There may be loads written on this, but very little of it is available in English in anything resembling an affordable edition. Almost nothing. The book I most wanted by Eve Blau The Architecture of “Red Vienna” 1919-1934 starts at £130, still, I found a lovely article by her which this pulls from a bit en masse. But the lack of literature is an immense frustration.
After the electoral victory of the Austrian Social Democratic Worker’s Party (SDAPÖ) in May of 1919 Vienna, the new socialist council accomplished great things to improve the lives of workers. Housing was only one of the things they did, they looked at education and health as well. But more on that is here. The new government under mayors Jakob Reumann and Karl Seitz worked to build as much housing as quickly as they could. And it is splendid. It was ‘organised communally and jointly on a community aid basis‘, designed by architects like Adolf Loos, Josef Frank, Margarete Lihotzky and Franz Schuster and the whole advised by others like Otto Neurath.
The settlers’ collectives and cooperatives were in most cases sub-organisations of the SDAPÖ, which was a guarantee that neither anarchy nor a proprietary bourgeois ownership mentality prevailed, but above all that party-political and unified action was encouraged and reinforced, through educational and community-oriented organisational forms such as political and cultural education courses (adult education programme, adult education centres), libraries, clubs, workers’ clubs (Schutzbund) and youth groups (Wiener Kinderfreunde, Rote Falken, Naturfreunde),
From a present-day viewpoint, the formal achievements of “Red Vienna” are of less importance than its social achievements, because the allocation of housing according to the determination of need, i.e. objective urgency, rather than through interest or purse, the instilling of a spirit of community and shared responsibility in a longed-for democratic welfare state by means of architecture and improved living conditions, the demand for healthier, decent housing with local infrastructure, not at the cost of the weak, are (still) real-socialist goals which remain to be achieved today. (Zednicek 11-12)
I found a slightly different take here, from Eve Blau in an article on an earlier exhibition touring the US ‘The Vienna Model: Housing for the 21st Century City’ (would have loved that…)
To begin, it is important to emphasize that the municipal project of Red Vienna was not a housing program, but an urban program. It was a comprehensive urban project that set itself task of making Vienna a more equitable environment for modern urban living. The building program – which involved the construction of 400 buildings known as Gemeindebauten, in which housing, social services and cultural institutions were distributed throughout the city – was the primary instrument of that project. By 1934, when Red Vienna itself came to a violent end with the Austrofascist rout of the socialist administration by Dollfuss and the Heimwehr, 200,000 people – one-tenth of the population of Vienna – had been rehoused, and the city provided with a vast new infrastructure of health and welfare services, clinics, childcare facilities, kindergartens, schools, sports facilities, public libraries, theatres, cinemas, and other institutions.
When the first socialist mayor of Vienna was elected in 1919, the Social Democrats determined to make Red Vienna a model of municipal socialism. “Capitalism,” Robert Danneberg, president of the new Provincial Assembly of Vienna declared, “cannot be abolished from the Town Hall. Yet it is within the power of great cities to perform useful installments of socialist work in the midst of capitalist society.” Red Vienna, in other words, was a project to change society by changing the city (Blau).
Most of the flats built were modest, all had an internal toilet (revolutionary!) but many were lacking other amenities now considered necessary. But they held so much more, and embodied a vision of social transformation:
The Gemeindebauten were conceived as the “social condensers” of Red Vienna, the vehicles for transforming the city. They contained housing, but also the Social Democrats’ extensive new infrastructure of social and cultural institutions that were embedded in them. They therefore created a new network of socio-cultural nodes throughout Vienna. It is important to note that the Social Democrats could not have focused on housing and social infrastructure if the previous Christian Social administration of mayor Karl Lueger (1844-1910) had not put in place the extensive network of technical infrastructure – electricity, gas, drinking water, sewage, tramlines, and a new metropolitan railway – in Vienna a generation earlier. The Social Democrats not only profited, but also learned a great deal from that earlier program (Blau).
Look how much they managed before this brilliant moment was crushed by fascism. Small wonder they campaigned around it.
A striking feature of all “Red Vienna” municipal housing projects is the inscription in red metal lettering: “Built by the Viennese municipal authorities from funds raised through the housing construction tax in the years …” Notwithstanding their stylistic similarities, the municipal developments are characterised by a wide range of architectural solutions and building typologies, whereby, with the typology of the “superblock”, for the first time in urban development morphology both a new building typology in housing construction and a change in scale in Vienna’s urban landscape appear. The homogeneous giant blocks containing over 800 individual flats, but also some big estate settlements with between 400 and 800 settler’s holdings, burst asunder the traditional architectural and structural fabric of the city. The new, unfamiliar “colossal” scale of the municipal developments gave rise to new problems both in terms of urban the planning and also in the way the dimensions of the buildings rage and were handled architecturally. The monumental-emotional excesses of the “superblocks”, which because of their size and mass dominated the urban space, were perceived as a unified “Red Front” against bourgeois-conservative Vienna. (Zednicek 35)
Eve Blau brings out more nuance in this, partly by describing the traditions of architecture, planning and transport design they drew from as well as their goal. I wouldn’t have said they felt all that much like a front, with perhaps the exception of Karl-Marx Hof. They fit the fabric of the city quite well.
At first glance the Gemeindebauten appear to be traditional Central European perimeter blocks that have been monumentalized and provided with large garden courtyards so that they often occupy an entire urban block and sometimes several. Because of their seeming conventionality, the Gemeindebauten were sharply criticized at the time by architects of the modernist avant-garde and by architectural historians later, most notably, Manfredo Tafuri, who criticized them for their apparent lack of typological innovation.
But in fact, they did represent innovation:
By bringing the public space of the city into the interior (and traditionally private space) of the block, the Gemeindebauten effectively turned the traditional urban block of the Central European city inside out. In so doing, they created hybrid spaces that were both part of the public domain of the city and part of the private and communal space of the new housing blocks.
The buildings themselves also challenge traditional concepts of boundary and type. Part dwelling space, part institutional space, part commercial space; they are multi-functional, multi-use structures that operate as both housing and urban infrastructural nodes, distributing the social services and cultural facilities provided by the Social Democratic municipality across the city. In short, they reproduced the city while reallocating its spaces and amenities.
In short, the Gemeindebauten not only appropriated what would normally have been private space in the city (the interiors of the city blocks) for public use, but also created a new kind of commons, a new form of communal space in the city. And they did this without destroying the existing scale and fabric. Today, this kind of commonly owned space has more or less disappeared from the city.
A display from the exhibition:
We headed to the Ringstrasse of the Proletariat — I mean, we heard that such was its name once upon a time and so of course we did. Not all the buildings we saw are on this map but this is the key grouping:
We start from the top, walking down from the Margaretengürtel station. We found these nowhere clearly mapped, so had no idea quite what we were looking for, or how much we would find (and missed one with crazy balconies right across the street).
Ernst Hinterberger Hof
This was impressive — nine stories in the center flanked by two smaller blocks of seven stories. The courtyards they hold and the different levels are wonderful, as is the welcoming garden in front of the center building. It was meant to be impressive, ‘since it reflected in idealised form the ideological power-political and cultural reality right at the beginning of “municipal socialism’ (Zednicek 54) .
Architects Hubert Gessner/Josef Bittner, built 1924-26
This feels both subdued and ornate alongside Reumann Hof
There is clearly another in the curve of the road, I thought Matteotti was the end…but we had the biggest yet to come. Still, I appreciated seeing these more I think, one alongside each other you get a real sense of how they are each distinctive yet the characteristics they share.
Karl Marx Hof
This monstrous flagship of the social democratic administration and building ideology bears all the hallmarks of a built political manifesto. The grand gesture already expressly demanded by the municipal planning department when inviting competitive design proposals required a distinctly “triumphal architecture”, which the official town hall architect Karl Ehn implemented in ideal form with his colossal design. The gigantic housing complex of, originally, 1,300 flats with exemplary infrastructural amenities has a facade almost one kilometre in length which gave rise to how the problem of how to deal with the structural dimensions and divide them harmonically… solved through the effective scaling of the structure in individual blocks. The prestige project with its plainly designed and divided blocks was consciously conceived as an antithesis to the otherwise preferred pathos of the “people’s palaces”. (Zednicek 14)
It was built in 3 stages as part of the 2nd 5-year plan of housing constrcution, first occupied in 1930 and completed in 1933. Such an incredible thing after July 1927, the burning of the Palace of Justice and bloody street fighting — which cannot but be connected to the civil war of July 1934.
Pictures from the Red Vienna exhibit website of when it was first built — and by whom!
This is another settlement all together, but gives a sense of the cooperative building.
And these the books used to track people’s labour:
A model building of a settlement house by Adolf Loos. Splendid
There is a map of course, but it is large and we saw it at the Red Vienna exhibition but could not take it with us…
Blau, Eve (n.d.) Re-visiting Red Vienna as an Urban Project, https://www.austria.org/revisiting-red-vienna.
Zednicek, Walter (2009) Architektur des Roten Wien. Vien: Grasl Druck & Neue Medien.
There is such a richness to be uncovered here in Brick Lane, and I fail to uncover it in this post. I just collected a few quotes I particularly liked about life in London…that’s what you get, reading for enjoyment. I did enjoy this exploration of immigration and grappling with culture as they intertwine with character and expectations, and of course, the city itself. I loved its focus on women’s experience, enjoyed Nazneen’s attainment of strength and freedom, how it compares to her sister’s, how it connects to politics and race and self and place.
I remember first coming to the city from the desert — nothing like a village full of verdant green, but still this critical view of the East End strikes a chord. Of course, I moved to L.A. first, the bits with far fewer parks and green spaces, so it’s harder to be so critical of London in face of that sprawling concrete disaster (much as I love so much of it).
There was a patch of green surrounded by black railings, and in the middle two wooden benches. In this city, a bit of grass was something to be guarded, fenced about, as if there were a sprinkling of emeralds sown in among the blades. Nazneen found the gate and sat alone on the bench. A maharanee in her enclosure. The sun came out from behind a black cloud and shone briefly in her eyes before plunging back under cover, disappointed with what it had seen. (58)
This is an East End without all the lovely and curious things in it I have come to love, an East End restricted to estates and concrete — all the problems of social housing without much to redeem them:
She turned into the Berner Estate. Here, every type of cheap hope for cheap housing lived side by side in a monument to false economy. The low rises crouched like wounded monsters along concrete banks. In the gullies, beach-hut fabrications clung anxiously to the hard terrain, weathered and beaten by unknown storms. A desolate building, gouged-out eyes in place of windows, announced the Tenant’s Association: Hall for Hire. (468)
That said, I have seen a number of these Tenant Association halls, and they really are entirely dire. I always wondered about that. They, more than anything else, show that estates weren’t always built with the most respect for the people they were to house. Many were, of course, but not these perhaps.
The meeting was in a low building at the edge of the estate. It had been built without concession to beauty and with the expectation of defilement. (236)
Even so they contain so much life, friendships that matter, families and tragedies and love and plans for the future and organising for better or for worse.
The Pussy Cat Mansions were built around a large compound. Adah called the open space a compound, remembering Africa. the Family Advisor, whom she met later, used the word courtyard for the open space. It was an open space into which all the front doors opened out. In the centre of the compound were some ill-looking buildings. Adah’s African friends called these little houses ‘Juju man’s house’. When the vicar’s wife visited, she said to Adah, ‘Those houses look like a monastery,’ but the Deaconness said they looked more like a mortuary. Originally the architect had meant them to be used as pram and bicycle sheds…(16)
The stairs are steep in the mansions, and the trash chutes are almost always overflowing. Small windows and doors. Small impersonal tiles like hospitals and prisons. Thin walls that allow you to hear everything. The smell of urine. Children everywhere.
Ah, yes, the Mansions were a unique place, a separate place individualised for ‘problem families’. Problem families with real problems were placed in a problem place. So even if one lived at the Mansions and had no problems the set-up would create problems – in plenty. (17)
I love this story exploring life and a council estate and the welfare state intertwined. The deep ambivalence of needed help and its provision with strings and dependency. But it starts with what council housing could be — a way for someone to escape an untenable rental situation, somewhere stable and safe and welcoming to make of their life what they wish. For Adah in her first night in her new flat:
There were three important things she knew she had acquired that night, her independence, her freedom, and peace of mind. (15)
Those things that are so hard to find in private rentals, in shared flats, in uncertain tenancies where you never know what will happen next, when you will be out, what your crazy flatmate might do. Where it is hard to find space of your own.
The terrible thing is that many council flats did not bring such things in the end; this one didn’t. Everyone who knew anything warned her to wait for a flat in a better building. You watch this living situation move Adah further and further from each of these three objectives she prizes so greatly, above all stealing away her independence and drive through the demands and requirements placed on her by the Family Advisor.
God, you want to hit that woman sometimes. Carol, you think, and shake your head. The tenants know as well as the readers that she lives off of ‘helping’ them, and she’s not one to help herself out of a job. The remote possibility remains that she does at bottom have people’s best interests at heart, but she still kills just as dead each possible future but the one in which you just get by through a begrudged kindness from the State, with her help of course.
Despite all of that, the Mansions has its own community, its own support. There is a warmth there, a camaraderie. There is something to miss after everyone is moved along and it is demolished. We always leave a piece of ourselves behind in the places we have lived and the people we have shared our lives with.
While writing this I was comparing the Mansions with Haggerston Estate in my mind, also considered a problem estate for problem people from the very beginning. I was wondering what might have grown in the Mansions if people had been allowed to come together, to do for themselves, to take ownership of the space, to dream and plan and paint.
You see sparks of resistance here and there, of course, it is curious the different extents to which Adah’s fellow tenants have internalised both the rules and the disrespectful attitudes behind them. Curious where they make their stands. But make their stands they do.
We need social housing that does not through its patronising control of the poor create such conditions, that provides the infrastructure instead to support and nurture the human lives within it. That ensures the Carols of the world are employed in jobs they are actually good at where they can do no damage. Estate: A Reverie has some of the answers. Of course, we also have to build more, and better social housing. And stop destroying what we have. Emecheta is showing here both what housing could mean to a mother trying to achieve a better life, and the gap between that wonderful possibility and a controlling reality of rules and requirements that denies that achievement.
It doesn’t seem impossible.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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]
For more on housing and estates…
Boris Johnson’s budget is severely lacking. Social and genuinely affordable housing are missing, both from the budget and from his housing policy. In his vision statement for London he says:
The strategy also aims to make sure that the homes we build better reward those who work hard to make this city a success – by massively increasing opportunities for home ownership, by improving the private rented sector and by ensuring working Londoners have priority for low cost affordable homes to rent.
Back to discourse of the ‘deserving’, and the delusions that more than a fraction of ‘hard working’ Londoners will ever be able to afford a home here. Back to delusions that the private market has ever provided quality housing for the mass of working people. Look at the Royal Mail building fiasco at Mount Pleasant, with ‘affordable’ flats at £2800 a month.
This budget is just taking us back, and we sure as hell don’t want to go there. Let’s go back to Maud Pember Reeves and the glory days of private renting, describing Lambeth tenants in 1913:
They put up with broken and defective grates which burn twice the coal for half the heat; they accept plagues of rats or of vermin as acts of God; they deplore a stopped-up drain without making an effective complaint, because they are afraid of being told to find new quarters if they make too much fuss. If they could or would take concerted action, they could right a great many of the smaller grievances. But, when all is said and done, these reforms could do very little as long as most of the present buildings exist at all, or as long as a family of eight persons can only afford two, or at most three, small rooms (38).
But nothing is more horrifying than how she cross-references housing conditions, particularly the cheapest basement flats, with the babies who have died. So many babies died. More than lived, for families in basement flats. They wanted to only study healthy families, but had to accept asthma and other pulmonary complaints as almost universal.
So fights are on across London to save council housing and to build more — folks from the Radical Housing Network and Lambeth Housing Activists among others, and prominent banners proclaimed the fight in the Aylesbury Estates and Guinness Trust’s Loughborough Park Estate. It’s not just housing, we all know libraries are on the cutting block this year, and the Save Earl’s Court folks were here too protesting the budget that is destroying the social fabric of the city.
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.
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.
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.
First posted on the Brixton Buzz, 20 February, 2015
Not because Russell Brand thinks so, but because these women are fierce and smart and inspirational.
They have injected some hope into the struggle for the right of everyday people to continue to live in London, and a bit of much needed pride in being a resident of social housing.
This is from The Independent:
Russell Brand suggests New Era estate’s victory is the start of revolution: ‘There’s a little of this spirit in all of us and it’s beginning to awaken’…the New Era estate’s ‘victory’ represents ‘the start of something that will change our country forever’.
Some pearls of campaign wisdom from Lindsay Garrett, Lynsay Spiteri and Danielle Molinari, who didn’t at first know much about campaigning:
- Their objective was clear, they knew that they were going to fight the whole way. The only way the company was going to get them out of their homes was to physically drag them and their children out of the doors.
- So much of this was about people being able to stick together. They worked hard to make sure everyone was up for it. They let everyone know exactly what was happening, putting leaflets under doors, holding meetings, posting notices on letter boards, talking over what these evictions really meant with other tenants. They created a tenant association, had house reps for each block, developed networks to keep people informed.
- They knew their targets — they sat and made a list of everyone who could be pressured, from the owners to the investors to local Councillors and MPs and Cameron himself. They were up for it.
- They dug the dirt — like the numbers behind the millionaire MP Richard Benyon who was the first to try and evict them, his own publicly funded house could have house everyone on the New Era Estate with room to spare
- They knew it was not about legal rights, it was about moral rights
- They looked for help and solidarity. This came from organisations like Hackney Digs (doing some awesome campaigning around renters rights) and Unite, local institutions and businesses (schools and local shops and cafes and such), and of course the local and national press. Celebrities don’t hurt at all.
They certainly brought inspiration to the hall. One of the key questions they answered was about how they managed opposition and apathy on the estate.
They didn’t find much opposition, but a lot of people didn’t want to know or think about what was happening, just wanted to bury their heads in the sand. So a few key people had to take the lead, be the public face for the campaign.
They spoke out, but never without letting absolutely everyone know exactly when and where and what was happening. The more people could see that they were making a difference, the less fear they had about joining in.
Other tenants just didn’t believe they could win. Now, of course, they do.
This still isn’t true of all the tenants on the Guinness Trust Estate here in Lambeth. Residents spoke out about the difficulties they are having keeping their own campaign momentum going as they face eviction due to regeneration. Calls for support will be going out as they continue their campaign.
Tenants from the Cressingham Gardens Estate were also in the house, discussing their own ongoing campaign.
After a series of marches and a Question Time session with housing experts and local Councillors, on Wednesday they are returning to the full council meeting to present the Save Cressingham petition a 2nd time, because the council has failed to acknowledge the petition handed over by the resident delegation in December.
They’re asking for people to come for at least the photo shoot on the steps of the council. (6.40pm at TownHall)
Residents of the Knights Walk Estate were also present, facing their own issues of regeneration.
The other speaker of the evening was Adam Lambert from a labour campaign at St Mungo’s (you can read about their campaign here).
He made the important point that as Housing Associations lose what ideals they had to become ever more like corporations paying their directors six-figure salaries, workers as much as tenants are getting screwed.
They themselves are often tenants of social and other at-risk housing, and should be part of these campaigns as both workers and residents.
An RMT member emphasised the similarities between councils running down housing in order to then argue that it is beyond repair so they can sell it off — another connection between work and housing.
A number of people expressed frustration with political parties who refuse to put social housing on the agenda.
There was wide agreement that bigger and broader actions and marches need to happen, people need to keep coming together. Tenants from New Era, workers from St Mungo’s and many of those present in the hall were all planning on attending this Saturday’s March for Homes.
Estate, Fugitive Images (Myrdle Court Press, London: 2010)
The pursuit of public Housing provision was one of the 20th century’s redeeming contributions. Yet, in the first decade of the 21st century, public housing as an ideal is a contradictory territory resulting from policies that value entrepreneurial charities or a subsidised private sector over state funded and administered housing.
Estate is a timely contribution to the debates entangling millions of individuals and countless neighbourhoods. The starting point is a visual essay on the Haggerston West & Kingsland estates in Hackney, east London, in the process of demolition and re-building. The 56 photographs document the spaces left behind when people were moved out. Despite residents living in limbo for over 30 years as refurbishment plans were continuously proposed, shelved and re-proposed, the images highlight their innovative solutions to the difficulties of continuing to live while an idea and a set of buildings were being abandoned around them.
This is an incredible book that will move you deeply, even if the true meaning of home and the trauma of losing it hasn’t been burnt into you by life itself. As someone who has experienced eviction and poverty and loss, I confess I have strong feelings about how people write about it, document it, photograph it. But here it is done with a beauty, love, and respect that comes closer to capturing the many shades of what it means and how it is experienced than almost anything I have read. There is no sentimentalization here, no glorification of the working class or a home that after years of landlord neglect has become much less than anyone would wish. Instead it is a deeply felt exploration of meaning from many angles, a teasing out across perspectives, a contextualization of loss and change through words and images and theory.
My favourite section is the first one by Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Lasse Johannson, the experience of living on Hackney’s Haggerston West Estate and watching it slowly emptying of people, introducing the incredible series of photographs from Haggerston and Kingsland Estates, with captions that add another level of depth to what the images make so vivid. I took the photo that heads this review in 2011, wandering down the Regent’s Canal and finding it beautiful and extraordinary long before I met Andrea and Lasse or heard about their work.
Followed by a more literary piece by Paul Hallam, exploring estates in the plural and the singular, winding around the meaning and making of place and poverty, extracting quotes from residents that I confess made me shed a tear or two on the tube. There is much to ponder in Victor Buchli’s Archeology of the Recent Past, and a clear contextualization of the particular within the broader history of Britain’s social housing by Cristina Cerulli.
They come together in a thought-provoking, moving whole. No one can ever have the last, the final, the entire say of what estates mean to those who live in them, what it is like to live in them, what it is like to lose them. That is the point. Estate is simply a gift to those who read it, the gift of a view, a taste, an experience that will make you think and feel deeply.
You can buy it here, from the wonderful Myrdle Court Press. This is an old review, brought forward in anticipation of seeing the film from Fugitive Images, Estate, a reverie, that I have seen some powerful clips from and long been waiting to watch as a whole:
an artist’s film, song cycle and installation to be created and performed by the disappearing community of the Haggerston Estate. It is the final and most ambitious project in a trilogy of collaborative works on the estate led by artist resident Andrea Luka Zimmerman, working closely with architectural researcher and writer David Roberts, following the public art/photo-installation i am here (with Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fenell) and the artists’ book Estate (Myrdle Court Press, with Lasse Johansson, Paul Hallam, Cristina Cerully, Victor Buchli), both of which have gained international acclaim.
The Question Time session on housing and regeneration in the borough last night, hosted by residents of Cressingham Gardens and the Holy Trinity & St Matthias Church, was quite brilliant.
I think this is at least one of the things democracy looks like. On a panel chaired by Dave Hill (sitting in the centre above) from The Guardian were, from left to right, Jonathan Bartley of the Green Party, Michael Edwards from University College London, and Cllr Matthew Bennett (Gipsy Hill and cabinet member for housing) and on the other side of Hill, Chris Brown of Igloo Regeneration, Cllr Marcia Cameron (of Cressingham Garden’s ward), and Dr Paul Watt from Birkbeck University of London.
You can follow the live blog from Single Aspect, with a lot more detail through the second half that I had to miss. I didn’t quite catch the first question from Judith as I was taking pictures, but it was a general one on housing and the council’s commitment to social housing.
It elicited some of the following facts from the panel. Apparently no one knows the facts better than Matthew Bennett, Lambeth’s cabinet member for housing, the situation is that we collectively face in the borough:
- The waiting list for social housing has risen from 20,000 to 21,000
- There were 1500 homeless (I think families, but possibly individuals) in April, now up to 2000
- Over 1300 families known to the council are living in severely overcrowded conditions
It just gets worse every time I hear the statistics. So what are they doing? Bennett stated that their benchmark for regeneration schemes is that there is no reduction of social housing, only an increase. He mentioned a draft of regeneration principles on Lambeth’s website, but a google search doesn’t turn them up easily.
He mentioned the Somerleyton development of course, I applaud the fact that it will provide around 100 genuinely affordable flats, the only genuinely affordable flats now being proposed in the massive development of central Brixton. I have no idea where the other 900 he says that Labour hopes to build in the next five years are to come from.
Bartley from the Greens was quite vociferous in defense of the Cressingham Garden tenants. He noted that after going over the accounts, the number of units of social housing has dropped from 29,000 in 2006 to 24,000 today. Only 1000 of those have been lost through right to buy, the rest are gone through stock transfer, regeneration and demolition.
And then there was Cllr Marcia Cameron.
She was the only woman on the panel, and the only person who wasn’t white. I think a little more thought should have been taken on that, and I wanted to be supportive but she made it really hard. When asked why she supported the regeneration of Cressingham Garden she was open about having initiated it.
Her story is that tenants came to her saying the property was unlivable, so when funding became available for regeneration she saw it as an opportunity to put the estate forward. Tenants in the audience didn’t appreciate that at all, but she never dropped that line of argument. I don’t know how we can be thinking of the same estate.
Another question noted the number of vulnerable people living in social housing and asked how they were measuring the impact of regeneration. Dr Watt talked about the devastating impacts of regeneration, a long and drawn-out process proceeding over ten to twelve years, and people not knowing will happen to them and to their homes suffer sleepless nights, anxiety, worry that builds and steadily builds. Regeneration produces sickness.
Cllr Cameron made a slight miscalculation I think, trying to claim that leaseholders and social tenants were divided on the issue of preservation with social tenants being in favour of regeneration to obtain repairs.
Probably unaware of how many social tenants from Cressingham Gardens were actually in the audience she asked them to raise their hands almost as a challenge, and a whole lot of hands went up. Awkward. She clung to the line that how health was impacted when people live year after year in properties in disrepair.
The hall erupted then, laughter, anger, disbelief. Because Judith had already captured the generally shared sentiment of the audience earlier, when she replied that it was a bit duplicitous of the council not to mention who was responsible for repairs to social housing in the first place.
Cllr Bennett urged us to remember how stressed and anxious all those people on the waiting lists are, just like all those without homes. He seemed to imply a selfishness of the few wanting their homes to remain as they are.
This raised one of the key questions for me, what do Labour think they stand for? Do they really think these deals with developers to build more market rate housing is the only possible to maintain the social housing we already have, much less build new? How did they get into this box around their thinking?
I understand they are in a really hard place with the coalition in power and the drastic budget cuts, but surely this was the point a real opposition party would have put forward a different platform for dealing with the housing crisis.
I heard nothing of a real alternative, absolutely nothing, it’s private developers with their market rate housing (and their driving up of rents and land values across the borough) or nothing.
Cressingham Gardens residents understand this is a process of social cleansing, pushing working people further and further out of London. The picture below is from one of the Saturday marches to the town hall as part of the campaign to save their housing:
A concrete plan for building 100 units of social housing and a goal of 900 more over five years is better than nothing, but not so much different than nothing given the numbers that the Cllr Bennett himself rolled off: 21,000 people on waiting lists, 2000 without homes at all…what are they doing?
I almost felt sorry for them, as clearly there is no party line on actually building the housing we need.
Dr Watt kept saying over and over again, the regs governing regeneration are too loose, you never know what you will get as everything changes over the many years these projects drag on with changing councillors and development partners. But he is unaware of a single project able to actually provide more social housing than existed before it started. Generally, social housing is lost.
The Councillors had no real response to that, nor to the question from Bill about the larger context for this regeneration, either, which is the privatisation of land and rent, the drive to eradicate social housing. He made the point they had to choose where they stood on that, but they didn’t.
Nor could they take a position on whether they would unequivocally support the tenants of Cressingham Gardens if they chose Option 1, though that ‘yes or no’ question was put to them by Bartley and the audience. Option 1 is refurbishment, versus Option 4, partial demolition, the chart below shows the different levels of cost and debt:
This in spite of going on and on about process, workshops, tenant democracy. Ultimately it will come down to money and political will.
So the series of questions on transparency, promises made and then broken, advice for other tenants already in the middle of regeneration projects who need accountability for everything going wrong only highlighted what was lacking from the process…
I’ll end on the situation of another large constituency in the audience, residents and former residents of the so-called Short Life housing, cooperative housing that has cared for buildings that otherwise would have long ago have become totally derelict.
Promised by labour councillors that they would be supported in formalising their residencies, they have instead been involved in a long process of evictions, their housing being sold for millions.
When asked about the council’s lack of accountability to former promises made to cooperative tenants, Cllr Bennett claimed that they were not social housing, had never been social housing.
The response from the Lambeth United Housing Coop is that these tenants were on the list to receive social housing and believed they were in social housing when setting up the cooperatives. Their testimony was eloquent on the irrevocable loss caused by eviction, the damage to lives and to community that the council has inflicted — after promising them their support and praising their work in preserving housing.
I left early, just as Cllr Cameron was once more going on about the derelict conditions and the place was in uproar. It’s frustrating to see such complete lack of vision or understanding of the broader dynamics at work here. These are problems being faced across London as the academic panelists made crystal clear.
They also made clear that regeneration is not the answer, but very possibly part of the problem.
Ultimately the fight the tenants of Cressingham Gardens, the housing coops and other estates have taken up is about the right of regular people to remain in Lambeth.