Tag Archives: housing

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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Root Shock pt 1 — Urban Renewal and Public Health

Root Shock - Mindy Thompson FulliloveThis is one of the few books that really tries to come to grips with the deep psychological trauma caused by mass displacement — what it calls Root Shock. It does so through the prism of urban renewal and reminds us of the scale of it. The program ran  from 1949 to 1973, and during this time the U.S. government bulldozed 2,500 neighborhoods in 993 cities, dispossessing an estimated million people. They were supposed to be slum clearances, they were supposed to create space for new housing. Few of these clearances did, and we are still coming to grips with what was lost. But there is a bitter truth behind the switch from ‘urban’ to ‘Negro’ removal — it is the Black community that lost the most and that continues to be most impacted by it all.

What was it, then, that was lost?

…the collective loss. It was the loss of a massive web of connections–a way of being–that had been destroyed by urban renewal; it was as if thousands of people who seemed to be with me in sunlight, were at some deeper level of their being wandering lost in a dense fog, unable to find one another for the rest of their lives. It was a chorus of voices that rose in my head, with the cry, “We have lost one another.” (4)

I like this understanding of it. I also quite love that despite a clinician trying to deepen our understanding of the psychological impacts, she maintains a larger understanding of just what is happening.

This process taught me a new respect for the story of upheaval. It is hard to hear, because it is a story filled with a  large, multivoiced pain. it is not a pain that should be pigeonholed in a diagnostic category, but rather understood as a communication about human endurance in the face of bitter defeat. (5)

And you know I love the spatial awareness that has to be part of this, because it is a physical loss of building, home, neighbourhood, as much as a loss of connection.

Buildings and neighborhoods and nations are insinuated into us by life; we are not, as we like to think, independent of them. (10-11)

So how does Fullilove define Root Shock?

Root shock is the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem. It has important parallels to the physiological shock experience by a person who, as a result of injury, suddenly loses massive amounts of fluids. Such a blow threatens the whole body’s ability to function…. Just as the body has a system to maintain its internal balance, so, too, the individual has a way to maintain the external balance between himself and the world. This way of moving in the environment…. (11)

It is not something that is experienced right away and then disappears.

The experience of root shock–like the aftermath of a severe burn–does not end with emergency treatment, but will stay with the individual for a lifetime. In fact, the injury from root shock may be even more enduring than a burn, as it can affect generations and generations of people.

Root shock, at the level of the individual, is a profound emotional upheaval that destroys the working model of the world that had existed in the individual’s head. (14)

This book is interladen with quotes and stories from people Fullilove worked with, she cares like I do to let people speak for themselves about their experience. She quotes Carlos Peterson, on the bulldozing of his neighbourhood:

‘My impression was that we were like a bunch of nomads always fleeing, that was the feeling I had.” (13)

There is Sala Uddin, who remembered urban renewal first with approval — the new homes they were getting, then:

Critiquing his own earlier enthusiasm, he pointed out to me, “We didn’t know what impact the amputation of the lower half of our body would have on the rest of our body until you look back twenty years later, and the rest of your body is really ill because of that amputation.

The sense of fragmentation is a new experience that we can now sense, that we didn’t sense then. We were all in the same location before. Now we are scattered literally to the four corners of the city, and we are not only politically weak, we are not a political entity. We are also culturally weak. And I think that has something to do with the easiness of hurting each other. How easy it is to hurt each other, because we are not that close anymore. We are not family anymore. (175)

Because she is able to listen, she is able to describe the ways that people are connected both to buildings, but also to each other. I love how from multiple angles, the human connections to the earth, to the built environment and to each other always emerge as key to lives well-lived, whether looking at permaculture or public space or psychology:

This lesson of interconnectedness is as hard to learn as differential calculus or quantum mechanics. the principle is simple: we–that is to say, all people–live in an emotional ecosystem that attaches us yo the environment, not just as our individual selves, but as being caught in a single, universal net of consciousness anchored in small niches we call neighborhoods or hamlets or villages. Because of the interconnectedness of the net, if your place is destroyed today, I will feel it hereafter. (17)

This brings a new look at Jane Jacob‘s street ballet, where

you are observing the degree to which people can adapt to different settings, and not just adapt, but attach, connect. They are connecting not to the negatives or even the positives of the setting, but to their own mastery of the local players and their play. (19)

I am quite intrigued by this idea:

Instead, the geography created by dispersal-in-segregation created a group of islands of black life. “Archipelago” is the official geographic term for a group of islands. Black America is an archipelago state, a many-island nation within the American nation. The Creation of the archipelago nation had two consequences for African Americans. The first is that the ghettos became centers of black life; the second is that the walls of the ghetto, like other symbols of segregation, became objects of hatred. In this ambivalent, love/hate relationship, it was impossible to chose to dwell. Yet people did choose to make life as vibrant and happy as they possibly could. (27)

This feels particularly true of earlier periods when the colour lines were hard and fast and patrolled by white mobs and white gangs and the use of violence. When green books were necessary when travelling to know where to stay, what to eat safe from the oceans of white hatred (too far? Not in terms of the hatred, but maybe in terms of metaphor…) When the ghetto walls were high and strong and each brick legally protected, which is part of the story and the trauma of urban renewal’s root shock. For so long people faced the choice: to fight to improve the ghetto or the fight to leave it. Regardless, she captures something of what the ghetto cost the city as a whole:

Segregation in a city inhibits the free interaction among citizens and invariably leads to a brutality and inequality, which themselves are antithetical to urbanity. When segregation disappears, freedom of movement becomes possible. that does not necessarily mean that people will want to leave the place where they have lived. The ghetto ceases to be a ghetto, it is true, but it does not stop being a neighborhood of history. Postsegregation, the African-American ghetto would have been a sight for imaginative re-creation , much like the ghetto in Rome. (45)

She writes later on:

The divided city is a subjugated city. (164)

The tragedy always was this inisght, again from Jane Jacobs  (as summarised by Fullilove):

A slum would endure if residents left as quickly as they could. A neighborhood could transform itself, if people wanted to stay. It was the investment of time, money  and love that would make the difference. (44)

That was almost never allowed to happen. Instead neighbourhoods were bulldozed — and again there is the comparison to rubble left by war, similar to Dybek, to Gbadamosi:

Indeed, in looking at American urban renewal projects I am reminded more of wide-area bombing–the largely abandoned World War II tactic of bombing major parts of cities as we did in Wurzeburg, Germany and Hiroshima, Japan–than of elegant city design. (70)

It was done in the most destructive way possible:

Even though the basis for compensation was gradually extended, the payments continued to be linked to individual property rights. Collective assets — the social capital created by a long-standing  community–were not considered in the assessment of property values. (79)

There is not enough on why I think, which limits the section thinking through what we can do to stop it. But there is this quote from Reginal Shereef, who studies the effects of urban renewal on African Americans in Roanoke:

“But the reality of urban renewal was that cities wanted to improve their tax base. And that is my interest. I have always looked at the intersections between public policy and economics. And what happened in Roanoke was neighborhoods was torn down so that commercial developers could develop prperties and sell it to private interests…” (98)

Part 2 looks at some of the positive ways to think of community, ways that we can work to preserve and improve our neighourhoods. But I’ll end this with one of the lovelier expressions of what home means to people, this from resident Dolores Rubillo:

“People know, you know where you are–” and, leaning in to me added, “you are safe in the dark.” (127)

 

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Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha

Maud MarthaMaud Martha was stunning.

Every line of it was beautiful, thoughtful perfection. You can tell this was written by a poet. When I started reading it those first few pages made me keep putting the book down with a shiver of joy at the language. It is amazing to have two authors, Dybek and Brooks, remind me in just the past couple of weeks what a very visceral, physical pleasure reading can be.

WHAT she liked was candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue, or delicate silver) and the west sky, so altering, viewed from the steps of the back porch; and dandelions. (1)

Yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress of her back yard. She liked their demure prettiness second to their everydayness; for in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself, and it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower.  (2)

This is so much about home and its creation and its effects, but in that the fucked-upness of segregated American cities is omnipresent, and every now and then you glimpse a direct view of the city of Chicago in the background. And the sky.

The school looked solid. Brownish-red brick, dirty cream stone trim. Massive chimney, candid, serious. The sky was gray, but the sun was making little silver promises somewhere up there, hinting. A wind blew. (4)

There were lives in these buildings. Past the tiny lives the children blew. Cramp, inhibition, choke–they did not trouble themselves about these. (5)

How she loved a “hike.” Especially in the evening, for then everything was moody, odd, deliciously threatening, always hunched and ready to close in on you but never doing so. East of Cottage Grove you saw fewer people, and those you did see had, all of them (how strange, thought Maud Martha), white faces.  (9)

On every page I could find you a line to love. But we shall jump ahead to the tautness of Chapter 8 as they wait for Maud Martha’s papa to come home from a visit to try and get an extension on the mortgage to save their home of 14 years.

There was little hope. The Home Owners’ Loan was hard.

HOLC. I have read so much about them in rather more abstract terms. Just as everything this book reflects on poetically is so much more often written about in terms abstract or worthy. Very different from these vivid scenes brought alive through feelings, colours, sounds, smells…

And these things–roaches, and having to be satisfied with the place as it was–were not the only annoyances that had to be reckoned with. She was becoming aware of an oddness in color and sound and smell about her, the color and sound and smell of the kitchenette building. the color was gray, and the smell and sound had taken on a suggestion of the properties of color, and impressed one as gray, too. The sobbings, the frustrations, the small hates, the little pushing-through love, the boredom, that came to her from behind those walls (some of them beaverboard) via speech and scream and sigh–all these were gray. And the smells of various types of sweat, and of bathing and bodily functions (the bathroom was always in use, someone was always in the bathroom) and of fresh or stale love-making, which rushed in thick fumes to your nostril as you walked down the hall, or down the stairs–these were gray.

Organising tenants you see a whole lot of gray — though I don’t know that gray is the right colour for walls yellowed with tobacco smoke and damp and dirt. To me the word of horror was always dingy, that is the word contains all the smells and sounds of these buildings unified by poverty and overworked exhaustion and absentee landlords. I lived in those dingy places a long time, they strip life of its color. They get you down.

But oh, there is still some vibrance in the lives within them. You meet the people who live in the kitchenette building, meet all the hang-ups about shades of blackness and pretensions to class, all the terrible frustrations, the wonderful children whose faces light up like candles, the nameless ones who scream about the house, the two people who really love each other. They are vivid despite the gray.

There are moments of hate, moments of fear. A child being born. A life passing by and it is no one but the world’s fault that the dandelion world of the child should shift to the gray of the kitchenette building and the pressure of parenthood and adult life. Disappointments. Settling. Still finding those moments of beauty, but less often perhaps.

Near the end there is an inspired meditation on segregation and race and violence through Maud Martha’s disgust at cleaning out a chicken — refusing to touch it, hacking at its insides with a knife to do what butchers once did before the war:

And yet the chicken was a sort of person, a respectable individual, with its own kind of dignity. The difference was in the knowing. What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently. If chickens were ever to be safe, people would have to live with them, and know them, see them loving their children, finishing the evening meal, arranging jealousy.

When the animal was ready for the oven Maud Martha smacked her lips at the though of her meal. (153)

There is a kind of genius in that. I love that it sits alongside those crystalline lines and images of beauty that open Maud Martha, and are scattered throughout.

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Gabriel Gbadamosi’s Vauxhall

Gabriel Gbadamosi VauxhallI quite loved Gabriel Gbadamosi’s coming-of-age novel, a little boy figuring out his place in his family, his school, and his city as the son of an Irish mother and Nigerian dad. Culture and the racism provoked by the colour of your skin, homelessness and addiction, violent death, the embarrassing things that you do as a child because you just don’t know much…

I bought this after doing a walking tour of Vauxhall with Gabriel Gbadamosi (you too should buy it). So I knew I would love it, and recognise some of the stories — it did take me too long to get to this book. I’ve been watching a lot of Trümmerfilm or rubble films, (like The Third Man (Reed 1949), and Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius 1949)), and then reading Stuart Dybek on the tearing down of his Chicago neighborhood after declaring it ‘blighted’ and remembering Marshall Berman describing the Bronx and my many years of struggle in LA and the stories I heard from urban renewal’s heyday.

It struck me how urban renewal resulted in the same kinds of landscapes as WWII, and it struck me that exploring that would be a really good little article. Bombs and war are a different level of violence and terror and death, why then do we recreate its landscapes for profit? It might capture a little of my ever renewed store of fury over people being forced from homes they love and have invested in. I remembered this book, and it did indeed have both bomb damage and the council’s slum-clearing damage and underlined that this losing of home, especially as a child, is something you never quite get over.

How many thousands of children are experiencing this at the moment, because we are bombing them…it breaks my heart. I wish I believed an article would stop bombs and urban renewal and evictions, but it can’t be bad for people to feel these things, get a sense of how they might connect.

So from Vauxhall — first there is growing up where bomb damage is taken for granted:

Brian was pulling back the corrugated iron on the bombsite that was blocked off round by the pub. We didn’t play in there because it was dangerous and could fall in on top of you. (64)

‘Lucky it wasn’t a bomb,’ Brian said, and shrugged.
‘A bomb?’
‘It’s a bomb site.’
It took a while to sink in. A bombsite was a playground, a rough place you could play in between the houses — when you could get in past the corrugated iron. I didn’t know it was the place where a bomb fell. No one told me there was a bomb under there. Until it burst in my head, and the ground went out under my feet. (69)

The feeling of the landscape as more houses begin to come down one by one (This row of houses is just where Vauxhall Park is now, and you would never know it):

It was half dark, the light was going. We looked round at the rubble of broken bricks from the house that wasn’t there any more, at the gaping hole that was full of rubbish people had thrown out. The empty space between the walls had tall weeds growing up into it. We were on our own. (87)

What it is like to lose your neighbours, your best friends:

After I while I passed his house and it was like only I knew anyone ever lived there. It was like a bomb had hit it and everyone had gone, and it was just the walls standing. It was dark and it felt dead, but I still had to get up and walk past it on my way to school and come back, past all the bomb sites where people used to live but no one knew who they were any more. (93)

I’m just going to slip this one quote in here, this specific non-rubble related quote, because I love this bit just as I would have run down always to the Thames….

Everyone told us not to go down by the Thames. Manus said the scaly fish wrapped round the lamp posts would come alive if the water splashed them, they were dredged up from the bottom, that’s why they were black. They had open eyes and fleshy mouths that dripped and glistened in the rain…
‘Dont go down to the river.’
‘All right, Mum.’
The way down was dank and slippery, and I was always down there where it opened on to a bend in the river…Everyone said don’t go, but there river pulled you. (145)

And so to end with this…the whys and the how-it-feels and the anger and the resignation, and a very creepy echo of my own thinking before reading this book that the results of urban renewal and bombing aren’t all that different:

It was like the houses had been eaten from the inside. they just had the wall of them facing the street with the sky through the windows. And then they knocked that down.
‘Like a bomb hit it,’ a man said, passing by in the street as my dad was locking the front door. My mum was beside me putting her coat on and looking up at the flattened houses — you could see through to the back of the school playground. Bits of brick wall were standing, but the houses just weren’t there any more. And they’d knocked down the first two houses on the corner of our street next to the bomb site.
‘The council,’ my dad said over his shoulder.
‘Why?’ The man paused on his way and shook his head, ‘Because the got outside loos?’
My dad shrugged, putting the keys in his pocket, ‘They want the land. Big Ben is just there.’
‘We’re being slum cleared,’ Manus said. (205)

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Housing as Character in Edwardian Writing

There is a splendid quote from Virginia Woolf’s ‘Character in Fiction’, in which she gently mocks a fashion in building character through the nature of the home they lived in. She writes:

Here is Mr Bennett making use of this common ground in the passage which I have quoted. The problem before him was to make us believe in the reality of Hilda Lessways. So he began, being an Edwardian, by describing accurately and minutely the sort of house Hilda lived in, and the sort of house she saw from the window. House property was the common ground from which the Edwardians found it easy to proceed to intimacy. Indirect as it seems to us, the convention worked admirably, and thousands of Hilda Lessways were launched upon the world by this means. (48)

Housing as character. I confess, being slightly obsessive about how people shape cities and cities shape people, in many ways I find this trait immensely wonderful and charming — especially as they often describe places that are no longer here, or that have changed dramatically over the past decades.

At the same time, writing this at some distance from actually reading the essay, I am often all muddled up about who is an Edwardian, who Victorian, who in between… This of course recalls long passages of Gissing, especially In The Year of the Jubilee (1894), maybe Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth (1897) or W. Pett Ridge’s Mord Em’ly (1898). I just finished Henry Blake Fuller’s The Cliff Dwellers (1893) about Chicago, which draws the same connections between social position and housing, but then, it is in many ways a story of real estate and the growth of American citiesThey’re all a bit early though, I suppose I haven’t read many in full throttle. I enjoyed Pett Ridge most and there is the most movement there really both in how characters grow and how they find themselves, but for the first two there is very much a sense of social position matching, or even defined by the type of home occupied.

The structures are rigid, and entirely depressing, in the same way the buildings that mark social stratification stand tall and immovable.

Suddenly it is all less charming. Especially as in some circles, I don’t know at all that it has changed very much…

Introduction to Richard Neutra

2560490Richard Neutra wrote ‘Man loves to immigrate to the south, or to conquer it.’ Interesting encapsulation of one aspect of the European/American desire — probably best explored through his own words, and not a celebratory book of his work.

Another of the few personal insights to be found here: when he met Frank Lloyd Wright at Louis Sullivan’s funeral in Chicago, he said ‘It was like coming into the presence of a unicorn’.

I lived in L.A. forever and never really knew who Neutra was, an opportunity missed.

This is a good introductory description of his work (incomplete, of course, as he was still at work during its writing), a good introduction to what works about his style, why it was so innovative and the spaces he created so beautiful, flowing almost without break from inside to outside. I prefer roundness and more organic materials, but I still love these houses. Almost unexpectedly, as so many talentless hacks have taken his squares and glass and reproduced them cheaply and ad infinitem.

singleton-house-richard-neutra-1959

There are, of course, a couple of cringeworthy moments (yet really, when will I be able to stop saying ‘of course’ when it comes to white professionals and their attitudes towards race, poverty and housing?). The brief discussion of his design for the ‘Negro and Mexican housing’ for one. All the politics of Chavez Ravine ignored in the presentation of his plans for the original housing to be developed there by the Housing Authority (but much as I know about that, I had forgotten it was Neutra had designed it… still, they never even say the words Chavez Ravine, only Elysian Park), and a celebration of urban renewal in the demolition of a ‘slum’ to be replaced by Neutra designed parking. Even that it’s Neutra-designed doesn’t reconcile me.

Still, I love how this has set me thinking about space and how we inhabit it. His designs for Rush City I find rather chilling, a vast city of modernist skyscrapers, yet part of me wishes it had actually been built just to see how something like that would work.

But I expect it wouldn’t.

HC 4 neutra005rush3 tumblr_lhmo5yjZA61qe0nlvo1_1280

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Estate: A Reverie

This film has been so long in coming, and I have been there for a small piece of its journey. It has been an honour.

Once upon a time I lived in Bow, and out for a long wander up the  Regent’s canal one day, I saw this:

Haggerston Estate

A wondrous thing. I had passed other estates with windows boarded up yet signs that people still clearly lived in them. This left me both angered and confused, as housing is in such short supply for us, and this is our housing standing empty. These are homes that people love in the midst of desolation. Here I could tell someone was fighting back, ensuring they were visible and not simply to be silently swept away.

I met Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Lasse Johannson (part of Fugitive Images, those who had put up these pictures with fellow residents) a few months later, the three of us on a panel put together by This is Not a Gateway at the Tate Modern (the Tate Modern! I called home, ever so proud).

This photo installation, i am here, was only the first part of a longer exploration of the process of decanting an estate against its resident’s wishes. This, a protest against the estate’s abandonment in preparation for regeneration. It sat alongside endless meetings, letters, petitions, protests, lobbies to preserve and improve the housing for those who lived there and loved it.

The second was the book, Estate, a combination of personal essays, photographs,  and political-economic contextualization. I loved it. You can buy it here, from Myrdle Court Press.

This film is the third, and perhaps the most powerful of the three. especially as the Haggerston Estate is now gone. I have been away or working during previous showings, but finally got to see it as part of the Open City Doc Festival. That is how we came all the way to the West End and discovered this gem of a place — the Regent Street Cinema:

Regent's Cinema

Built in 1848 and housed within the Polytechnic Institution on London’s Regent Street, the cinema was the first in the country to show moving pictures. In 1896, the cinema showcased the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe to a paying audience, and, as the curtain fell, British cinema was born.

Regent's Cinema

Go there. Enjoy.

I had seen various versions of the film — in snippets, and bits of pieces. A work in progress. But I wasn’t prepared for the full feature.

(After going through the foreclosure with my mum only a year ago, a replay of losing the house they built when I was a teenager, I feel I have lost a home twice, and this drew upon all the neverending grief and anger that such experiences leave inside of you. I don’t know if anyone else dripped tears throughout.)

Inspiring and heartbreaking both, it does two things wondrously well.

It shows the residents as they were, neighbours getting to know each other, the ways they had chosen to decorate their rooms, children playing and growing up, a father and daughter being forced to move, the elderly over time as they grew sicker and sicker. It is the most honest view of Parkinson’s I have ever seen. It brings the people of Haggerston Estate into your heart and they will never leave it. It does not does this with a bright and clinical gaze, but with the warm compassion of someone who has shared space with them for fifteen years. That sees people as they are for good and bad, and thus can love them truly.

You know exactly what suffering the lack of repairs has caused and what the loss of this community will mean. Something planners and housing managers and city officials somehow never understand.

This film could only have been made by someone who had lived there, fought for it, loved it.

That is why it captures the magic that also happened here. Slated for regeneration, the council stopped caring what people did here. Relaxed the patronising and controlling sets of rules that controlled behaviour. You hear a woman recount a story of her grandfather moved here when the estate first opened from the slums. Removed from his home and patch of ground and his animals, when they tried to force him to get rid of his dog too, he gassed both of them in the apartment.

This film is full of dogs. It is full of colour. People didn’t run riot, they painted logs and made seats, they painted goal posts on the wall for the next-door kids, they planted flowers and vegetables. They had barbeques and built a fire pit and sang songs to welcome in the New Year. They helped each other. They told stories.

They put on regency dress and discussed and acted out Samuel Richardson’s novels, whose heroines provide the names for the estate’s buildings.

Councils never did quite figure out that poor people weren’t the enemy, and the slums weren’t their creation, did they. But oh, the things people on estates can build when left alone to come together as a community.

There is so much more to say, and I’m writing a fuller review somewhere else, but just a few notes on the wonderful Q&A that followed with Andrea:

Andrea talking about Estate

She highlighted that this was a film of all the things unseen, to explore what it meant to lose the place after so many years fighting to get repairs. She felt they had to do something after the financial crash, seeing the posters go up everywhere about benefit fraud with slogans like ‘we are coming to get you.’ The strong feeling that something must be done to challenge this image production that blamed everything on the poor who were least to blame.

This was always a collective effort.

She talked too about the transition period where they could do anything they wanted, a time when people were able to take the space and decorate it as they wanted, and it became a magical place. There were some questions about why this film didn’t show struggle, the fight to improve it and keep it.

Hard choices were made on this, footage exists of everything, but there are so many films of struggle, it is something we understand (even if we don’t yet know how to win — but that is my own aside). She chose instead to show the reality of people’s lives, explore not just what the estate and its loss meant to them, but what they were able to create there when allowed some freedom for creation.

(In a previous cut, I remember seeing people come back to the estate who had already moved on, bursting into floods of tears at seeing their old flats, torn in half between all the frustrations of living somewhere in such terrible conditions but also all of the memories that still made that space a home. It was so powerful but Andrea is right, it did not fit here).

She talked about the architecture, about how vilified it is yet in these passages in the sky you have to meet your neighbours, you see them every day, you say hello. New buildings are secure by design, you never see anyone, community cannot grow and people are lonely in them.

Something else we are losing. We still have a great deal of public space, it is important in this country, but home is still seen as private, insular. It’s an interesting observation. Early estates were built to try and help create community, with multiple shared spaces — perhaps not public space but community space. That is something that is disappearing, and surely we are losing something with it.

There is so much to think about here, the film so rich it will reward reviewing. Go see it.

[A version of this post can also be found at drpop.org]

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Balzac: City, Country & Speculation in Le Pere Goriot

I enjoyed Father Goriot more than I thought I would.

Stately Paris ignores the existence of these faces bleached by moral or physical suffering; but, then, Paris is in truth an ocean that no line can plumb. You may survey its surface and describe it; but no matter how numerous and painstaking the toilers in this sea, there will always be lonely and unexplored regions in its depths, caverns unknown, flowers and pearls and monsters of the deep overlooked or forgotten by the divers of literature. The Maison Vauquer is one of these curious monstrosities.

Reading this rush of French literature I realised just how anglocentric I had become when it came to anything written over a hundred years ago — particularly in the 1800s, I was too busy reading Dickens there for a while.

There is so much to explore here, not least exciting (well, actually, to my mind it was the least exciting) being the story itself. It’s a good enough story and after so many depressing and ‘realistic’ novels (I just finished something by Zola, my god), I confess I loved being told up front that everything ended happy ever after, though you never see it all work out. I was rather fascinated that seeing how it all works out had quite a nice amount of dramatic tension. Zola has a dig at melodrama, though this was also published in serial form in 1834-35 (note to self to look more into publishing forms) it has the feel of something written as a whole. This is before The Mysteries of Paris, so he’s not talking about that when he writes:

That word drama has been somewhat discredited of late; it has been overworked and twisted to strange uses in these days of dolorous literature; but it must do service again here, not because this story is dramatic in the restricted sense of the word, but because some tears may perhaps be shed intra et extra muros before it is over.

I feel that this sentence still holds true. Funny that.

Perhaps what I liked most is that, like Dickens, this is a window on a physical world long disappeared, and Paris is revealed in an immensity of detail that engages all of the senses:

Will any one without the walls of Paris understand it? It is open to doubt. The only audience who could appreciate the results of close observation, the careful reproduction of minute detail and local color, are dwellers between the heights of Montrouge and Montmartre, in a vale of crumbling stucco watered by streams of black mud, a vale of sorrows which are real and joys too often hollow; but this audience is so accustomed to terrible sensations, that only some unimaginable and well-neigh impossible woe could produce any lasting impression there.

In a way I think those of us without the walls of Paris might enjoy it more as we an enter another place and another way of life and we are not trapped there like so many of the protagonists. The centre of the story is this boarding house, the lives of those on the edges of most desperate poverty that are still called middle-class — it is descriptions like this that make me realise just how far everyday life for most of us has come, the comforts we take for granted. But this is class and city as prison:

PROCESSION IN FRONT OF SAINTE-GENEVIÈVE Meunier, fecit (Carnavalet Museum)
PROCESSION IN FRONT OF SAINTE-GENEVIÈVE
Meunier, fecit (Carnavalet Museum)

The lodging-house is Mme. Vauquer’s own property. It is still standing in the lower end of the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, just where the road slopes so sharply down to the Rue de l’Arbalete, that wheeled traffic seldom passes that way, because it is so stony and steep. This position is sufficient to account for the silence prevalent in the streets shut in between the dome of the Pantheon and the dome of the Val-de-Grace, two conspicuous public buildings which give a yellowish tone to the landscape and darken the whole district that lies beneath the shadow of their leaden-hued cupolas.

In that district the pavements are clean and dry, there is neither mud nor water in the gutters, grass grows in the chinks of the walls. The most heedless passer-by feels the depressing influences of a place where the sound of wheels creates a sensation; there is a grim look about the houses, a suggestion of a jail about those high garden walls. A Parisian straying into a suburb apparently composed of lodging-houses and public institutions would see poverty and dullness, old age lying down to die, and joyous youth condemned to drudgery. It is the ugliest quarter of Paris, and, it may be added, the least known. But, before all things, the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve is like a bronze frame for a picture for which the mind cannot be too well prepared by the contemplation of sad hues and sober images. Even so, step by step the daylight decreases, and the cicerone’s droning voice grows hollower as the traveler descends into the Catacombs. The comparison holds good! Who shall say which is more ghastly, the sight of the bleached skulls or of dried-up human hearts?

Yet still, for all this value-laden description, this place is still far more closely tied to the country than any city I know of today. This too I find fascinating, thinking not just about food chains and how we sustain ourselves, but also perceptions of things:

The central space between the walls is filled with artichokes and rows of pyramid fruit-trees, and surrounded by a border of lettuce, pot-herbs, and parsley. Under the lime-trees there are a few green-painted garden seats and a wooden table, and hither, during the dog-days, such of the lodgers as are rich enough to indulge in a cup of coffee come to take their pleasure, though it is hot enough to roast eggs even in the shade.

Imagine this written today, in terms of celebration of fresh, organic and local produce, self-sufficiency, lowered carbon footprints. But wait, there’s more:

Behind the house a yard extends for some twenty feet, a space inhabited by a happy family of pigs, poultry, and rabbits; the wood-shed is situated on the further side, and on the wall between the wood-shed and the kitchen window hangs the meat-safe, just above the place where the sink discharges its greasy streams. The cook sweeps all the refuse out through a little door into the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, and frequently cleanses the yard with copious supplies of water, under pain of pestilence.

It’s like a little city farm, this lodging house. In comparison with my own lodging it seems potentially idyllic once I strip Balzac’s adjectives away. Though I suppose it might have been fairly ripe, especially in the summer.

I cease to feel that so strongly when we venture inside — I love this description of smell, always so evocative of a kind of place, joining different buildings together in the imagination:

The first room exhales an odor for which there is no name in the language, and which should be called the odeur de pension. The damp atmosphere sends a chill through you as you breathe it; it has a stuffy, musty, and rancid quality; it permeates your clothing; after-dinner scents seem to be mingled in it with smells from the kitchen and scullery and the reek of a hospital.

In short, there is no illusory grace left to the poverty that reigns here; it is dire, parsimonious, concentrated, threadbare poverty; as yet it has not sunk into the mire, it is only splashed by it, and though not in rags as yet, its clothing is ready to drop to pieces.

Meet it’s owner — and the brilliance of this disagreeable little description:

She is an oldish woman, with a bloated countenance, and a nose like a parrot’s beak set in the middle of it; her fat little hands (she is as sleek as a church rat) and her shapeless, slouching figure are in keeping with the room that reeks of misfortune, where hope is reduced to speculate for the meanest stakes.

This is the world inhabited by those trying to emerge from poverty into the world up above, and those on the opposite trajectory, sinking tragically down. The world of the renter, at the mercy of others and unsupported by property. Perhaps that is the defining sadness of this place, the flow of transience, hopes, more often illness and despair. This is a place though, where I’d love to be able to jump back in time, experience, decide for myself.

I’d like also to meet the cat Mistigris.

It’s a fictional road of course, but there is a whole website dedicated to finding Balzac’s Paris I’d like to return to.

Apart from the relationship between home and food and renting and owning and sustainability, there is a later fascinating section in here about the forces moving to destroy places just such as this and reshape the whole of the city. Here is Madame Nucingen explaining the nature of her vile husband’s work:

Do you know what he means by speculations? He buys up land in his own name, then he finds men of straw to run up houses upon it. These men make a bargain with a contractor to build the houses, paying them by bills at long dates; then in consideration of a small sum they leave my husband in possession of the houses, and finally slip through the fingers of the deluded contractors by going into bankruptcy. The name of the firm of Nucingen has been used to dazzle the poor contractors. I saw that. I noticed, too, that Nucingen had sent bills for large amounts to Amsterdam, London, Naples, and Vienna, in order to prove if necessary that large sums had been paid away by the firm. How could we get possession of those bills?

What a novel this is for an urbanist, though I know I am among many to mine its treasures as David Harvey’s book on Paris has a whole chapter on Balzac. Still, for my own pleasure there is more to come.

For more on writing cities…

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Walter Besant on East London

Large and heavy as this old hardback was, it was also a quick read and a most infuriating one (though I enjoyed the illustrations a great deal). I can see why Rector J.G. Birch of St Anne’s Limehouse felt impelled to pen a book about his own neighbourhood in response to this and the vileness of Thomas Burke. It is, of course, also full of great quotes to take issue with and contrast to other works on the East End, so I’ve collected the ones that struck me most here as signposts, to return to in future and tear apart properly.

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Walter Besant opens with this broad description of what East London is — fairly innocuous to start with:

…it is not a city by organisation; it is a collection of overgrown villages lying side by side. It had, until this year (1900), no center, no heart, no representative body, no mayor, no aldermen, no council, no wards; it has not inherited Folk’s Mote, Hustings, or Ward Mote; it has therefore no public buildings of its own. (8)

there are no hotels, he writes: ‘Actually, no hotels!’ (9) That is, in fact, quite interesting when you think about how people move from town to town looking for work, perhaps visiting family. I wonder if he discounts lodging houses here, it seems unlikely to me that this should be true. For further investigation.

This crowded area, this multitude of small houses, this aggregation of mean streets–these things are the expression and the consequence of an expansion of industries during the last seventy years on a very large and unexpected scale; East London suddenly sprang into existence because it was unexpectedly wanted. (9-10)

In this, it seems to me perhaps he has in mind Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets, it certainly chimes with both his title and description. I initially felt quite charitable towards Besant running the People’s Palace, a most splendid name for an institution I thought, I need to know more! I have not yet found out much more. But Morrison worked under Besant on its journal, which makes the below even more curious and insulting:

Some twelve years ago I was the editor of a weekly sheet called the “People’s Palace Journal.” In that capacity I endeavoured to encourage literary effort, in the hope of lighting on some unknown and latent genius…I discovered, to my amazement, that, among all the thousands of these young people, lads and girls, there was not discoverable the least rudimentary indication of any literary power whatsoever. (13-14)

I suppose he is excluding Morrison himself from this description but Morrison did come from these streets himself and his writing is impressive I think. I have a novel by Besant on my list to read still, but I am not impressed with his style and doubt he holds any capacity to judge working class voices. But the why of that is demonstrated through this series of quotes really.  Back to monotony:

What appearance does it present to the visitor? There is, again, in this respect as well, no other city in the world in the least like East London for the unparalleled magnitude of its meanness and its monotony. It contains about five hundred miles of streets, perhaps more…

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From the point of view of the visitor:

The Unlovely City, he calls it [the traveller], the City of Dreadful Monotony! Well, in one sense it is all that the casual traveler understands, yet that is only the shallow, hasty view. Let me try to show that it is a city full of human passions and emotions, human hopes and fears, love and the joys of love… (16)

In thinking about topophilia, the impact of space on human beings and how they shape and are shaped by it I am curiously struck by the idea of the Unlovely City, though not in the sense that Besant discusses it as despite this seeming defense of its residents and their unique passions — it is patronising and soon breaks down when they start demanding too much. Still, most of the illustrations seem to show what to my mind is a fairly liveable city, and I love the great masts that must have always been in the background:

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But perhaps its principal illustrator, Joesph Pennell, just found Limehouse picturesque and fun to draw unlike much of the rest. Brook St was a centre of life and community in Limehouse and no longer exists:

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I did like the chapter, playing on the Unlovely City, titled ‘The City of Many Crafts’ — and he goes on to list them from the days there was still work here. Silk trade, bootmaking, factories, furniture and bootmaking, fur and leather dressing…all of them now gone. they brought vitality that the City of London lacked, as people lived near where they worked, the streets did not clear on weekends but remained full of life. ‘it is a city of the working-classes’ he writes. (28)

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There is a colourful passage on Billingsgate Fishwomen, which makes me admire them in a way slightly distinct to Walter Besant’s intention I think, especially as I hate descriptions of  labour as picturesque. I also hate this mawkish sentimentality over what is gone as though it’s somehow a natural process, I suspect made more picturesque through existing only in memory rather than as living breathing cursing women:

They were as strong, also, physically, as men, even of their own class; they could wrestle and throw most men; if a visitor offended one of them she ducked him in the river; they all smoked pipes like men, and they drank rum and beer like men; they were a picturesque part of the market…Alas! the market knows them no more. … we all have our little day; she has enjoyed her’s, and it is all over and past. (55)

He is, however,  as Birch noted, mostly insulting to those along the river:

…the people left to themselves, grew year by year more lawless, more ignorant, more drunken, more savage…The whole of the riverside population, including not only the bargemen and porters, but the people ashore, the dealers in drink, the shopkeepers, the dealers in marine stores, were joined and banded together in an organized system of plunder and robbery. (48)

This illustration shows Limehouse as it perhaps once was, one of its so-called thieving lazy shiftless workers in the foreground (though possibly it’s just that he hasn’t eaten for a few days, though he does look well fed):

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Walter Besant talks approvingly about the increased control of the docks, fences, body searches:

I am sorry that we have no record of the popular feeling on the riverside when it became at last understood that there was no longer any hope, that honesty had actually become compulsory…For the first time these poor injured people felt the true curse of labor. (52)

Could anything make me first laugh and then rage more than this sentence? There is so much documentation (see Harkness or Stafford) of how terrible dock work was, how it was work of last resort with its uncertain hours, its desperate daily competition for positions and need for constant readiness with starvation when you failed to obtain a place, its backbreaking work. It was widely understood to be the work that killed you the fastest.

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That sentence is really unforgiveable. His further thoughts on factory girls are almost as bad:

They work from early morning till welcome evening. The music of this murmur, rightly understood, is like the soft and distant singing of a hymn of praise. For the curse of labor has been misunderstood; without work man would be even as the beasts of the field. It is the necessity of work that makes him human… (115)

This was obviously written by a man who had not himself worked in a factory of the time, suffered phossy jaw or died early from lungs full of lint or lost a limb loading ships. It also means he does not understand one of the the other true curses of labour beyond early illness, injury and death: Bosses:

Meantime, the factory people are as careful about their girls as can be expected. They insist on their making a respectable appearance and wearing a hat….There is a good deal of paternal kindliness in the London employer…(141)

They didn’t give them the hats sadly, and this sentence is not mitigated by being followed by a patronising sentence on strikes, even given that it is a nod to the fabulous matchwomen’s strike.  There follows more on the lads, the problems they face since their working hours have been reduced from 12 hours and bedtime at dark, giving them too much time on their hands.

…he has four hours, perhaps five, to get through every evening…What is that boy to do?

If lucky they join one of the boys’ clubs, ‘work of their restlessness and get rid of the devil in the gymnasium with the boxing gloves…they become infected with some of the upper-class ideals, especially as regards honor and honesty, purity and temperence… (172)

That’s quite vomitous as well. I’m trying to think of novels or description of virtuous young male aristocrats who do not drink, sleep around, gamble or dock owners and merchants who are not ruthless and mercenary…I am at a loss. But I like the verb ‘infected’ in this sentence.

I laughed at his horror that these young men love the penny dreadfuls, imagine! Earlier he stated they didn’t read at all, so clearly he classes this literature as below contempt.

There is an archaic and awkward chapter on the ‘Alien’ — it starts with the huguenots, contains some uncomfortable words on the Jews.

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He visits an opium den and is disappointed by a fair sized room ‘neither dreadful nor horrible’. (206) He writes

There are small colonies and settlements of other foreigners. Anarchists make little clubs where murders are hatched, especially murders of foreign sovereigns… (206)

That made me laugh as well…

There is a chapter on the Houseless — the great throng of them. He mentions the new LCC development in Bethnal Green — describes 5000 people turned out of their homes, moving to other districts already overcrowded and most unable to return.

He also has a curious chapter on ‘the Submerged’ — like the ‘Unlovely City’ this category is one that I find actually incredibly useful, even if only for the thoughts it provokes. It essentially describes those who have fallen in life and stay down at the bottom listless, unable to lift themselves.

Not the tramp, nor the sturdy rogue, nor the professional criminal, nor the vile wretches who live by the vilest trades, may be numbered among the submerged. They fall noiselessly from their place of honor, they live noiselessly in their place of dishonor; they might perhaps be brought back to work, but the cases of recovery must be very few in proportion, because the causes which dragged them down are those which prevent them from being dragged up (250).

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This describes those suffering addiction, mental illness, what we would now call ptsd…there are so many different reasons people end up surviving on the streets.

There is quite a lovely illustration of a women’s workhouse which captures a little more of the gloom and the discomfort and the despair that Mary Higgs‘ more clinical descriptions couldn’t quite manage:

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Besant finishes with a few chapters on the East End’s old villages now suburbs, Hackney and more…I might have filled posts on those if I knew them better but have left them to one side. If I end up finding a new flat somewhere out there perhaps I will return to it. There is a cluster of interesting things about Ratcliff however, and a long description of where I now work, so that will fill a new post at some point.

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The Early Desperation of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch

Perhaps no city in the world presents more desolate a spectacle than the parishes of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, which together contain 70,000 people. A large part of the land here has retained its original name of gardens, where landlords and speculators have raised a multitude of wooden shacks. mostly of one storey, for housing poor families. The appearance of these gardens is indescribable: there are no streets or drains running between the miserable hovels surrounded by their rotting wooden fences; the ground has not even been Ievelled; in some places there are mounds of earth and piles of rubbish, in others there are hollows full of stagnant water; heaps of pig manure lie in front of the hovels; there is nothing but filth, stench and decay everywhere. The abominable quarters are abandoned without protection or surveillance. The city authorities do not reach this far: in fact they are nowhere in evidence. The hovels are crumbling and rotting away; there is no drainage, no lighting, no regular collection of rubbish – in short, not a sign of urban civilisation. It is the supreme example of laissez faire! This quarter is totally outside the law, outside humanity; none of the rules and regulations of civilised society apply here!

These are the words of Eugène Buret, a French journalist and economist, and the essay they are found in (later made into a short book) won a prize for best research paper from the Academy for Moral and Political Sciences in Paris. I myself found them as extensive quotation in Flora Tristan’s London Journals, but Marx also quoted from them in his 1844 Manuscripts, apparently without citation.

”A back garden in Nichol Street, Bethnal Green” illustration for "More Revelations of Bethnal Green" in The Builder, vol. XXI, no. 1082 (31 October 1863)
”A back garden in Nichol Street, Bethnal Green” illustration for “More Revelations of Bethnal Green” in The Builder, vol. XXI, no. 1082 (31 October 1863)

Thy embody for me a whole host of issues that the social writing of this period put forward most starkly — the level of horror to be found in the conditions in which people lived, the judgmental gaze of the reformer that placed these ‘hovels’ and people within them ‘outside humanity’, the challenge that I think this raises for people working along more Foucauldian lines that does not erase the evils of surveillance and inspection, but points to the fact their absence might be worse. How then do we ensure no one ever again is forced by poverty under capitalism to live like this?

To quote from ‘Dwellings of the Poor in Bethnal Green’, in The Illustrated London News, 24th October 1863:

That public attention has at last been directed to the condition of the poorer neighbourhoods of Bethnal-green is attributable to the evidence of the medical officer who, at an inquest held on the body of a child, declared that death had been caused by “blood-poisoning,” through the impure state of the dwellings in a certain locality. That a wide and populous district has for years been subject to all the foulest influences which accompany a state of extreme filth and squalor may be due to the fact that private moneyed interests have had little to fear from parochial authority, even when they have not been represented by the same individuals…But “threatened men live long;” and even now the owners of the putrid sties in the purlieus of Friars-mount, in Thorold-square, in Twig-folly, and other centres of pestilence may well believe that neither board, nor commission, nor sanitary officer will trouble them if they can only let inquiry itself die, and so contrive to hush up the whole matter until the passing excitement is directed to some new object.

Eugène Buret’s words are so eloquent I have quoted as much as Tristan quotes (that things have not changed by 1863 you can see from reading the whole article in The Illustrated London News), and my heart breaks for those who suffered the ravages of the Industrial Revolution without the protection of industrial action and unions.

It is on record that many workers in the manufacturing towns of England do not attend church because they have no clothes.

On 31 May 1840 I visited the district of Bethnal Green in the company of the parish officers responsible for distributing relief
in this part of the city of London….

Among the wooden hovels scattered all over the “gardens”  we noticed one which stood out from the rest by reason of its even more wretched appearance. It might have been taken for a pile of rotting timber thrown upon a dunghill; the fence separating it from the other hovels consisted of broken planks interspersed with scraps of iron and metal all in an indescribable state off filth  and dilapidation. In one room on the ground floor – the only room in the house – with its floor a few inches lower than the pile of rubbish in the yard outside, lived a family of ten. This hovel which measures less than ten feet square by seven feet high has a rent of 1s. 6d a week. It is even more difficult to convey an idea of the state of the family than to describe their dwelling. The man, the head of the family, was shaking with fever; illness and hunger had reduced him to extreme emaciation, and nothing about him seemed alive except his gaze. transparent and animated by the heat of his fever; it was impossible to endure his anguished expression. This man, thirty-seven years of age, English by birth and a silk-dyer by trade, told us that he could earn up to 15s. a week when employed, but that he had been unable to find work for five months. The relief officer confirmed that he had always been of good character, and that neither laziness or vice had brought him to this state. His wife, crouching by the broken hearth, held an infant to her breast, and three more barefoot young children were outside. Their father confessed to us that the other children had gone out “In the hope of finding something, either by begging or otherwise”. For five months he had had no other means of existence than what the parish allowed him and what the children brought home. Despite the extreme destitution of this family, they refused to take refuge in the workhouse.

In another yard of this abominable quarter we found a family which seemed to us even more wretched than the first, if that is possible. They were living in one upstairs room. quite spacious and light. but approached by a dark and dirty staircase where every stair shook beneath our feet. This family consisted. of eight people, all present at the time of our visit. The head of the family was a weaver of velvet, still young and English by birth. He earned 7s. 6d per week, but he was not continuously employed. His lodging cost him 2s. 6d. per week, and for nearly two months he had been unable to pay his rent. The only article of furniture in the room was his loom; there were no chairs, no table, no bed. In one corner was a big heap of straw, half hidden by a scrap of cloth, and in it were buried three children, stark naked like animals, with not a single rag between them. The woman had her back turned to us and was vainly trying to fasten about her what remained of her clothing so that she would be fit to be seem. The man was wearing a blue coal with two or three shining engraved buttons still on it; he had no shirt. He received us with courtesy, and sadly yet calmly told us the full horror of his plight. When we entered he was holding a Bible, and when the parish officer asked him why he did not go to church, he pointed to his bare chest, to his wife standing motionless with shame in the comer, and his children hiding one behind another to avoid our gaze, and replied that soon he would not even be able to go out looking for work. This family was accounted honest and the officer had already distributed clothes to them several times, but lack of work had forced the father to trade these gifts of charity for bread. And this is not the only part of London privileged to suffer such wretchedness. Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Shadwell, St Giles and St Olaf would provide us at every step with scenes similar to those we have just described.
Eugène Buret – De la misère des clases laborieuses en Engleterre et en France (Paris, 1840)

As always there is the uncomfortable clarity of the reformer’s distinction between deserving and undeserving poor — where it seems to me the undeserving poor were simply those who did not allow themselves to die slowly and without murmur or fight. The limitations of parish relief and ‘charity’ are clear. Even at this extreme, families refused to resort to the Workhouse. Mary Higgs writing sixty years — and a number of reforms — later of the terrible conditions offers a good understanding of why in the very practical sense, giving explanations of how the workhouse might kill you even faster than starvation in the open air, without even taking into account pride or lack of space.

Room occupied by a military tailor and his family, at No. 10 Hollybush-Place. The Illustrated London News, 24th October, 1863.
Room occupied by a military tailor and his family, at No. 10 Hollybush-Place.
The Illustrated London News, 24th October, 1863.

Reading such things I am always made so furious, it is so vital we never look back on these times as the good old days. Looking at Bethnal Green and especially Shoreditch now, I also wish there were some memory preserved of so much misery and death that formed part of the construction of these picturesque narrow alleys and quaint old corners and buildings. That this translated into a commitment to maintaining a large portion of these areas as quality social housing so that our society might reflect a vision of neighbourhoods and the conditions of the people living within them improved over time, rather than an improvement of infrastructure that forces people out.

There is a lot more written about Bethnal Green, especially the Old Nichol, of course, to be explored further.

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