For the second of the events organised with the Resolve Collective, we had a round table with young community practitioners in London who are doing work that is crucial in shaping locales, but which rarely features in trade or news press. Participants included Halima Ali, Writer/Playwright/ZineMaker; Nabiha Qadir, Part 1 RIBA, Community Lead at Play Nice, Exhibitor Consultant at 'Blueprint For All'; and Mohammed Noor, Cert.H.E Architecture, D Lab Trainee, Hobs Academy Pilot Alumni, and V&A East Advisor. Josh Fenton reports.
Akil Skafe Smith of Resolve began the evening by asking each panelist to broaden our understanding of what it meant to grow up in London. Halima Ali saw the 9 towers and 7 connecting walkways of the World’s End estate in Chelsea as a mini city; there was an arts hub, a school and nursery, shops, a mosque and a church, and little courtyards. Each of these elements were instrumental in helping Halima to form her identity. The arts centre gave her an appreciation of words, trips to the shop gave her a sense of independence and having such close proximity to her extended family gave her the security to explore the wider world.
For Mohammed Noor, arriving in London from Hertfordshire was a massive shift, he immediately sensed that there was less racial tension in London as it was a microcosm of different communities. What was present however were strong rivalries based on postcode.
Nabiha Qadir reflected on the Leyton and Leytonstone that existed pre-Olympics. The journey that she would have made walking to and from her friend's house no longer exists. She remembers a Somali Internet cafe which introduced her to a special type of club sandwich. The shop has since closed and quite immediately memories fade. These instances have shown her how important it is to document a place, whether through photography, writing, archival recordings.
Akil wanted to explore the narrative thread of disappearances and ghosts, were there any prominent ones in their memory? Halima couldn't really identify one, but noted that when the Chelsea Theatre closed for refurbishment it was definitely noticed. The place where she'd been able to sit and just be herself was gone. The only place left to congregate was 'The Circle' which was always regulated by police and teachers.
Nabiha saw that there were much simpler things, as people were decanted from one place to another, community bonds were severed, and once they'd moved and changed their numbers there was little chance of reconnecting.
Akil wanted to pivot to experiences that we could all share across London. Nabiha was prompted to think about how digital spaces can create collective experiences, for many, BlackBerry Messenger was a way to organise meetups or share happenings. Halima saw long days spent in Westfield as a shared London experience. Eventually, the safety and ubiquity of World's End began to feel a bit constraining and she wanted a place where she could be with her friends and be seen, even if it was in such a commercialised space.
Mohammed saw the commercialised space as anathema to real community experiences, noting how strange it was that people would make plans for a day trip to Westfield, not to buy, but to be. Stratford City Shopping centre was different, before its radical change Mohammed remembers the preachers, dancers and artists that would congregate there. Mohammed did add in parentheses that there were negatives too, with intense gang rivalries meaning you had to be on guard.
Honing in on regeneration and gentrification as drivers of change, Mohammed thought back to some joggers he saw on a tour through London's Eastern boroughs, a sure sign that regeneration was well under way. Nabiha highlighted an interesting contrast: while immigrant and working class communities found safety in faith, similarities and the shared diasporic experiences, the new residents often found safety in the image of regeneration.
What are the sounds of regeneration? Akil had seen that often regeneration is accompanied by a long pause of silence. Halima felt it could be even more specific than that. For the past 10 years, Three Little Birds by Bob Marley has been blasted into The World's End estate each Sunday morning. No one knows the source of the music, but if ever that person was to be moved on to make way for shiny new apartment buildings, that would be the sound of regeneration for her. Nabiha also noted that music, as well as language and a general vibrancy, were all part of the fabric of working-class communities or areas populated by high numbers of people of colour. After they leave things are quiet, too quiet, a bit like a ghost town.
Pivoting to their work and engagement with the built environment, Halima began by sharing some information on Rahadi, the Zine she started to collate the stories and experiences of the people living on The World's End estate. What was it like for them when they arrived, and what is their current experience like? The freedoms she found there are now being re-explored through the written word and archival imagery. For Halima, the zine poses the question who am I, who are we?
Mohammed and Nabiha shared their work with the V&A in East London: organising tours to explore the narrative threads that were present in the area and bring in the cultural identities of the local population. In short, their remit is to help the gallery be as relevant and representative as possible. As was already touched on earlier in the evening, the tours and talks make evident how important shared memories are.
Nabiha is also involved in a Blueprint For All programme to put on exhibitions and events which narrate how communities interact with one another and experience change. One of those exhibitions explores a community coming together to fight against the demolition of a Gurdwara in Birmingham.
All of the panelists encouraged the (mostly young) audience to get involved in whatever way they could to translate community wisdom into development that actually serves the community, whether that's with smaller organisations like Gaia's Garden or larger ones like LLDC and the V&A. The evening proved beyond doubt that each of us carries with us ideas and memories that can help strengthen the collective connection to place.