Thursday, July 2, 2015

They’ve Taken our Ghettos: A Punk History of the Woodberry Down Estate

Introductory Essay by Exhibition Organiser [Guest Blog]

Updated with slight edits by the author, September 13 2018

They’ve Taken our Ghettos: A Punk History of the Woodberry Down Estate
My inspiration for organising this exhibition (and the accompanying book of the same name) is seeing the redevelopment of the Woodberry Down Estate in North London. This seems part of an endemic scenario in London, where banal environments are increasingly constructed for the wealthy, forcing out people without means and destroying the physical, social and historic fabric of the city in the process.
(Illustrations supplied by the author)
I photographed the redevelopment that was taking place. Memories of an intense period of my life as a teenage squatter on the estate over twenty years ago flooded back. I remembered a life which, although dystopian at times, was the closest I ever came to unbridled freedom and communality, not to mention a lot of laughs. It felt like a real alternative to the alienating pursuit of money popularised during Thatcher’s decade.
A conversation followed with some of the original squatters on the estate swapping stories and anecdotes. Several of these people are now practicing writers and artists. This exhibition and publication includes their illustrations, prints, comics, collages, photographs and stories. Together they form an alternative, punk narrative of life on the estate.
In the late 80s, many of the flats in Woodberry Down were neglected and left vacant by the council, and were subsequently squatted by a community of young punks. The sharp rise in squatters during this time has well documented links to the contemporaneous increase in homelessness in London, which arose from Thatcherite policies, such as the Right to Buy scheme (introduced in the Housing Act 1980)[1]. For my own part, this was a time when I had no alternate accommodation, no means to secure a deposit in the private sector and was not eligible for social housing.
While my motivation for squatting was initially practical, other reasons manifested themselves as time went on. Squatting meant relinquishing a former identity and creating alternate means of financial, social and practical support. I had casual jobs cleaning and waitressing. Other people took on low paid jobs such as street cleaning where they didn’t have to compromise their look, attitude or lifestyle. Some claimed benefits and then drank their giros away. Others refused to sign on as a point of principle, not because they had a moral objection to it, but because they wanted to live self-sufficiently outside of any social controls. Others still went busking and generally got by on very little money. Generally, refusing the pressurised treadmill of capital accumulation and the necessity to pay extortionate rents provided a chance to experience and enjoy life outside the usual societal parameters.
"Conquest, Colonisation and Social Cleansing"
Now that the extreme ideas being touted in the 80s have been entrenched over several decades, the climate is even harsher for young people without means. The sale of social housing estates by London councils has drastically reduced the net social housing.[2] The Woodberry Down Estate sell-off is not the worst culprit for this, as the number of social renting units will remain the same. However, the new, private sector component has been substantially increased, meaning that the proportion of social housing will be cut from 67% to 41%[3]. This creation of two-tier housing, with new wealthier tenants distinguished from social housing ones, breaks up the community and breeds resentment. The tenants have described being cast aside like ‘social rubbish’.[4]
More generally, excessive rent rises, coupled with housing benefit caps mean that vulnerable tenants are being rehoused out of the capital in places where they have no social or historic link. On the Woodberry Down Estate leaseholders have not been compensated at market value for the forced loss of their homes.[5] The developers meanwhile stand to make a fortune (3 beds are marketed at 1.2 million). London is becoming a lifeless ghetto for the rich - a depository for money from foreign investors.
The destruction of the estate sparked reminiscences about what was being lost. But, while some nostalgia was involved in putting together this exhibition, the intention is not to idealise squatting. Surviving on very little money and living in temporary, usually inadequate, buildings can be hard going. At times alcoholism and drug use infected too many people. But living as part of a wider squatting community also meant that resources were often shared. There was plenty of mutual support. There were squatted vegan cafés and gig venues with crèche facilities.
Some of the tenants on the estate seemed wary or were hostile towards the squatters. They might well have suffered from the seemingly endless parties and disregard shown by some. Then again, tenants sometimes joined in with the partying. I knew squatters who helped tenants to fix things up around their homes, when they’d had no joy with the council, or who did shopping for elderly residents. I knew others who voluntarily cooked and brought food to HIV sufferers who didn’t seem to receive any state or charity support at that time.

Overall, this project aims to avoid promoting stereotypes of squatters as either reckless dossers or romanticised utopians. Instead, the aim has been to put together artistic and written expressions of aspects of an existence that allowed freedom and independence through dissent.

Rebecca Binns, 2015.

They’ve Taken our Ghettos: A Punk History of the Woodberry Down Estate. Exhibition Launch Party, Thurs, 2 Jul, 6-11pm, Free Entry. Bar by Craving Coffee (card/cash), Food by Pink Cactus (cash only). Exhibition Runs 3-26 July
A book of the same name will be available to buy via Active Distribution from early July.

[4] See

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