Deptford is Changing – Book Launch by Anita Strasser

book coverOn the 24th January 2020 I launched the book Deptford is Changing: a creative exploration of the impact of gentrification in Deptford Town Hall, which is the practical outcome of my PhD research in Visual Sociology. The book is the outcome of 2 years of collaborative and creative research into the impact of gentrification and austerity on local residents and contains all the posts that were previously published on the Deptford is Changing research blog. The book has 260 pages, is 280x210mm in size, is printed in colour and contains essays, interviews, poetry, song lyrics, hand-written comments, drawings, paintings, models, maps and artworks of all kinds, as well as 400 photographs – all in response to the changing face of Deptford. The content was produced in dialogue with over 160 local residents, some of whom produced their own contributions to this book. The book documents and critically analyses the struggles that local residents are up against due to uneven urban change, and is a counter-narrative to, on the one hand, stigmatising representations of working-class people and areas, and on the other hand, to the urban imaginaries that create a particular vision of city life. Additionally, the book is a celebration of local community groups that speak of an ethics of care, social solidarity, community arts and activism which are so typical of Deptford. The idea was to provide local residents with a platform for their voices and experiences and give people the opportunity to define for themselves what Deptford and life in Deptford means to them.

people reading book

Due to the generous funding of CHASE (the Consortium for the Humanities and the Arts in South-East England – the research council funding my PhD), the book has been made available for free to all project participants, many local community spaces and some local residents/families on low incomes. The book is now available for reading (and sometimes borrowing) in the following places: The Pie ‘n’ Mash Autonomous Social CafeNew Cross Learning, Pepys Resource CentreDeptford Lounge, West Greenwich Library, Evelyn Community CentreArmada Community Hall, St Nick’s Church, El Cheapou (77A Deptford High Street), Goldsmiths library. The book will also soon be stocked at Lewisham Library, the library of London College of Communication at Elephant & Castle and of Chelsea Art College, and other places, which I will announce later on my blog. The book is also for sale at The Word Bookshop on 314 New Cross Road for a local price of £20.

wide of hall

Back to the launch. I wanted to stick with the spirit and the making of the book so rather than speaking for people, I wanted to bring the content of the book alive by inviting project participants – artists, campaigners and residents – to join me in sharing the content through talks, interactive discussions and performances. Just like the book, the event was an opportunity to share experiences, highlight the struggles faced by many, form networks and connections, and foster social solidarity. It was also a celebration of the Deptford spirit – its history, its people and its communities. It was no coincidence that the event took place in the iconic building of Deptford Town Hall (DTH), which was once in the hands of Deptford Borough Council (Deptford was amalgamated with Lewisham Borough Council in 1965 with the town hall now in Catford). The building was sold to Goldsmiths in the late 1990s, restricting access to the building mostly to Goldsmiths staff and students. I know of many local residents that have never been inside this building and the joy of having access for just this night was visible, with people admiring the wonderful marble and ironwork, and the wooden panels listing the names of Deptford mayors and other historical data.

In the afternoon, David Aylward and other local residents and campaigners decorated the hall with campaign materials, historical information, materials produced during the Deptford is Changing project, and other paraphernalia that has been used to keep Deptford’s struggles and history alive. To ease into the event and deal with people pouring into the town hall, we started off with excellent pizza from Fat Slice on New Cross Road (sponsored by CUCR) and drinks (sponsored by CUCR and myself) and handing out books.

During that time, we also showed the campaign video for the Achilles Stop and Listen Campaign and the trailer for Harriet Vickers forthcoming film The Battle for Deptford. It also gave people time to leaf through the book, find the pages of their or their friends’ and neighbours’ contributions and read about the project. The event was then powerfully opened by the drumming performance by David Aylward, who’d expressed his long-term wish to perform in DTH (he was born in Deptford). He came down the steps of the public gallery to make his way to the stage, to then give an unprecedented (for him) speech about how rents have more than doubled in the arches in Resolution Way due to Network Rail selling off to a private equity firm, forcing businesses and a not-for-profit musicians’ collective, which David is part of, out of their premises. The fact that David gave a speech just demonstrates how urgent this issue is. His speech can be read here. I then introduced the book, talking a little bit about what it contains and represents, how and why it was made and what the evening would look like. Before introducing the speakers, Fred Aylward and I read out one poem each, which were contributed to the book: Sylvia Green’s Requiem for Tidemill Garden (this was read out in her honour as she passed away in November 2019) and Rebecca’s love poem for Deptford (I met 11-year-old Rebecca in the Community Store at Evelyn Community Centre).

After that we heard from our speakers who gave us very brief but moving accounts of local housing struggles, increased poverty levels and the Deptford fighting spirit that is so familiar to many. Jacquie explained the reasons behind the Achilles Street Stop and Listen campaign, how Lewisham council is steamrolling over people’s views and wrecking people’s lives and why she worked with the Deptford is Changing project. Christian then told us about how and why he got involved in the Achilles campaign to save his family home and what living in New Cross means to him. Diann gave a harrowing account of what living with managed decline is like (when the council stops maintaining the block to make it ripe for redevelopment) and the effects this and the proposed demolition of her home have had on her.

Maureen from St Nick’s Church and the Evelyn 190 Centre shared her witness account of how Deptford has changed since 1965 but also about how recent governmental policies such as Universal Credit have increased poverty levels in the area, which she says are not necessarily visible on the surface. Natasha from Evelyn Community Centre discussed the high levels of food poverty, how she set up a Community Store with the help of many volunteers, and how she got involved with the Deptford is Changing Project. Ron, born and bred in Deptford shared some memories with us like when buses used to run down Deptford High Street and when there were public toilets. Harriet then spoke about the Save Reginald! Save Tidemill! Campaign and the Tidemill Garden occupation, which she was part of and is making a film about (The Battle for Deptford). We then listened to Ian, who, with his daughter, supporting him, gave us an emotional account of just why Tidemill Garden and the garden community meant so much to him. The panel finished with Anne providing her moving analysis of the Deptford is Changing project and book and what it meant for people to be part of it and how important it is to have a record of their stories (Her speech can be read here). The speakers then joined tables and continued these conversations in smaller groups, involving the audience in discussions and visualisations of their own experiences of gentrification, austerity and life in Deptford or other post-industrial inner-city areas, as well as art and participatory research practices.

At that point, over 130 people were in in the Council Chambers of DTH – a mix of local residents old and young, campaigners, activists, artists, in a celebratory atmosphere that represented community, solidarity and friendship. Members of the audience included contributors to the book, friends and groups of local residents, representatives and supporters of the Achilles Stop and Listen Campaign, the Save Reginald! Save Tidemill! Campaign, Deptford Is Forever, Friends of Deptford Creek, the Pie ‘n’ Mash Autonomous Community Space, Deptford Lounge, The Waiting Room Crew, members and volunteers of Evelyn Community Centre, members and volunteers of Meet Me at the Albany, friends of Armada Community Hall, representative of CHASE, members of the Centre of Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths, my supervisors and design team, peers from Goldsmiths Sociology, academics, students and artists from various fields, my students from the MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication and many, many friends. The discussions helped form new contacts, connections and knowledge.

Alex RT

Dr Alex Rhys Taylor then rounded up the event by highlighting some of the issues that had come up during the discussions, sharing his own experience as a housing campaigner in Tower Hamlets and highlighting the complex role that Goldsmiths plays in the changes happening to the New Cross area. Dr Alison Rooke then spoke about the dangers of participatory processes, particularly in arts research and community CONsultations, something local residents are well aware of, praising Deptford is Changing as an example of a good and alternative practice. She also said how delighted she was to see all the people she had heard of and see their stories come to life that evening. To finish the evening, it was only natural that these talks were followed by two performances by local singer/songwriters Mark Sampson and Rachel Bennett, who each contributed a song to the book (Rachel contributed two). Mark performed his Old Tidemill Garden and Rachel sang Somethin’ don’t feel right – two absolutely wonderful performances that were well received by the audience. The evening ended with a surprise: we invited the audience to sing with us the Sea Shanty written by Liam Geary Baulch for the return of the anchor to Deptford High Street. It was a beautiful ending to a very special evening.

The event was hosted and generously supported by CUCR and organised by myself with the help of my two supervisors Dr Alison Rooke and Dr Alex Rhys Taylor, Sociology administrator Philippa Springett and David Aylward, local musician, performance artist and campaigner. Thanks also to those that contributed ideas, helped set up, volunteered during the launch and particularly those that had the courage to speak to a 130-people-strong audience on stage.

All photographs in this post were taken by my very good friend and photographer Petra Rainer, who flew over from Austria especially to be at the event.

Anita Strasser is a PhD candidate in Visual Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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