Category Archives: urban space

Strolling

I found some videos recently that I thought were very interesting. They are the work of Cecile Emeke, a black British filmmaker from London whose work explores the thoughts, memories and environments of black youth in London. They are from her series, Strolling, which follows her subjects as they interact with the space around them. In some videos, the memories from growing up within these spaces jostle with the new narratives being created as these areas become more expensive and gentrified. They reflect on identity, history, representation and the erasure that occurs at the intersections of their race, gender and skin colour. An ongoing thread is being and belonging, of being part of the African Diaspora and feeling displaced within the country they were brought up in. Her videos show the complexities of being young and being black in a culture that doesn’t acknowledge that complexity. She provides an outlet for her subjects to give voice to their own realities, and the issues that matter to them in a way that is sympathetic and authentic. Some language and topics will be NSFW.

More of her work can be found here: http://www.cecileemeke.com/

 

 

Weekly Links

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.

 

Weekly Links

My first night in London, 2007

 

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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London is the Place For Me

By the gentle author of Spitalfields Life

Life has sped up again, pushing past an unexpectedly cold, prolonged winter and into the cautious blossoming of spring. Two months ago I became a permanent resident of Britain, my prized visa arriving with the sacred words of ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’.

My journey towards citizenship, with its hurdles, uncertainty and displacement, is reaching its conclusion. By the end of the year, I will have undergone the last of the rituals to mark me as a resident proper, as someone deserving of settlement, of placement, of belonging. I will, and will be able to say that I belong, that I can claim localities and communities as my own and believe it to be true, that I am not one of the millions of transient spectres haunting the city for a short time before drifting onwards.

This feeling of permanency and feeling whole once again- instead of feeling like nothing more than the bills, letters and data the Home Office deemed as my existence- has given me a rather large bounce in my step. I have been out and about a lot recently and feel the way I used to feel as a student, that the city is wondrous and offers limitless possibilities in every unexplored path and undiscovered territory.

All of this is to say that I’ve been doing more exploring recently. East, past Whitechapel to Stepney Green. I hid in East London Thrift while rain hurled itself from the sky and cautiously wandered when the sun returned. Off the high street, old shops-turned flats mingled with Victorian houses flanked by small public gardens. Standing beside them were low and high rise council estates, slightly worse for wear, though many had balconies bursting with plants, toys and other signs of family life.

Further down the street led to a park and Stepney City Farm, which was unfortunately closed, though I still enjoyed looking at the goats, sheep and exotic chickens. By the time I reached the farm, only a few minutes down the street, the surrounding area looked shockingly like any number of the small villages found in the countryside (minus the thatched cottages). The ancient country church stood across the street surrounded by land, and the streets were silent. Walking past the farm and back towards the high street, industrial 70s buildings returned, filling up the spaces between corner shops and inter-war housing.

In a small community centre, nestled between council estates, a voice on speaker transported me back to Morocco, to the call to prayer that engulfed the city throughout the day. A large crowd of men- fathers, brothers, sons- gathered around the building, spilling out into the car park. As they prepared, boys played and chatted, while fathers attempted to keep order. Looking forward, I could see the high street again in the distance, with its murals, shopping centres and statues.

So many experiences jostling for attention in such a small area! Such delights that a short jaunt could lead to traversing time, locality and memory! As Henry James said in his famous quote, it is difficult to speak adequately and justly of London. It is both England and outside of it, a global city that feels deeply local and tribal once you move outside the centre ( no matter where I live, I am a SE Londoner, and I bristle at anyone who attempts to slight it). It is unabashedly, aggressively multicultural, daring you to falter in the wake of its daily hustle and bustle. It remains an odd honor and a privilege to remain here, experiencing it, in all its guises. I can say with utmost certainty that I may not yet be British, but I am definitely a Londoner.

Here’s hoping that more discoveries will be made once the weather rights itself again. And on a light note, my friend introduced me to this song:

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.