Some thoughts and notes on the Crisis Conference held in London last Thursday — and my first ever storify blog! It’s pretty cool, though almost as terrifying as tweeting as your every word is immediately out there — I don’t know why this blog feels safer but so it is…
I can’t remember the last time I was blown away by a short film — actually I can, because it was Robots of Brixton which if you don’t know you should watch immediately — but one of the sets of shorts at the afternoon hosted by Simon Ings of the New Scientist had some of the best things I have seen in ages. Like this:
Nothing beat this short for laugh-out-loud, jaw-dropping, fear-of-heights-induced-eye-covering and thought-provoking action. I think it might have been a mistake to open with it, because nothing else quite lived up to its awesomeness.
SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe (Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene (2014)) did come close, as the enjoyable film is only the tip of the iceberged project of much deeper, more amazing, and a longer concentrated effort.
It’s an exploration of the past, of the Mexican Revolution and its use of the railways in armed uprising, of the birth of villages along the route where the trains needed to take on more water and coal, of the history of nationalisation and then decay — an exploration of all this things through the physical landscape using a special earth-and-rail-running vehicle crafted as a space exploration probe, collecting stories and interviews along the way.
I am filled with unbearable loss that I could not be part of such a amazing thing that brings together the social, cultural, political, physical nature of hopes for the future and their ruins. I look forward to exploring it at length.
The three other shorts that followed were all enjoyable and thought provoking. Growth Assembly by Daisy Ginsberg and Sacha Pohflepp (2009) explores the potential of engineering new commodities to be grown as plants (products will no longer be shipped, only seeds which then can be grown) through the use of seven different plants to create a herbicide sprayer — an obvious irony I know, but this is clever. Studio Swine’s Hair Highway looks at the uses of human hair in unexpected ways, beautifully done. The final one, Magnetic Movie by Semiconductor shows the wonder of magnetic fields around us, and they are wondrous indeed.
A few other shorts stood out, making me worry that I do not spend enough time seeking them out. Like The Afronauts by Cristine De Middel (2013) about Zambia’s space program, and The Moon by Pavel Klushantsev (1965) about all the things humans will build on the moon once we get there, you don’t need to speak Russian to understand its awesomeness. The other films, however, were more artistic and ranged from actively annoying to vaguely interesting for a few seconds and then boring making you wish they were even shorter — reminding me of why in fact I don’t like most shorts. I was bit embarrassed to laugh at the man kicking the robot dog for example. Still, 7 brilliant ones I had never seen made up for the rest.
Discovering things like this is why I love eclectic afternoons put together like this one, exploring the Science Fiction Future. It had opened with a lovely keynote from Alastair Reynolds, who I confess to not having read but that shall be remedied. I love Gerry Anderson references and space, the call for a critical SF that retains a sense of fun, but that also engages with the world and goes beyond shiny gadgets (but keeping shiny gadgets because let’s face it, they are SO cool). But what most made me think was a comment that obviously referred back to the whole sad puppy debate in the US, the efforts of right wing and exclusionary people to control and define the genre. He noted that all of this was a spillover from the American Culture Wars but that it was having global effects. All my academic work has been looking at race and the city, the physical and concrete aspects of these culture wars that I argue underpins them — the awfulness of that impacting on world culture hit me like a blow. How much more vital that we understand it, do what we can to fix it though sometimes I despair of that.
The first panel on Museum exhibitions and ‘Unreliable Evidence’ contained Doug Millard, who talked about Russian space exploration and the upcoming exhibit at the Science Museum which I am looking forward to immensely. But then there was the Lost in Fathoms project, shown at the GV Art gallery — an exploration of the sudden disappearance of the fictional Nuuk Island. The pictures were nice, the thought of standing in the rift in Iceland and touching two continental plates amazing. Still, the anger such an abstracted look at climate change, geological shiftings, oceanographic explorations (all those glass containers of water from around the world, collected at different depths. What a great use of collaboration with the oceanographic international community!) runs fairly deep. Possibly because the oceans are rising, causing the non-fictional loss of entire islands, their states, their people forced to seek new homes. Possibly because sands are spreading causing desertification, similarly forcing people from their ancestral lands and contributing to instability and violence in places like Mali, Chad and Nigeria. Such luxury and privilege to ignore these things, what a message that in itself sends.
I was also a bit puzzled about the field of fashion forecasting, though I did rather like the idea of fashion as clothing that has been mediatised, narrativised.
The second panel also had moments of deeply interesting ideas and a lot of moments without…Pat Kane’s giant head on skype from Glasgow was very charismatic though surprisingly academic. I really enjoyed thinking about the opposition between the politics of nudge and behaviour modification, and the politics of play. The one controlling and patronising, the other seeking to create spaces of openness. I would love to help create this world where play is respected, where shorter work weeks and citizen’s wages allow more time for us to explore our worlds, to honor our efforts to create meaning, to engage with the physical world around us and to have autonomy in how we do that. This is what is needed for a full life, and I think we should demand it.
Sadly no one else really engaged in this call for a revolution in our political economy.
I will, however, be checking out the game Ingress, that creates a virtual game reality layered on top of the city. That sounds cool.
At this point our heads were full, and if revolution wasn’t on the table (which it didn’t seem to be) we were pretty done with this programme. It was nice to share a room with so many people though, giving up a Saturday afternoon to explore things like this.
Sci-Fi London still has a few days left, check it out.
Raja Shehadeh speaking in person to help launch his latest book Language of Peace, Language of War: Palestine, Israel and the Search for Justice was wonderful. That a scholar should be brought from Ramallah, that Palestine should be the topic to kick off LSE’s annual literary festival was a nice surprise.
In his description of his personal trajectory as a writer, Shehadeh quoted Sharon as saying that he wanted to sear into the consciousness of the Palestinians a new geography. Everything has new names, villages have disappeared, settlements appear and appear and appear. Roads he once loved and drove he can no longer drive and they are no longer called what they once were. Hills he once loved and walked, he can no longer walk.
To no longer walk the hills….
Palestinians have a word, samoud, the idea of persevering, of staying on the land. One word to hold all of this pain and struggle and determination. An idea to permeate all writing, all action. I wonder how many other peoples have a word for the long struggle against dispossession. I wish I had had one. Like him, I reject the idea that this must continue, that the poor, the less powerful must always be stripped of their lands if it happens that someone else wants them.
Clearly all of these books form part of this perservering. This connection between writing and struggle emerged in several ways — and while the questions especially brought out more of his thoughts on the legal and political strategies of fighting the occupation, it is the writing I will share here. There will be a podcast you can watch here when it is ready.
Raja Shehadeh said he once believed that a book can make a big difference, change the world. Not now. It can have a longer term effect, yes. But he no longer feels urgency.
He said writing always begins for himself alone, only later does it become public. He writes anything and everything in his journals, uncensored. Then reviews, revises, rethinks. That through writing he comes to understand things. But I love this sense of writing first for self, and then for public. It puts things round the right way I think.
Still, he writes to communicate. He does not write about the worst things that have happened in this conflict. He writes what people can take. What he can take. Left unsaid were all those things that have happened that no one can bear.
He read a passage about the burning alive of a young man in a forest. The message this was meant to send, the language of this message. Go, or we will burn your children. In strange coincidence I had only a few days before finished watching Shoah, it is not a film that soon leaves you. It is full of burning. So I sat there with these two things sitting together in me — I could not understand them. I have heard people try, but fundamentally these actions reject all words of understanding.
Books unleash the imagination, however. They remind us of the past when things were different, and push us to remember that the future does not have to be this way. It will not be this way. Hope lies in history and an imagination of the future — they teach us how all states were invented in the Middle East, they would not exist without subsidies. They seem natural to us, but they are not, nor are they sustainable.
He describes a world without borders, without fragmentation. The kind of world I too would like to see.
Raja Shehadeh will also be talking at the Mosaic Rooms on 25 February, at 7:00 pm, go see and hear, go buy the book(s).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
It is hard to imagine this area — this border between Lambeth and Balham and Wandsworth — as nothing but fields and farms, even when standing on the edge of Tooting Bec Common on a gray day with a huddle of local residents already chatting happily about their neighbourhood and their memories. Long ago representative of the parishes would meet near here, under a great tree on Brixton Hill, to discuss regional matters. While not representatives of anything in particular, we are examples of inter-borough solidarity and here for a tour held as part of Lambeth Heritage Festival, led by John Rattray of the Balham society.
Part of what we now know as the common was known as Hyde Park Farm, bordered by other farms and would come to be specially known for the quality of its pigs. In 1587 the farm was sold to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and in honored London tradition, this can be seen in the street names of Emmanuel and Scholars Roads. They used it as an income stream, leasing it out to a succession of local farmers. As times changed the farm became less farm and more market garden, opening up much of the land to become sporting fields. When it was sold it was growing flowers — up for auction were 1,000 roses and 5,000 aspidistras (!). I knew of aspidistras through Orwell and Sayers, but a few of the younger (no one was at all young, I must confess) people had not heard of such things. The group agreed they were particularly Victorian. I am intrigued by the aspidistra, but moving on…
These grounds were the centre for baseball at the peak of its popularity in London. Baseball! That interesting fact was not followed up by our tour guide (being English and not very interested), so I have researched further and that will one day be a post in itself.
There was only a scattering of mansions here alongside the farms, beginning in the 1770s. In looking something else up I discovered that this is near where Hester Thrale lived — so often visited by Doctor Johnson, her home a lively salon of wit and knowledge and probably no little pompousness. The housing built on the old farm site that we wandered through was begun in 1896 at the corner of Radbourne Road and Telferscot Road. The old topography is recorded here as well, the road named after Telfer’s Cottage which once stood here. Somewhere. We stood on the mound on the common’s corner, beneath which lies the old air raid shelter. An earlier tour had called forth an elder who had spent some time down in it during the war, but ours sadly did not.
We paused at the corner, Cosy Corner, where the little shop has recreated the old sign that used to hang there. Many of the folks on the tour had lived in the area for decades, and remembered the two old women who had run the shop from before the war. The lovely kind you don’t see anymore whose lipstick always fought the limits of their lips. We walked down Radbourne Road. Along it developer Ernest Hayes-Dashwood set aside flats to be occupied rent-free by disabled veterans. Beautiful plaques commemorate this gift into perpetuity, even as the hip young professionals obstructed from their doorways by our tour demonstrated that not all of them are so occupied. I investigated that too, of the 150 units, 50 are leased on short-hold tenancies, and the income is used to maintain the rest of the properties. Sensible enough, more information and history can be found here.
There is also a lovely school, some of which was sold off for quite beautiful luxury flats — of course now the school is overflowing and there are portable classrooms. It will be expanding to the north, where an old shed stands, once home to the local scout troop but now falling apart. This area was briefly a site of contention, when ‘Red Ted’ and his gang tried to get the whole thing knocked down to built a large tower of flats and the local residents organised to keep the school. It’s a beautiful school, I’m glad they did, though in general I’d be on the side of housing.
I know about Red Ted — and enjoyed the glee in resident voices as they said the words knowledgeably — but I had no idea Lambeth was a Tory borough until 1971, and in fact is where John Major got his start. Still less did I know that he oversaw housing and lived in an estate here. My mind reeling, I could hardly focus from them on. I do remember the handful of villas left built by Thomas Cubitt as part of the Clapham Park Development — on the grounds of Bleak Hall Farm.
Note to self to look more into that…and into the importance that changing transportation had, as these homes were made less desirable as rail allowed the wealthy to move even further away. Or so the story goes. Also to investigate is Zennor Road, now an industrial estate but once apparently one of the area’s few slums.
A little shy and far from knowledgeable, I said very little, but enjoyed listening to everyone else reminisce about the neighbourhood, several of them as knowledgeable as our lovely and knowledgeable tour guide. It allowed for the creation of a more collective history, as we peeled off track to the left to see the last original iron gate in the area,
heard about resident efforts to preserve the old buildings and stories passed down. New Park Road with its business and splendid diversity feels miles rather than minutes away from these Edwardian row houses and their inhabitants, but it was good to get to know them a little better, and to share their love of their piece of the city.
So we’re in crisis. Things are bad. Davies and Peter Marcuse present two takes on the whys and hows of how we got here, and they aren’t all that different. What is different is that Davies is limited to limited criticism of the existing system, he cannot see beyond it. He joins the cautious optimism that we can correct it, that something simply went very wrong in a system that is perfectly all right, and that with the right technical fixes we can leave all of that behind us. Marcuse looks beyond, as should anyone who has lived through the many crises that our economy has rocked, or has asked questions like why inequality is rising, astronomically. So where does he think that we who live in the city actually want to go, and how is it that we get there?
For a while some intellectuals talked about the “Good City.” A biblical reference, an ideal of what could be but lacking in a way to arrive there, utopia.
There’s also the idea of the “Just City.” On its face none of us would disagree with some justice. But this has been limited in its definition to the goal of inclusion. We need a fair distribution of goods, services, maybe we could even manage opportunities. But we can’t rock the boat too much, the system we have is a good one, just needs a little tweaking.
You can tell I don’t like that one! Neither does Peter Marcuse. So what then? What is neither utopian nor rigidly practical and self-limiting? The Right to the City. Coined by Henri Lefebvre, and please do read Lefebvre, he’s been rocking my world lately, particularly State, Space, World, which is sitting half-read on my desk even now. But his Right to the City is the right to an alternative system, the right to construct an alternative vision of what could be. It is a right that must be demanded, and a vision of radical democracy where we all collectively create our communities together with the rest of our neighbors and those who actually live here.
Some people already have this right. The very wealthy primarily. We need to be clear that this campaign is not for them, it is to ensure that everyone has power in this. I agree with Marcuse that this is important.
And where does the campaign come from? Marcuse argues that there are two groups who will drive this, and begs forgiveness for the inadequacy of the titles. These are:
- The deprived. The unemployed, the exploited, the poor. Primarily people of colour.
- The discontented. The artists, the intellectuals, those who see the deep injustice of the world and feel a need to do something about it.
And what is the role of theory in this? Critical urban theory is the glue, it is required to build the mutual understanding of how and why these two different groups need to come together, not to mention the multiple subgroups contained within each of them. We need to come together and fight for our right to the city.
I’m mostly all for it, and I’m sure you shall be hearing more about Right to the City. Marcuse even gave a shout out to the American alliance of that name, having been at the founding of that made me happy. For me, however, it is pivotal that those who Marcuse calls the deprived be the drivers. That those who suffer most from having no rights to their city should be the ones to frame the question and push forward the process of radical democracy that Lefebvre argues is the key factor towards the new city. It is to these demands and this process that the discontented need to ally themselves, and that theory needs to dialogue with in a way that builds each, while building something entirely new and beautiful.
(also published at drpop.org)