.

Originally, settlements on the urban fringe were, as the original definition of suburb meant until the mid-18th century, ‘a place of inferior, debased, and especially licentious habits of life’ [6]. Pretty awesome. The wealthy lived in the centre of town, and the bourgeois merchants and artisans lived where they worked — often above their shops, warehouses or workshops, with their employees living above them in the garrets. It is hard to imagine now, especially the ways in which the very rich and desperately poor lived immediately next to each other. One of the key insights of this book for me was the following:

English society was still something of a caste society in the sense that social distance was so marked that the privileged felt no need to protect themselves further from the poor by physical distance. That the richest bankers in London lived literally surrounded by poor families did not in the least diminish the bankers’ status. One might even say that in a caste society the rich need the constant and close presence of the poor to remind them of their privileges’ [32].

It is so interesting to remember that this relentless desire to segregate by race and class so clear in today’s society is a new thing, and taking this further, is partly driven by the fear and social unease emerging from revolution and ideas of equality — and the need to be protected from the poor.

It is also driven by changing ideals of the family, a move to the nuclear family, more intense care and love lavished on children more likely to survive and as enjoined by evangelical religion. Or so said the ‘Clapham Sect’ led by the Thornton family and preacher William Wilberforce, and joined by their fellow religionists in building homes facing Clapham Common. This created the ideal of ‘houses in a park’ as opposed to the aristocratic rows and crescents of say Bath, and developed by architect John Nash in his design for Park Village alongside Regent’s Park.

It is Manchester, however, that suburbia really took form as merchants abandoned the city for homes and communities in the outskirts, fundamentally changing the urban structure, however piecemeal. Fishman writes:

The older urban form involved the frequent and intimate contact of the middle and working classes. This closeness was precisely what the Manchester bourgeoisie had come to fear. they sought the most complete separation possible while maintaining the all-important contact with the information sources at the core’ [82].

Thus Manchester comes to be described as the town where the distance is greatest between rich and poor — and this by the time Engels is describing it in 1848. Here it is more clearly about both fears and ideals — and what I like about Fishman is that he never forgets it is also always about money: ‘The rush to suburbanize could never have occurred without a structure of land speculation and building that permitted and encouraged it’ [84].

Because of the money involved, some insurance against the hazards of speculation were required, and one of these appeared to have been homogeneity, a way of preserving land from ‘less desirable neighbors or uses’ [86].

It’s interesting how he compares these examples to the US and to France. France, of course, never experienced such flight of the wealthy to the suburbs because during this period Haussmann transformed Paris to build grand new boulevards and rid it of its poor, making the city a haven for the middle classes as the country was for England. the US of course, took it up wholesale, with Olmstead learning from Nash and the designers of Manchester’s neighbourhoods.

But it is interesting that Fishman never applies the insight of class separation to the US, consistently writing about all ‘Americans’ having access to the suburbs through government financing when in fact it was only white Americans. Thus there is whole dynamic around race fear that he is missing in his description of L.A., even though he cites Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson, published two years earlier.

Still, this one of the earlier books on the subject, and does a good job of describing some of the more interesting cultural components forming the pull of the suburbs.

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Open Occupancy v Forced Housing — racism and the early rhetoric of the right

contentIt was 1963. The sheer quantity of outspoken and arrogant white legal and housing experts giving away just how racist U.S. society is make this book worth reading. That’s never pleasant reading. However, much as racism has grown more subtle over the past fifty years it is quite extraordinary to see just how much of this rhetoric is being recycled by the tea-party and other freedom-and-rights racist quasi-libertarians. Open Occupancy sounds much nicer than Forced Housing, but these terms were coined to replace what doesn’t sound so nice: The ability to freely discriminate vs. the right of all people to live where they can afford. That hardly sounds completely antithetical to the American dream and the American way, but this entire volume with one exception is arguing that is so.

It opens with some congratulations from Norman P Mason, commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration from 1954-59 and administrator of the US Housing and Home Finance Agency from 1959-61. No need to think too hard about just how racist policies became so enshrined in both policy and day to day practice of government agencies.

1971 Dean Alfred Avins founder of Delaware Law School
1971 Dean Alfred Avins founder of Delaware Law School

The introduction from editor Avins sums it all up nicely:

The short of the matter is that anti-discrimination legislation in practice is a grave infringement on property rights, subject in administration to incurable abuses, and most important, helps only the Negroes who do not need it (26).

I think I heard Sarah Palin going on about that not too long ago. In sadly familiar rhetoric, he argues that discrimination doesn’t exist, but if it does Negroes are to blame given their unreasonable demands and low-class natures. He’s got lots of people to back him up on that.

There is a short, very unexpected piece from Charles Abrams, writer of Forbidden Neighbors and champion of ‘Forced Housing’. He has clearly chosen to try and win support for increased federally funded public housing—allowing the racists around him to connect the dots for themselves that new builds might stem the invading black flow into their pristine white neighborhoods—and doesn’t even engage with the absurdity of most of the arguments made here.

A delightful piece on restrictive covenants claims not to take sides on their public enforcement given the Supreme Court decision, but lauds them as private agreements. Elmer M. Million quotes some delightful stuff from the Burkhardt v Lofton case (63 Cal. App. 2d 230, 146 P.2d 720, 724-25 (1944)) with its arguments for the rights of the majority:

Racial restrictions have been employed in the development of countless residential communities and have very generally been considered essential to the maintenance and stability of property values. Non-Caucasians are and always have been just as free to restrict the use and occupancy of their property to members of their own races as Caucasians have been. The fact that the members of the Caucasian race have freely availed themselves of this right throughout the nation, even though those of non-Caucasian races have not, is most satisfactory proof of the public policy of the nation with respect to this phase of the right to contract. No doubt public policy changes and develops with the times, but these changes must have their sources in the citizenry and not on the decisions of the courts or the pronouncements of publicists and politicians (92-93).

Clauson & Buck in ‘Constitutionality in Illinois’ write ‘antidiscrimination legislation in private housing is at war with our most fundamental notions of property rights’ (123). Joshua A. Fishman in ‘Some Social and Psychological Determinants of Intergroup Relations in Changing Neighborhoods’ (fancy, huh), throws a little anti-Semitism in as well, just in case you were worried this is just about black people:

In many ways modern American suburbs epitomize basic American cultural values and aspirations. The Jewish middle class and the rapidly growing Negro middle class eagerly pursue these values and aspirations, and this pursuit inevitably leads them to suburbia. However, their presence in suburbia is inimical to the status needs and values of many who are (or who can more easily pass as) “old American.” In fact, their presence is often inimical to the very image of what a suburban community should be like. Jews and Negroes represent the city and all of the dirt, grime, haste, sweat, and unloveliness of city life. Thus, their arrival not only lowers the status value of a neighbourhood, but for many it also cancels the suburban image of a suburb. As long as flight to uncontaminated areas is possible and feasible, it will be resorted to (136).

It’s hard to read that kind of bullshit really, though in a way you’re glad that they wrote it down so it’s there, impossible to pretend it didn’t happen. That Fishman has some insight into the more prevalent suburban mind-set is borne out by the violence, the malevolence of local publications and the white flight further and further out that I’ve been studying. This theme is continued by Armstrong et al in ‘Interracial Housing and the Law: A Social Science Assessment’. They begin their assessment by declaring that many previous social science assessments have been unduly influenced by their author’s attempts to promote desegregation, then follow that up with some of the worst pseudo-science I have read in a very long time. They didn’t quite reach the stage where they were measuring cranial capacity and talking about brow ridges and genetics, but very close. They argue both that integration hurts Blacks (in terms of morale, self-esteem and actually procuring housing) as well as for the many good reasons whites have for not wishing to integrate. They write:

the inmigration of lower-class Negroes brings with it the disabilities which attend the increased presence of a group collectively characterized by inordinately high rates of delinquency, crime, sexual immorality and communicable disease…. The deterioration of the standards of local schools, the increased incidence of delinquency and crime, greater public health hazards, regular exposure to a group which, because of conditions prevailing in its subculture, is characterized by lax sexual morality, broken homes and minimal academic aspirations, would seem to provide, in general, sufficient rational motive for white flight (147).

Wait, there’s more! They write ‘Sociologists have long appreciated the fact that men are animated by a disposition to seek out those they fancy similar to themselves’ (147). The old birds of a feather argument, social science at its very finest.

There’s a whole section of transcripts from a debate in the BRITISH HOUSE OF LORDS from May 14, 1962 on how races just shouldn’t mix and legislating such a thing is doomed to failure – very relevant to the American situation. Lord what’s-his-name (several of these) and Viscount pie face (two of these plus a Lord Chancellor) weighing in for British racism and using the American experience to support their arguments. Then lots of short pieces on two court cases currently being argued.

They also include an interesting short article on ‘An Analysis of Possible Impact of Anti-Discrimination Legislation on the Home Building Industry’. Of course they argue it will be mayhem, no builders will want to build if it might be integrated. Given the ways that the industry has changed from a ‘small scale craft operation’ to a very ‘large scale assembly line production’ where ‘90% of new housing construction is being provided by a handful of builders over 250 homes per year’ (sic) (287). Given the scale of their operations, integration could cause a fall in their selling prices making it impossible to recoup the large upfront costs of tract development. Author R.J. Anderson believed that this would cause a downturn in the industry, forcing builders to build on a smaller scale and hedging their bets using smaller, scattered plots so as not to tie up large amounts of cash and risk bankruptcy should a person of colour buy into his subdivision. Of course, in hind sight builders managed to find plenty of ways not to integrate, but this underlines the importance of their finding such ways.

All in all, a quite infuriating but informative glimpse into the 1960s era white racists of real estate.