We’ve been working in a new area of Camberwell for the last six weeks. It’s not a natural community but rather a place set between two villages: Walworth to the north and Camberwell to the south. On the road that runs between the two, our ‘patch’ is somewhere most people pass through rather than come to. It does not really follow anyone’s lines on a map. It crosses political wards, it has no centre or focus and it is varied in style and population. Roads and railway lines cut it up and make it disjointed and apparently unconnected.
The fact is however that the whole area shares some common factors. First is that it is set in the midst of a huge conurbation, the city of London spreads out seemingly endlessly in all directions. The urban character of the environment is unmissable. And this has big consequences. People can travel away to work and others can travel here to work. People are able to draw on specialist services that would not survive in less highly populated settings. People with money pay extreme prices for the nicer properties and the rest see their homes slide into disrepair due to lack of investment from their landlords. Neighbours are easily strangers and have no common bond except their proximity.
Second this area is subject to huge global pressures. The food served at the cafes and the two restaurants comes from all continents; the people are from five continents and speak a vast diversity of different tongues. The customs and cultures overlap and intermingle bringing extraordinary juxtapositions into being. For example, the local mosque has occupied an island site that was previously a prominent public house. The jobs on offer are shaped by the location: car mechanics, shop keepers, office workers, nothing aspirational or inspiring here. Those jobs are found in the centres – Walworth and more so Camberwell and in the Centre of the city.
Our task is to stimulate collective action in this community of disparate elements. The initial survey we have undertaken gives us a flavour of the context that surrounds our base. Now we aim to fill out our understanding by meeting the people who make up the community. We have a long list of local businesses and of local voluntary and community organisations. We have collected the contact details of key people in the agencies that work locally – the police, the schools, the churches, the council. We have walked the area and hung around to get a feel for the atmosphere and the style of interactions.
The survey has been structured around themes such as crime and community safety, education, housing and business. The history of the area in recent years has been dominated by the creation of two conservation areas and the slow but steady decline of council housing elsewhere. The intense mobility of temporary individuals and families in the rented sector has undermined efforts to create any sense of place or pride in belonging. Now a significant presence is students from many different institutions who find cheaper rents in multi-occupancy homes here. Good transport and convenience to central London makes Camberwell very attractive to the socially agile, those with three part-time jobs or who work nights. It all drains energy from this neighbourhood.
New investment has brought some fresh elements to the area. Six million (or twice as much, it is rumoured) has been spent (squandered?) remodelling Burgess Park. The local comprehensive school has been raised to the ground and a new Church of England Academy is currently rising from it’s ashes. And of course our own hosts Cambridge House have just had their building completely refashioned to deliver modern standards and a diversity of spaces. So we have some assets around which the community’s identity might be shaped. The question that remains is how far these are of, for and by this community and how far are they another people’s vision.
We are going out listening at doorsteps, talking to a huge diversity of people about their relationship to this neighbourhood. We explore their key passions – be that for the tranquillity of their area or the fury at the parking regulations – and try to open them up to the possibilities of becoming more a part of the neighbourhood. The views of long-term residents are set against the confident but superficial opinions of newly-arrived undergraduates. West African mums are too busy cooking to chat at the door but an elderly man from SE Asia stands in the sunshine (yes, we had one morning this week) and considers my questions carefully. An entrenched and angry locally-born man complains to me of the foreigners and shouts about the way things have got worse since he moved here. A Dominican teenager speaks warmly about the street and its inhabitants in a gentle American accent whilst across the street is an Italian au pair (living out she tell me) who complains her boy-friend can’t park nearby. A disabled elderly Caribbean woman welcomes me into her house for our chat since she can’t stand for long. A young South African sits me at his kitchen table and offers his support to bring a few neighbours together. And I’ve not visited more than 20 households in this street!
But the next stage is for us to find neighbours who know each other enough to invite their friends for tea and a chat about the community. We are finding interest but turning interest at the door into a trusting relationship that can support such a move is quite a challenge. By focusing on a few doorways and so helping people work with neighbours they often see out on their own street, people are more likely to feel confident. It’s a big move though for many in these fragile communities and we organisers have to be adept at building relationships and respecting the speed at which individuals can move. So linking people up who may be willing to be introduced to some neighbours is sometime needed. People who feel passionately about their concerns are few and far between; many just get on with their lives and leave outsiders to determine how they live. We want to change that!