It’s easy to condemn a place by reputation. There is no doubt that the Aylesbury estate in Walworth suffers from ‘estatism’. Built between 1963 and 1977 as one of the largest public housing estates in Europe and offering spacious and light flats to over 10,000 residents, the Aylesbury has become well known for poverty, violence and urban decay. People are condemned in other’s eyes because they live – or indeed have once lived – on the Aylesbury. Indeed in 1997, Tony Blair launched his premiership by making his first speech on the Aylesbury, promising to address social exclusion in such forgotten places. In 2004, Michael Howard’s visit made headlines about ‘the estate from Hell’. This week I’ve been visiting households there and met some extraordinary and resourceful people from all parts of the world.
In the early 1960s, when Saul Alinsky rose to US prominence as a community organiser, it was for his work to tackle housing segregation in south-side Chicago. As the civil rights movement hit the headlines in the Southern states, so Alinsky was working to break down the residential ghettos in one of the leading Northern industrial cities. During the 1950s, huge numbers of African-Americans had migrated north in search of jobs and dignity. Many had settled in the Woodlawn district of Chicago which by 1959, had become dominated by those incomers and had developed a reputation for poverty, crime and urban decay.
Alinsky took an imaginative route to organising in this black ghetto. Nicholas von Hoffman was hired by the local churches to bring together groups of organised citizens in each block of the area. The citizens shared their concerns in one-to-ones and built deep and lasting relationships of trust and respect with each other. From these encounters between powerless people came several fundamental concerns. First, they were being fleeced by the shopkeepers of 63rd Street, the local shopping street; many newcomers to Chicago had never learnt to read or write down south and so the commercial crooks could easily swindle them.
The first action was the Square Deal Campaign for fair weights and accurate change. A thousand citizens marched down 63rd Street calling on local business to sign their new code of business ethics and the churches set up in public a set of verified scales on their land. Patrons of local shops could have their goods reweighed and local outlets were humiliated when found offering short weight. The first business association for the area followed very soon and became a strong supporter of The Woodlawn Organisation that emerged from Alinsky’s work.
Another of the innovative campaigns run at Woodlawn was the first ever rent strike. For the first time, tenants of a block who were paying above the market rent and had lost patience with their landlord’s inaction took the initiative into their own hands. They set up an independent escrow account to hold the excessive rent that they chose to jointly withhold from the landlord until he made their homes sanitary and secure. Once the tactic was successful and established, the campaign went to the suburban homes of the white absentee landlords and African-Americans marched outside their comfortable homes with placards and leaflets naming the landlord as exploiting the poor blacks. This made city-wide headlines and forced the hands of many a recalcitrant slum landlord.
Challenging the University
The central dynamic of the Woodlawn years to 1965 was conflict with the University. The University of Chicago’s campus was set across a wide grassy open space from Woodlawn. The University authorities found the decline in the neighbourhood had an impact on their prestige and wanted to find a remedy. Their first action was to buy up a large part of Woodlawn piece by piece and ‘regenerate’ the area. Their plan was to evict the resident families and rebuild the properties so that they could be sold to ‘a better sort of family’. Alinsky revealed this as ethnic cleansing under the cover of regeneration.
In the end, The Woodlawn Organisation came to agreement with the University and the city officials that enabled the local residents to control the development of their own community. But the resonance with the situation on the Aylesbury is striking. The Aylesbury estate has been blighted by stalled planning for nearly a decade; most recently in November 2010, the Coalition government withdrew its support for the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) element of the plans costing £181M (22% of the houses). Since 2005, the London Borough of Southwark who own the bulk of the 2,700 homes on the estate have decided to demolish the lot and replace them with 4,900 units, more than half of which will be for sale. The remaining 2,288 will remain social housing under housing association control. A small start has been made on the demolition in one corner of the estate. At present, two thirds of the residents I met were from a minority ethnic origin.
The estate did not meet basic living standards when the decision was taken to demolish. Now with half a decade of neglect and with repeated delays, the decay is obviously physical as well as spiritual and moral. Citizens are angry, worn down, despairing and the efforts to do anything to improve their lives in the short term do nothing to meet the increasing need. The estate houses some of the most vulnerable households in Southwark and places impossible burdens on every resident. Rats, delayed repairs, gang violence and casual robberies, bed bugs, refuse left to moulder in corners, empty flats, peeling paint and graffiti – none of these are solved quickly or easily.
Is it time that we had a culture of protest that tackled such injustice? Is it time for the Aylesbury citizens themselves to feel empowered enough to stand up to their landlords and call for adequate response to their current needs? Stories of local officials laughing off any effort to bring real lasting change are chilling and bring shame to the very authorities charged with a duty of care. No one on the Aylesbury estate believes in the council’s capacity to tackle their problems; does anyone believe in the people’s own power to turn things round?
Mark Parker Transforming the Woodlawn Ghetto – a problem of power? This is an assignment I completed for my MA in January 2011 – email me for a Word copy. email@example.com
Steve Garner (2011) White Working Class Neighbourhoods: common themes and policy suggestions An invaluable look at the way traditionally white communities have found themselves ignored and marginalised by the mainstream media and politics. Good introduction to the concept of ‘estatism’ from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Sanford D Horwitt (1992) Let them call me Rebel Vintage
Lynsey Hanley (2008) Estates – an Intimate History Granta
LB Southwark Plans for the Aylesbury Estate http://www.southwark.gov.uk/info/200179/aylesbury_estate
Aylesbury Area Action Plan – Examination in Public http://www.southwark.gov.uk/downloads/download/1976/aylesbury_area_action_plan_examination_in_public