In the fifth week of the first term of my Masters in Social Research at Goldsmiths University, an MSc taught by Les Back, Fauzia Ahmad and Paul Stoneman, we were sent out onto Lewisham Way to conduct ethnographic fieldwork with a view to generating research questions. These questions would lead to a short research pitch in the shape of a workshop presentation designed to ready us for the trials of life as an academic researcher. We were split into groups of three and sent out onto Lewisham Way, a lengthy high street that runs right by the doorstep of the university.
I went into this task a little apprehensive. How would I be able to generate any worthwhile thoughts purely from a couple of hours walking the streets? I foresaw a blank. After a few minutes on the Lewisham Way, though, I was lit up with observations, ideas, curiosities. I saw juxtapositions and marks of time and social processes in an immediate way – an immediacy and richness of information that would never be possible without spending time actually out there, in the mix, observing.
Within perhaps the first hundred yards I saw multiple presentations of Jamaican identity: flags, stickers, shop fronts. So, this was the first thing I learned about the area: the existence of a Jamaican culture, perhaps one less vibrant than it used to be, one chipped away at by gentrification and other demographic shifts. I saw layers of time. I was reminded of the British photographer Simon Norfolk talking about his photographs of Afghanistan. In one photo he could capture multiple layers of time: a seemingly ancient outdoor cinema, eroded, now abandoned, now scarred by the country’s endless wars, now left to rot. The far past of a peace-time world of movies and leisure, the nearer past of the many decades of successive wars, and the present. Three or more layers of time captured in one image. Each mark a mark of history. I thought of this as I looked at the abandoned, boarded-up shops, sardined next to coffee shops, the great public library, the huge yellow monolith of the storage centre.
I spoke briefly to the Jamaican owner of a barber shop. He agreed to speak to me, and I asked him a little about his shop. He spoke of how it functioned also as a hub for his Jamaican community. A place where (presumably men) came together to talk about football, events back home, community news. He mentioned the pub next door, The Flower of Kent – a Jamaican-owned pub that hosts regular reggae music nights and karaoke – and I thought it interesting (and charming) that it held onto a name that spoke nothing of Jamaica, and everything of a traditional English pub in South London. (And this, I suppose, speaks to a Jamaican culture in South London.)
My two partners instead went into a cafe nearby. It was a relatively new establishment, well done up and trendy. The sign above the cafe was from an old, and apparently renowned, appliance shop, and the owner recounted how customers looking for obscure electrical parts had travelled to the shop from as far as Kent, only to find it gone. It was still listed online as the old shop; Google hadn’t caught up. She said she kept the sign not only for the sense of history, but also because her one-year rolling lease (as opposed to the usual fifteen-year business lease) meant that it wouldn’t be worth it to spend the money on a new sign, only to potentially be chucked out twelve months later. I thought of the speed of change. I thought of the brutal contrast with businesses that might in the past have been there for decades, that could over time build up reputations and embed themselves in the community. A one-year rolling lease. I bumped into Les and he spoke to me of how the council was leaning on the old businesses, trying to push them into selling up, trying to ready the area for development and gentrification. The world of Lewisham Way was being pulled and pushed and forced into a spanking new jacket. What of those who don’t fit?
My partners found a direction we could explore. The cafe owner spoke of her pride of being part of a local art project (one of the artists being a student at Goldsmiths). We thought this to be a good case to study the positive effects community projects and art can have on a local community. I thought this could as well be an apposite topic for looking at the other side of things. I thought it would be interesting to think of the phenomenon in terms of gentrification: the ‘invasion’ of a new culture and how some communities, perhaps the barber’s Jamaican community and the other working class people in the area, reacted to it. I wondered how they felt about it, whether they were really included, or whether it was another example of their culture being inched further into the shadows to make way for the new. Was the project exclusive or inclusive, and to what extent? Did it have the positive effect intended, or an inverse effect of pushing certain groups further to the margins? A map of the street marking businesses that took part was drawn up by the artist – this would give a fascinating insight into that process.
Above all, I found the exercise invigorating. It showed me that there are many – an almost infinite number – of phenomena out there that one can find to explore. It got my imagination working not only on the micro level, but in terms of the social processes at the macro and historical level. I felt I gained a better understanding of C. Wright Mills’ ‘sociological imagination’. All this from a few hours walking the streets. It only took a little digging to discover the existence of a rich, complex tapestry of the social, lying there just beneath the surface.
All images by Gabriel Broadhurst.
Gabriel Broadhurst is a former student on the Social Research Masters programme at Goldsmiths, University of London.