Behind my house there is a lake, it’s one of the hidden gems of South Thamesmead and my favourite place to take a walk in the entire world. Amongst the lake’s backdrop are high-rise concrete tower blocks, each bleakly coloured structure filled with its own set of unique characters and stories. The grey structures themselves illuminate rather beautifully against a sunset backdrop that you almost don’t notice the neighbouring construction site and the erecting new build properties. For those of you that just can’t quite picture it, this is the primary location ‘Misfits’ was filmed and where the storm in the first episode took place. Along the lake you’ll find a myriad of geese, ducks and swans, while just further down along the marshes there is a horse field. It brings back fond memories of strolls and bike rides with my Dad and countless times spent feeding horses and waterfowl. Thamesmead was home to the last free running horses in London, for those of you that like trivia, although on paper it sounds a lot more scenic than the reality of walking home through an alleyway to find a horse blocking your path. Besides the shores of the lake lies my favourite bench; to onlookers it is merely a bench but to me it is the venue for some of my most intimate journal entries and prayers. Yet while overlooking the lake this week on one of my regularly scheduled walks, I couldn’t help but reminisce on how drastically this seemingly trivial scenery has changed during my 18 year stay.
I moved to Thamesmead in 2003, relocating from other sides of South East London so it didn’t feel like much of a transition, but this place very quickly became a home. I’ve been to church and three schools in Thamesmead while the vast majority of my friends growing up also live in the surrounding area. Let me be the first to tell you: it is no promised land. Dubbed as ‘one of the most deprived places in the UK’ in a 2016 BBC documentary, and with a terrible history of gang violence and racism, the area certainly isn’t without its blemishes. “Thirty-six soldiers at your block fam!” and £1 for two wings and chips recall memories of a far from idyllic upbringing but one that finely shaped me into the person I am today.
Now I’m no historian, but it would feel remiss of me to not give you brief context of Thamesmead’s origins. This is a town built on marshland, soft earth with high flood risks. If you’re architecturally minded you’ll notice how a number of Thamesmead houses and structures are built a level above the ground with elevated walkways. Primed as the ‘town of the twenty-first century’, the tower block aesthetic was largely seen as the beginning of the future of housing in London. Around the time, similar estates began to prop up in areas like Peckham (where I lived before moving to Thamesmead) and neighbouring Elephant & Castle. However, rows of high-rise pillars closely became associated with relative poverty and social inequality. A large influx of West Africans largely from Nigeria in the mid 90s created a diverse culture in a town with a marred history of racism. Caught in-between two boroughs of Greenwich and Bexley, Thamesmead often fell by the wayside, over-looked and under-developed. Giving rise to youth crime and growing tensions between inhabitants, often clashes driven by race. In less than 25 years Thamesmead went from a town of promise to a blemish on the map of Greater London, the lack of investment is exemplified by it being the largest town in South London without a train station.
We can often look at the past through rose-tinted lenses. One look into the rear-view mirror of my time in Thamesmead paints a very different picture from the challenging social environment that we actually faced. Insufficient transport links, underperforming schools and stark welfare challenges all pointed to the fact that the area and the wider region were in need of serious intervention. Fast-forward to the present day and the housing projects are now underway, families have been relocated and the destruction sites are gradually being replaced with new apartment blocks. With all of this going on, I can’t help but feel a deep loss of identity, community and the very factors that made my ‘ends’ a home.
Gentrification, redevelopment and regeneration; in a way these are similar terms that vary slightly in meaning but are often used interchangeably. Redevelopment looks at the process of developing something again or differently on a site that has pre-existing uses, e.g. building a leisure centre where a derelict factory once stood. Regeneration or ‘community regeneration’ enables communities suffering from economic, social and environmental decline to be able to rebuild their own communities. For example, initiatives to make a community a better place to live and work. While gentrification is categorised by the process whereby the character of a neighbourhood is transformed through the influx of more affluent residents and businesses.
Redevelopment isn’t a bad thing, for the progression of society I’d even argue it’s very much a necessity. 1960s Thamesmead is the very epitome of redevelopment; a futuristic view of London living so promising that Queen Lizzie herself popped into town for a visit of previously standing Tavy Bridge. Long ago demolished alongside a host of houses, the best park a kid could ask for, the local library and a youth centre; Tavy Bridge became synonymous with crime and a place you simply did not frequent at night. In its place now stands a number of new build properties and developments, with no permanent replacement to the aforementioned amenities. To this day, no sizeable effort to improve job opportunities, crime, transport infrastructure or educational opportunity have come to fruition in Thamesmead. Police sirens continue to meander amongst South Thamesmead estates that the native ear no longer notices them.
While government promises of affordable housing have gone unanswered and the pleas for intervention for the homeless fall on deaf ears, gentrification presses on, largely driven by profits and greed as opposed to bettering the welfare of others. Creating disjointed communities of relative poverty and extensive wealth. Areas where local inhabitants and their businesses are priced out of the market due to exorbitant rents and unrelenting new landlords.
You need only take one look at modern day Brixton and Peckham to witness the tale of diminishing identity and cultural roots. It cannot be understated that gentrification disproportionally impacts black people and ethnic minorities. In late 1970s Brixton, white gentrifiers began to move in amongst black and other ethnic minority groups in the hope of a ‘multicultural regeneration’. However, police discrimination against Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean community, coupled with high unemployment and other social issues, gave rise to the Brixton riots (also known as the ‘Brixton uprising’) of 1981. After the riots, under Thatcher and the Conservative government at the time, a free market approach to regeneration began evicting local residents and has facilitated large scale gentrification in Brixton to this day. 2015s ‘Reclaim Brixton’ protests highlight just how long the fight for this community has subsisted. It goes to show that gentrification is not only a gentrifier-led process, but is also fuelled and upheld by Government. Today, the South London communities of Brixton and Peckham remain a fraction of the cultural identity that they once held, erased by extortionately priced new builds, quaint coffee shops and underwhelming night life.
All things considered, Thamesmead looks like the ideal case for regeneration – if not a priority case. Yet, in it’s place, gentrification’s slow creep into the many street corners and playgrounds we would frequent as kids leaves me with a sour taste and a feeling of despair. I don’t kid myself, I probably won’t live in Thamesmead for the rest of my life, nor would I particularly want to. I also don’t want it to stay the same, there is major scope for investment and development. Despite everything I’ve mentioned, you’d have to experience it for yourself to know that this place is special, and it’s largely down to the people that choose to call it home. It’s hard to express the love I have for my ends, it very much forms an important part of my identity. While I do wish for improvements, they often seem futile through the lens of gentrification if current inhabitants cannot benefit from them. The odds are already stacked up against working class families, investments like the ones we are seeing in fancy, unaffordable housing and lush retail units are not the saving grace that property developers, government and local councils believe it to be. The truth of the matter is that the UK is not the equal opportunity society the government and mainstream media would lead you to believe. London itself operates well below a point of pareto efficiency where one can only be made better off to the detriment of another being made worse off. The Coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the inequality of income and wealth, not to mention a number of other important social issues impacting daily life in the capital. Yet, gentrification presses on, preparing a table where only a select few can eat. As I walk around my neighbourhood and observe the challenges of my fellow black and ethnic minority working class peers, I see a future Thamesmead being built without us in mind. As I glance out over the lake on this warm summer’s evening, time almost appears to stand still, while the cranes continue rising.
Britain’s Most Wanted Motorbike Gangs? – https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p042yq74
BBC Inside Out – London, Thamesmead – http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/content/articles/2008/10/08/london_thamesmead_s14_w4_feature.shtml#:~:text=Thamesmead%20is%20a%20sprawling%20new,a%20lake%20close%20to%20homes.
The Guardian – For father of Rolan Adams, murdered in 1991, anger and pain are undimmed – https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/apr/21/rolan-adams-murdered-1991-father-richard-adams-chiling-similarities-stepehen-lawrence-killing
Ashurst – Gentrification, is it inevitable in regeneration areas? https://www.ashurst.com/en/news-and-insights/insights/gentrification—is-it-inevitable-in-regeneration-areas/
Loretta Lees – Gentrification, Race, and Ethnicity: Towards a Global Research Agenda? – https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1111/cico.12185
The Guardian – Brixton anti-gentrification protest: identifying the problems is one thing, fixing them is another – https://www.theguardian.com/cities/davehillblog/2015/apr/28/brixton-anti-gentrification-protest-reclaim-foxtons-estate-agent
Henrie Kwushue, Brixton…Is Your Area Changing? (S1, E1) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GokOo34FtII
Henrie Kwushue, Peckham…Is Your Area Changing? (S1, E2) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjNNf5YmBVA
Henrie Kwushue, Dalston…Is Your Area Changing? (S1, E3) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqE7v379gA4