Tag Archives: displacement

Root Shock pt 2 — Struggle and the Aesthetics of Equity

Root Shock - Mindy Thompson FullilovePsychiatrist Mindy Fullilove’s Root Shock doesn’t just explore the costs of displacement to the consciousness of the individual and the collective, but also looks at struggle on multiple levels. First, though, lets just revisit her framing of the issue:

When all the fancy rhetoric about “blight” is stripped away, American urban renewal was a response to the question, “The poor are always with us, but do we have to see them every day?” The problem the planners tackled was not how to undo poverty, but how to hide the poor. Urban renewal was designed to segment the city that barriers of highways and monumental buildings protected the rich from the sight of the poor, and enclosed the wealthy center away from the poor margin.(197)

I also like this fundamental insight:

In the peculiar calculus of American racism…white people must occupy whole parts, like a whole row of bus seats or a whole neighborhood. As soon as any black people enter, the whole is spoiled, and the white people must either eject the black people…or move away themselves. (225)

The most basic means of struggle against such a calculus is that as an individual or group, in the form of political direct action. She talks about what fighting back means to people, quotes testimony from trials:

Gladys Moore on the Montgomery Bus Boycott: “Well, after so many things happened. Wasn’t no man started it. We all started it overnight. (emphasis added) (40)

Jo Ann Robinson, in her memoirs: “The one day of protest against the white man’s traditional policy of white supremacy had created a new person in the Negro. The new spirit, the new feeling did something to the blacks individually and collectively, and each liked the feeling. There was no turning back! There was only one way out–the buses must be changed!” (41)

She also talks about the healing process that occurs through collective struggle, which is nice to hear from a medical professional:

As a public health psychiatrist, I believe that healing a group’s psyche occurs through a collective process that requires organizing ways in which people come together to learn facts, share ideas, raise questions, and search for solutions. (180)

Near the end of the book she lays out a series of workshops done with community members. The first used an idea she called ‘The Community burn Index’, used to measure the damage to the neighbourhood lot by lot, charted through a community mapping exercise where small groups walked street by street telling stories and really seeing their streets and homes. I quite loved what this revealed:

I learned something about the difference between interiority and exteriority when it comes to what we see. People who are insiders to a place stop seeing it. It is a hand part of human consciousness that many things–including the scenery we look at every day–slip our of awareness in to the vast pool of rote activities and knowledge.

People who are outsiders to a place see it as a landscape. they are inhibited from seeing what they’re really seeing, but in their case it’s not because it’s new. Rather, we have another handy mental device for decoding places we’ve never been to before, and that is stereotyping… Oddly enough, neither the inside nor the outsider has the foggiest idea what he is look at. (185)

It is coming together to really look, to see things in the moment as they are, to tell stories, to talk to each other, that they helped each other really see what was there, what was no longer there.

That’s powerful, no?

They repeated this exercise with people from all over Pittsburgh, trying to build connections not just between residents and their built environment, but between people from other neighbourhoods and this particular neighbourhood so long cut off from the city. Through the eyes of a French planner and architect, they realise that this is a neighbourhood that once had multiple entries and exits and paths down the hill to the river, and all of them had gone, sealing them off from the rest of the city.

It is through discussions with this same architect, Michel Cantal-Dupart, that Fullilove proposes a new framework for analysing and resolving issues created by development. She calls it the aesthetics of equity, and it holds some interesting ideas I think. In summary:

Principle One: Respect the Common Life the Way you Would an Individual Life (199)

There is always a common life, whether or not you can see it right away. My own aside — people in power never see it.

Principle Two: Treasure the Buildings History Has Given Us (199)

If only planners had ever done that…instead we work with what they have left us, and I think this is key:

The solution to the “many centers” problem lies in improving the connections among them. The passerby must be able to figure out how to move among the jumble of squares. We need images that compel transition, promote flow, and permit movement from one place to another. We need a permeable city, safe not because of its walls, but because of the engagement of its citizens, each and every one a guardian of the public piece/peace. (204)

Here Fullilove edges towards all the wonderful literature studying how buildings and planning create environments that foster and build community.

Principle Three: Break the Cycle of Disinvestment (204)

I suppose here is where my study of political economy makes me a little skeptical that this could happen without one hell of a fight that is more transformative than anything we’ve seen before. But I write too much about that elsewhere. Still, it is fundamental to these dynamics, and needs to be understood just as much as everything else here.

Principle Four: Freedom of Movement (205)

Hell yes. This has never really existed in the U.S. for non-whites. But there’s a funny section here on the massive gardens of André Le Nôtre built for French aristocrats and the Sun King himself. I feel strongly about such gardens that use perspective to show power and wealth and the subjection of nature, so it’s interesting to be challenged here with a sentence that says 

Perspective creates both the intimacy of “here” and the wonder of “there”. It allows rest and dwelling, but it also encourgaes exploration and travel… Perspective is, at heart, a democratic tool, because it is a linking tool. (208)

I think Gordon Cullen explores this quite beautifully in the townscape in ways that show just how much about power and wealth those damn gardens really are. But point taken in the abstract. I think Cantal has some odd views being passed along here, as Haussman is praised a little further along for his vistas and opening up of the city, and that just makes me a little sad without acknowledging the massive displacement, the purpose of making the poor easier to control and send them to the peripheries.

Still, I quite like these four principles. Just as I do the idea that people should be able to take city spaces and make it their own.

I also like the thought she ends with:

We are somewhere on the dwelling/journey spiral. We have all been forced from home but non of us has yet reached safety. We might choose to continue to proceed in blindness. But we might also recognize that we can use the journey to create the arrival of our dreams in the community of all of us.

Let us listen to the bell; it tolls for us. It’s time to go home. (239)

 

 

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Change in City, Change in Self

And old post from the old blog (17 July 2008) that for some reason I wanted to preserve separately from this one, but I just finished Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks, and it reminded me of all these old things I had been thinking about, especially this. I haven’t had time to blog this wonderful book yet, but thought I might repost this on a lazy Sunday with only a tweak…

I was thinking today how the city changes…and I find it extraordinary how quickly you get used to changes in the physical landscape around you. I knew downtown L.A. full of parking lots and old buildings full of people. And now it has been built over, it is full of huge new shiny buildings and it is full of all new people. The empty buildings that once contained friends of mine mostly still stand, they are monuments to so many conflicting things: greed, pain, hope, love, struggle…and they stand as anachronisms, though once each was one building among many such. But for all that is now gone? Memory goes with them, I cannot remember what used to be underneath the lofts. I go through my photographs and try to reclaim my own memory of downtown before money claimed it as its own and rebuilt its landscape. I hate not only that they profited so easily and well, but also that I cannot remember what was there before. I hate that we could not manage to force them to build on the beauty and strength that was already there, while working to improve and grow and increase the number of people and services. Everyone has lost, though the ones who destroyed will never know how much, and the people they pushed out know it all to well.

I was thinking today too about how I change…and I find it extraordinary how quickly you settle into the new outlines of your mind and forget what its thoughts were before. You hope to be always expanding, growing greater and wiser and stronger as you learn, I fear I might contract if I ever stopped growing…some people do, you see their minds steadily narrowing and fearful of change. And yet suddenly it worried me as loft construction does, how hard it is to remember what you thought before, how you felt before, what it was to be yourself before. It seems to me that to truly grow you must build upon all that you were, and recognize and remember the building. That way you have a hope of bringing people with you, and understanding people who are where you once were — especially in terms of political consciousness. I think too many of us destroy what we discard and do not recognize it as a piece of the foundation and a step to where we have come and a link with those behind. That is too linear a metaphor all together, but the best I can do at the moment…I shall have to create a new metaphor to stand upon the old one and remember how it came to be. As for the dragon boat races…well! The Molinistas were destroyed and there was much jubilation. Here are the boats: I am sure that we won as everyone followed the required ritual to grant us victory This is wishing pain to your enemies (damn Gloria Molina, damn her, he is saying! You came to Belmont highschool and promised things and did jack shit about it! You lie Molina, I can’t believe you are still one of the most powerful women in L.A.! But not in the dragon boat you’re not!), and you impart this wish to your paddle so that it strikes angrily through the water…you then have to commune with your paddle like so Do this and your paddle will know that you love it, and driven by this motivational combination of love and hate, it shall speed you through the water like a…platypus maybe. If you’re lucky an eel. But It shall make you fast, and you shall win. The fried plaintains were delicious, as was the iced coffee…the breakfast (and lunch) of champions. There were Koreans line dancing to Alan Jackson singing about the Chatahoochee on the main stage, it was the zen approach to enlightenment, the equivalent of getting hit alongside the head or your nose tweaked. And the lotus festival hummed and flowed and danced around the lake and I enjoyed myself.

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Eviction again

I live in a small, rather damp and quite cold flat that for all of its smallness still manages to contain four bedrooms and a winding corridor, stairs that go up and then stairs that go down…probably because it does not contain the space to hold a table for a sit-down meal. It could be very nice and quirky, but mostly it is cold and full of someone else’s stuff. In bags mostly.

But my room is mine, and it is home.

It sits over a shop that once held two large white men who sold a variety of used and crappy things without enthusiasm as they ran poker games out of the back. Since then it has been a used-goods shop that actually made a little more effort (but there was a hell of a lot more angry arguing under my window — which may have signaled a not entirely legitimate business practice or possibly just the presence of customers , something I had never seen/heard before), and a bicycle repair shop with some serious drama amongst owners over a year or so — I miss some of them, though I do not miss their reggae booming through the floor — and some kind of garment making operation in the back. I’ve spent two non-consecutive winters with it empty, just a big ball of cold damp empty space making my room even colder.

All of it has just been sold, the new owner is a bit hostile, making rumblings about structural unsoundness, wants to move the entrance in an inexplicable move that makes no sense given this ‘lovely’ 1840s architecture, but really we think just wants to tear it down. Build some ‘luxury’ flats as cheaply as possible. Words words words and nothing in writing yet. But the end is probably coming.

This is the third time I go through this, different from losing the house my parents built, different from losing my mum’s house that we had all invested in, but still. Forced to pick up and go. Move along. Shove off. Pull yourself out, not up, by your roots or what was left of them.  Take them with you in case you sprout back, like a weed. You are not wanted in this new place.

We’ll stay as long as we can, but imagine it will get both unpleasant and ugly. There is a padlock war on at the moment over the back gate.

Sitting here staring at my stuff —  I have way too much stuff, I recognise this. Books mostly, I cannot stop from filling anywhere I live with books. And they are a bitch to move, thank god I don’t work for a publisher anymore carting them around to sell. Moving books makes you hate them. So I’m putting everything I might be able to give away to someone deserving (because they were awesome and should not rot here in my room) / get to the thrift shop after reading into a pile to read quick. Quickish. Thought I might post a list to inspire myself to stick with it, also to cheer myself up. I have read one already since my list decision was made.

  1. Death and the Penguin – Andrey Kharkov
  2. The Black Book – Orhan Pamuk
  3. The Good Soldier Schweik – Yaroslav Hasek
  4. Lanark – Alasdair Gray
  5. Floating Worlds – Cecilia Holland
  6. The Panda’s Thumb – Gould
  7. We – Zamyatin
  8. The Very Slow Time Machine – Ian Watson
  9. The Octopus – Frank Norris
  10. Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer
  11. What Was Lust – Catharine O’Flynn
  12. The Bridge of the Golden Horn – Emine Ozdamer
  13. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay — Chabon
  14. Semiotext SF
  15. Futureshocks
  16. Conversations with Chester Himes
  17. The History of the Day Before – Eco
  18. Southern Nights – Barry Gifford
  19. The Telling – Le Guin
  20. The 5th Inning – E. Ethelbert Miller
  21. Rio Quibu – Ronaldo Menendez
  22. Fast Forward 2
  23. Twenty Epics
  24. The Best Noir of the Century
  25. The Buenos Aires Affair – Manuel Puig
  26. The Taking of the Waters – John Shannon
  27. Mr Bloomfield’s Orchard – Nicholas Money
  28. Necropolis – catharine Arnold
  29. Re:Imagining Change – Reinsborough & Canning
  30. What Would it Mean to Win? – Turbulence
  31. Vic: Lambeth to Lambourn – Victor Cox
  32. Gravity’s Rainbow – Pynchon
  33. Americanah – Chimamanda
  34. Against Architecture – Franco La Cecla
  35. Revolting Subjects – Imogen Tyler
  36. The Housing Monster – Prole
  37. Session: Irish Stories – Mick Fitzgerald
  38. Vauxhall – Gbadamosi
  39. Perfect Vacuum – Lem
  40. Fiasco – Lem
  41. Return From the Stars – Lem
  42. Hospital of the Transfiguration – Lem
  43. Eden – Lem
  44. One To Count Cadence – Crumley

To go back to the library:
45. East London – Besant
46. Growing Smarter – ed. robert bullard
47. Palestinian Walks – Shehadeh
48. East End and Docklands – Fisher

No problem reading all of those, right? More will enter this stack I am sure — those two books my dad gave me before he died, can I get rid of those? What about the ones that I needed for my thesis and were really awesome but I probably won’t use again?

The only good thing is that I am finally going to get to use that milestone widget I believe! Now, do I read a big one to free more space or several small ones to cross shit off?

Down at the Occupation of Guinness Trust’s Loughborough Park Estate

The occupation down at the Loughborough Park Estate has already been covered by the Buzz over the last few days, both management’s attempts to smash up the occupied flat to make it unliveable, and the ongoing protests every morning at 9am.

Loughborough Park Estate occupation

While much has been won, and the occupation is at an end, the struggle continues to win secure tenancies in Brixton for the tenants.

There were a handful of people in the evening as I joined them, half of them residents, the room dominated by the chatter of kids colouring and playing. A table full of food was in the other corner, and there are now lights and warmth and a working toilet.

This was a space of protest and a place for residents to meet together and get support from the wider community. Since they moved in — up to ten to eleven years ago now — the Guinness Trust has denied all use of the Loughborough Park Estate community hall to shorthold tenants.

Loughborough Park Estate occupation

I talked to Helen, an assured shorthold tenant (an AST) and one of around forty long-term tenants with shorthold status being displaced by Guinness Trust’s redevelopment plans. A musician with Yaaba Funk and other groups and a capoeira teacher (don’t know about capoeira? You need to find out more about this awesome Brazilian dance/martial arts mix invented by slaves), a filmmaker and artist, it isn’t hard to see she is one of the people that have made Brixton what it is.

We sat in the smaller room and talked briefly about what is happening at the occupation and the goals of the campaign from her point of view:

Q: So if you could just tell me a little about yourself and how you are connected to the occupation

H: I’ve been here– I didn’t take this place over but I am a supporter—and they’re supporting me. I live just over the road and I’ve lived here for eleven years, so I might be one of the longest ones. I’ve been to the meetings, the radical housing activist meetings, so I knew it was a thought, I knew it was going to happen and it’s good, it’s a good little office.

They’ve done this because there are so many people out on a limb, like ourselves who are literally going to be homeless, you know, we are literally going to be living on the streets, we’ve got no where to go. It’s a very difficult time. A very difficult time.

Q: So can you give me just a little back ground on what is happening here, and with Guinness Trust?

Helen: It’s been a long struggle, it’s been going on for a while, and we’ve been fighting for a while with people like the filmmaker Rashid Nix who used to live here.

We’ve kind of known since 2011 or 2012, they started demolishing back about 3 years now– but bit by bit they’ve knocked down bits of the estate and then built it up and people have been, what’s the word? Decanted.

With some people, you know, you’ve got your golden ticket, you’re a tenant and you get into one of the new flats. I’ve been into one of them and they’re really nice. But they’re selling some of them off as well, we know that now.

Some tenants are still chatty and nice, they’ve got a completely different aura. They’re getting somewhere better to live. Our places are a bit knackered really, they need doing up. My boyfriend was asthmatic and it’s nasty with all the green on your walls unless you’re really handy and you’ve got to do it yourself, because they never came in once in 11 years.

Lots of things have gone by the wayside because you know, let’s demolish it, let’s redo it. And there’s all sorts of classes here, it’s a complete class system. You know, you’ve got your tenants, who will be able to stay here, you’ve got your ASTs who are going to get a little pay off, you’ve got your Camelot who are groups of young people who get cheaper rent than what we’ve got and they’ll get a month or two weeks notice and then they’ll get put into another place to oversee and look after.

Q: They’re the company that puts tenants in empty buildings aren’t they.

H: They’re to keep people from squatting, to keep things like this from going on.

Q: So you’re a shorthold tenant?

H: Myself and Betiel, that’s what we are. Didn’t really have any way to change the tenancy, to get a full tenancy, to see a way to do it.

Q: So basically Guinness Trust has been taking your rent for eleven years, without giving you the same status as other tenants?

H: Yes. You know, a funny thing happened the day before yesterday, we were picketing and protesting and I saw this woman that I’ve known, she’s a tenant, and she came over and I suddenly realised she has been here less time than I have, and I thought oh my god! How did that happen then? So there’s not, there’s something wrong going on. She’s got a tenancy, she’s got a flat.

Q: And what about the other tenants?

H: Some of them are supportive, some embarrassed, some just don’t want to know.

Q: What would it look like if you won?

H: One of the flats [laughs]. But I don’t know, so many of my friends are gone now, they were ASTs and they’ve gone.

Q: But were they able to stay in the area?

H: Not all of them, some have gone to Hackney, some to Earl’s Court– It’s really expensive in Brixton, it’s very expensive here, there’s a complete – let’s call it gentrification, regeneration.

As a person who has lived here eleven years I’ve watched it really change. I’ve watched the shops that were vegetable shops change to champagne bars and, you know, the whole sort of different feel of the place.

Places where people lived for thirty years and have now been gutted, they’ve been thrown out, done up, and now you’ve got people who look like Prince Harry’s girlfriend who live there, to be honest [laughs]. Its not even Shoreditch, it’s like Chelsea, it’s very high end, I don’t know what’s happened, I mean, I’m living in it. I’m looking around trying to move and the rents are really high, I’m not sure what to do, I’m a part time worker, I’m an artist and a musician who works with kids. I don’t always earn that much money, so it’s hard.

Q: So what can people do to support you?

H: We’re just hoping to get people together in support, and it would be fantastic if we can actually change things. I just think it’s really wrong the way they’ve treated people.

Loughborough Park Estate occupation

 First posted on the Brixton Buzz, 20 February, 2015

 

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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):

20141118-Brixton-Central-What-youve-told-us-720x509

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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Gardening at Leigham Court

Leigham Court is a beautiful ‘modernist gem’ of a sheltered housing estate, sitting high up on a hill in Streatham and designed by celebrated Architect Kate Macintosh. This is from a Housing Activists press release on what is happening there:

Lambeth Council and Lambeth Living are planning to close the Leigham Court Sheltered Housing scheme. Senior residents have been informed that their homes will be demolished and the land sold off to pay for a mixture of extended care and private accommodation.

A recent Guardian article by Oliver Wainwright celebrating the architecture also includes some great quotes from residents and the reasons for the sell-off:

Over the last few months, the residents of 269 Leigham Court Road in Lambeth have come together to campaign against the “disposal” of their community, which the council plans to sell to fund the construction of “extra care” housing elsewhere in the borough.

“They call it ‘extra care’ because it’s more like being in hospital,” says Joyce James, 89. “We live here like a family; we don’t want to be separated from one another. And the buildings are spectacular – it would be like pulling down Buckingham Palace or Westminster Abbey. It’s criminal.”

The drastic cut-backs in the national budget have set Lambeth Council scrambling rather than fighting, or even just effectively holding the dented shield and preserving as much as possible until there is a political change. So they have started selling off homes and public assets to finance services, evicting long term tenants causing incalculable pain, destroying the remaining footholds of current community members in rapidly developing and gentrifying neighbourhoods, and losing land forever to speculation and private interests. The so-called ‘Short-Life’ housing cooperatives that are now decades old, Cressingham Gardens (and more here), the Guinness Trust Estate, and Myatt’s Field regeneration plans are all additional examples of how much social housing is at risk or already lost.

Perhaps this is because Labour’s position no longer seems to be much different on these issues, which is criminal, especially given the vision of both architects and the Labour government that built this housing in the first place. I realise writing this I need to do a lot more exploration of Blair and Brown’s housing legacy, and really read the new housing report being used by Labour to develop new policy.  But on Lambeth’s own website, you can see that after the Leigham Court tenants voted to remain council owned rather than be transferred to social landlords, the council pledged to find funds for the renovation and upkeep of the estate. That was 2007, so what happened?

Now with Leigham Court on the chopping block, they have stopped maintaining the grounds as they should — a tried and true tactic of running down an estate and then using its poor condition to serve as an excuse for getting rid of it. So we did this:

2014.22.11GardeningLeaflet

I love the above picture showing how beautiful the garden once was, and should be — and kicking myself for not getting a good picture from this view. It is a little different now, and shameful that our elders should live in housing that is not cared for. The work we did on Saturday was not to take the place of gardeners and caretakers paid wages by the council — as they keep pushing for with their cooperative council ideas that replace jobs with volunteer work when our borough desperately needs good jobs.  It was to do basic maintenance for the interim well-being of Leigham Court’s residents, and show what needs to be done. Cold and wet work, but we went to it with a will. The biggest need was simply rubbish collection:

IMG_9814 IMG_9816 IMG_9817But we raked leaves and planted some bulbs as well:

IMG_9839 IMG_9833There were at least fifteen of us over the course of the morning along with local resident Valentine Walker, who can perfectly break down for you the council’s future plans, their reasoning, and the deadly conflict between community need and profit.

You can get a sense of how lovely an interior communal space exists here from this shot, taken from the main entrance through the doors to the gardeners collecting for the group photo, and into the covered patio running through the gardens:

IMG_9808There may be more gardening to come in Spring, hopefully not, hopefully the council will work to save Leigham Court rather than sell it off, or redevelop it with market rate housing. Walking there from Brixton Hill you get a feeling of just why this property is so valuable, especially given the view over South London from the other side of the road. Beautiful, even on a damp, grey, miserable day:

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I’ll be writing more about Leigham Court as I’m fascinated by this period of the mass building of social housing, this incredible commitment to creating a more just and integrated society, this utopian strain within architecture, building around people’s needs. This is, in fact, one of the key estates within this movement, with a fight on to get it listed by Docomomo.

Apart from the Guardian article, the architect has also recently spoken on Resonance FM about the work to save the estate, and Leigham Court features in a documentary called Utopia London (directed by Tom Cordell), which I bought immediately and is sitting on my shelf as yet unwatched — even though a majority of the estates it looks at seem to be in Lambeth. So after getting to that I will be returning to this estate in more architectural and utopian detail.

More articles on Leigham Court can be found on the websites for Save Leigham Court and the Lambeth Housing Activists.

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Peter Marcuse and the Right to 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)