Category Archives: cities

1000 Londoners

My friend has recently made a few documentaries, which are part of a larger project called 1000 Londoners. The project attempts to encapsulate and archive the diversity of voices that represent what it means to be a modern Londoner, creating a massive social portrait of the city. These narratives portray not only the lifelong Londoners, but those who decided to make London their home. It’s a very cool project that will be updated every week.

I’ve also included a few more, just to show the breadth of voices:

Make sure to visit the site here to learn more and to see all the questions that were asked for each interview.

 

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North by Northwest

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Marking my newest tube map has shown a striking fact that I’ve tried to ignore for six years- I know nothing about north London. Aside from small pockets like Finsbury Park, Camden, Holloway and Angel Islington that have the good fortune to be close enough to the city centre or proximity to other places and people that I wanted to visit- north London remains a mystery to me. I know vague things about it- the large communities of Orthodox Jews, media types and celebrities- but the actual physical form of it, the history and feel of the place remained outside of my reach. The problem is, simply, there isn’t much happening up north. Much like my far west residence, much of it is simply residential, and that dreaded word- suburban. However, this is the year I promised myself that I would push past my complacency and explore this unknown frontier where rich men roamed.

I started my journey in Hampstead, the north’s spiritual home. Cris-crossing between the Under/Overground I emerged in a lush area flanked by park opening and London staple Daunt Books. Making a note to swing around and come back to Daunt, I started through the park, wary of of the greenery that would inevitably cause havoc on my hayfever. I was struck immediately by the wildness of Hampstead Heath. Much like its sister to the south, Richmond Park, Hampstead was less clean-cut than other parks, lending it  an artistic, romantic wildness. Beautiful Georgian homes peered from behind the trees as the crowds flocked towards the numerous ponds, watching the ducks and coots frolic in the water as footballs were gently passed around.

Walking up sharply inclined paths that cut through the trees, past cyclists and families led me to Parliament Hill. I stood in the high grass and gazed at the sunbathers in various states of deshabille as the park unfurled gently behind them, the cityscape visible in the distance. With the dense greenery behind me and the golden green grass that surrounded me, I could understand why this had been the setting for so many paintings and films. Moving past the topless sunbathers that ignored the brisk spring weather for that rare chance at sun, I walked down the sloping path, past the tennis courts and middle aged gay couples holding hands, to another part of the park with yet more ponds. Sitting down on the grass I watched the sunseekers sprawled out on picnic blankets, their Waitrose and Marks and Spencer’s food surrounding them like a Manet painting. A young spaniel ran from blanket from blanket, hunting for affection, completing the scene.

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After tiring of the cheery pleasantness I set off again, passing the men’s pond, which was surrounded by middle-aged men in small swimming trunks, their soft stomachs spilling over. A quick glance over the fence showed men on the pier, goggles on, gazing at the pond, empty save for a few swimming rings and honking water fowl. Eventually I left the park, though a quick glance at google map showed that I was nowhere near my starting point! I walked around the park, marvelling at how different the area was from my small suburb.  I stopped when I saw a bus stop whose destination was Highgate. Deciding to continue my adventure, I hopped on the bus, hoping to see the famous cemetery. As the bus travelled to Highgate, I felt as though I was leaving London altogether. Highgate is known as a village within the city for very good reason. The chic pubs and well tended buildings became sparser as the bus heaved itself up a sharply inclined country hill. The buildings reminded me strongly of the early colonial buildings in Williamsburg, plain and sturdy. We passed what looked like a village square before stopping at a large school. It looked unlike anything else I’d seen in London, the closest comparison I could think of was Dulwich Village in the southeast.

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Walking around the area I’d felt as though I’d stepped back in time. Amongst the normal high street shops was the delightful looking High Tea at Highgate, which I reminded myself to return to (I am forever searching for teashops). At Highgate Bookshop, further down the road, I had a look in, happy with the shop’s tininess and quaintness, and it’s solid collection of fiction. It was like a Richard Curtis film, I expected Hugh Grant to waltz in at any moment. After sating myself on books I walked back to the green, cutting through small streets and looking at the fancy houses and rich greenery as well-dressed parents and their children in well-tailored school uniforms walked past.

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After exploring a bit more, I left Highgate Village and walked towards Muswell Hill. I was only there for a moment, but I managed to get a picture of London in the spring.

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Meanwhile Spaces and Reclaiming Community Space

I went to a great conference last month that was organised by Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield of This is not a Gateway. It was at times very moving (one of the discussions featured the lovely and quietly inspiring Sylvia McAdam of Idle No More), radical, thought provoking and horrifying. Throughout the conference was the question of what space is for, can it ever be neutral, and the uneasy relationship between institutions, government and the people who occupy these governed spaces.

After going to a great discussion about ‘meanwhile’ temporary spaces in Berlin, and the history of these usually radical/activist spaces (as typified by squatting in the 1970s/80s), the speakers talked about their frustration of how meanwhile spaces have been replicated globally, including London. Temporary spaces in Berlin are unique because after numerous clashes and arrests early on with squatters, the city government quickly consented to these alternative uses of space, and in many cases, funded and regulated them, allowing them to flourish in certain neighbourhoods around the city. This occurred because they realised that the congregation of young people and ‘creatives’ could help regenerate a still-developing city.

Such regulations -such as cheap rent or no rent in lieu of work/experience and long contracts with landlords/ city officials to use unused spaces and buildings- allowed a thriving music and art scene to develop in the 90s. Spaces were also created that tried to serve local communities, through kindergartens for children. The problems that occur when this model is transposed to other countries is that the underlying philosophical/political impetus to civic/urban improvement and activism through reclamation of space  is exchanged for a more corporate, neo-liberal model of consumerism and (immediate) gentrification. Leases are short-term, projects are sponsored by corporate entities, spaces tend to just house art/clothing instead of community spaces and in many cases the spaces are privitised and unavailable to the majority through pricing, location and general exclusivity.

I wonder, if in times of severe and damaging cuts by a government bent on austerity, how radical true meanwhile spaces could be in Britain. Spaces such as Bar25 in Berlin (according to the speakers) mediated between community services and conspicuous consumption through luxury nightlife and lifestyle services.  While I think cultural differences (and health and safety) would make such a pairing difficult here, having gone to a variety of feminist and activist events in the past few years, I am always amazed by the continuing histories of radical liberal spaces in London and how they continue to be used for diverse populations. Maybe in London’s case, the key to meanwhile spaces is in the past, using old institutions, libraries and working class halls to continue to encourage and nourish new forms of creativity and activism. To reuse community sites abandoned by local and national governments in order to join up communities and activists groups. It’s happened with urban farms, volunteer libraries, charity property companies and idea schools born out of squatting and activist circles. To create modern alternative spaces, there needs to be reclamation of unused public structures.

In Liverpool, the council has reached the radical decision to sell off derelict homes for £1 to residents who want to get on the property ladder. They have to agree to live in the property for at least five years and make the homes liveable. It is meant to be a more nuanced, community-based attempt at regeneration, a way to revitalise the city without gentrifying the area and the increased marginalisation of its poor. Could this work in London as well, selling off properties for a tuppence, with the agreement that the properties will be used specifically for the community? What types of spaces could be created with such an agreements- nurseries, community centres, advice drop-ins, community food centres and skills training spaces for young people? The more I think about it, the more excited I feel about the possibilities inherent in such non-permanent, shifting spaces and how we can redefine what it means to occupy urban environments.

Going Underground, Pt 1

As 2013 quickly approaches, I’ve decided to write this post in honour of the one day of the year when trains run 24 hours in order to help tired revellers return to their edge of the city. I’ve grown up with both a deep respect and fear of trains. My father was a train conductor and I have many half-remembered memories of gaily swinging around handrails in empty carriages and fearfully following my parents between cars in the New York subway.

There is something that I continue to find completely astounding about these behemoths, their quaintness and continuing technological advancement, the community and alienation that can easily be found in each carriage. It is completely true that Londoners expect a certain level of quiet on the train (though this can be adjusted for area, time of day and closeness to a holiday), and that any acts that stray too far from this generally accepted social contract will cause most in the vicinity to become aggrieved, furiously placing their noses closer to their newspaper of book, or turning their headphones up whilst pointedly looking off into the distance (of course, this changes depending on age or alcohol consumed). Despite this contract of solitude, there are still instances when friendships are forged and love is found. Its interiors act as an extension of the city, a social and historical map, forever being adjusted, improved, forgotten.

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A Right Royal Knees Up

I’m sure that you’re aware that last weekend was the Diamond Jubilee. Since I  am a staunch Republican (in the anti-monarchist sense, not the Conservative sense), I avoided most of the pomp and ceremony that engulfed the city and did my best to stay grumpy about all the transport delays. That aside, I took a few pictures to record the occasion in my local area . Despite the terrible weather, people did try their best to celebrate Liz, and I’m certain that there were  street parties like this all over the country. It’s quite fun to see street parties, they remind me of grander versions of the block parties I used to enjoy as a child in New York. It is also a rare occasion to see everyone in the local community in one place. It is a perfect example of the sheer variety of people that can be found in London, as well as a continuing and pervasive sense of traditional Britishness that remains whether you are 1st or 10th generation.

The invitation to the street party that arrived two months ago.

The queen taking in the view from a terrace, surrounded by omnipresent bunting.

In a storefront.

The street party stretched all the way down the road, the lane was packed with food, tables, Pimms and other drinks from the local pub. Despite the ominous clouds and rain, people seemed in high spirits.

 

Hanwell is very much a community that supports the creative endeavors of ‘the youth’. There’s always a band of 12 year old boys at these sort of events, yelping the lyrics of the Buzzcocks and the Ramones, slightly missing the joyfully ramshackle air of both groups with voices that are a bit too proper and a bit too practised.

Now, all I have to dread is the Olympics.

Urban Farms in London

I wrote a guest post for the wonderful Polis blog last week, please support me and take a look on their site! A small taste is below:

Recently I’ve noticed that London embraces urban farming in a way I haven’t seen in other cities. Last month I attended the Oxford-Cambridge Goat Race at Spitalfields City Farm in East London, a popular annual event that raises money for the farm. It is housed on a side street off the trendy and boisterous Brick Lane, and like many other city farms in London, offers a study in how to effectively utilise small amounts of urban space.

Spitalfields City Farm resides alongside a small park and a residential area, including council flats and primary schools. Ever present is the sound of the Overground as trains rush past, visible behind the small playground and vegetable patches. It is a farm that is connected to its community and surroundings. Contained within the farm is a small menagerie of rare breeds, a weekend community market as well as allotments and a greenhouse. Throughout the week, people can easily buy a range of eggs, plants and compost, as well as other locally made goods. Most of the other urban farms around London follow this same template, acting as hubs of community activity and knowledge exchange across central and greater London.

For the rest of the article, please go to Polis blog.

Love in Notting Hill’s Sliding Doors, Actually

(Note: I have been writing this for months!)

England, and London in particular, inspire a certain type of American Anglophile (and I include myself in this) who have learned about the UK through films and old tv shows shown on PBS and BBC America. Whilst I think that things are improving, I have come across many a person- student and non-student- who are horrified that life across the pond does not resemble Downton Abbey, Notting Hill or some other schmaltzy Richard Curtis feature. This then creates issues when they have to live in an area that is completely different economically, culturally and geographically from their home area, which due to misrepresentation through film, exacerbates impending culture shock. I also think it prevents some from actually exploring their neighbourhoods/cities and interacting with locals in a way that will make them feel more engaged with the spaces that they are temporarily inhabiting. Providing a large range of images of the UK goes a long way in helping people find the familiar in other cultures, or at the very least, prevents them from over-romanticising/stereotyping by showing the complex histories that make up British society.

This doesn’t mean indulging only in serious fare, I think comedies and sci-fi do a fantastic job in helping cultural understanding (as evidenced by Doctor Who and others).  So here is a small selection of modern films and shows that show a truer variety of Britishness:

1. Attack the Block– a sci-fi comedy about youths on a council estate that team up with other estate residents to fight marauding aliens. It has a strong cast, with lovely performances by established actors and newcomers alike. Alongside the main plot of protecting their ‘block’, is a realistic portrayal of the class and racial tensions that occur in marginalised areas, as well as the roles and identities that inner-city youth perform in the absence of supportive infrastructures and programmes.

2. Peep Show– Like the other hit show of the early 21st century, The Office, Peep Show unfolds in a spectacularly awkward fashion. Peep Show follows the lives of flatmates Mark and Jez, two late 20-something misfits in Croydon. The characters’ thoughts guide us through their lives, and the point-of-view camera work allows an extra level of realistic embarrassment that allows you to empathise with the two leads,  even as you’re laughing at their pettiness and misfortunes. A masterclass in the awkwardness and general weirdness that can be found in English humour.

3. Phoneshop– a sitcom about the misadventures of phone shop workers on a busy London high street. Phoneshop is not only exceptionally funny, it portrays a range of multicultural, urban voices that normally only feature in youth-based dramas, if at all. It is a surprisingly authentic (for a sitcom), matter of fact and sometimes poetic snapshot of modern London life that isn’t shown nearly as much as it should be.

4. This is England/ A Room for Romeo Brass– Shane Meadows is a master of constructing sympathetic, affecting and sometimes brutal portraits of male coming-of-age stories that allows the audience to witness the geographical and class-based constructions of working class English masculinities. With his use of unknown actors and the constant backdrop of the Midlands, which offers a bleak beauty that grounds all of his films, he has created worlds that offer an anthropological insight into the troubled lives of isolated young men in post-industrial communities.

5. The Inbetweeners– said to be an uncomfortably true and hilarious view of male teenage life by most of the twenty-something men I know. A sitcom of four boys as they progress throughout a suburban high school, it is the complete opposite of similarly themed American and English programming that tend to pop up every year. These boys are awkward, average-looking, tend not to get the girl and end up in situations that manage to be both vile and cackle-inducing in equal measure. This show makes it obvious how hilarious teenage life in a boring town actually is.