Comments, EdgeNotes, In Focus

Practical Lesson #4: How to be an activist

Our part of London is sandwiched, between Kings Cross station to the north, and the new transit hub around Farringdon station to the south.


Ice Wharf / King’s Cross. Photo George Rex. Flickr

Steve Latham


Kings Cross has been ‘regenerated’ by massive infusions of investment, building large office blocks, including Google’s new European HQ.

Property prices have, however, also risen, forcing local people out of the area. But the locale is nevertheless more pleasant, strolling around fountains and art colleges.

Another wave of gentrification and urban development pushes up from the south. We are being squeezed in this pincer movement of enrichement and embourgeoisement.

The apparent benefits, more attractive street-scape and new flats, actually produces a middle, or upper, class invasion of working class communities.

Not that I romanticise the previous era, with its poverty and crime. Indeed, much still remains.

The prostitution continues, now in apartments not street work; paradoxically more dangerous for the girls, because any violence is now unseen behind closed doors.

Addictions are also still visible: alcohol, and now, spice, which leaves users comatose for hours, a cheap ‘hit’.

The ‘wet’ hostels in the area also draw vulnerable people into in these streets. These are places where, unlike ‘dry’ hostels’, addicts, unwilling to enter rehab, can stay, even when they are high.

The impact almost makes me welcome the super-gentrification of the area; even it merely displaces social problems into other locations.

The situation is compounded because this is an interzone, on the border between two Boroughs, which neither of them ‘owns’ as their responsibility. This summer, we had an encampment in our square, drug dealing and prostitution in the open, and the open air. This week it feels like an enemy occupation.

Scores of street people mill around our steps, waiting for their dealer – very different from the bohemian sound of Lou Reed’s song, “Waiting for my man”.

It’s not as bad as Sao Paulo’s Crackolandia, which I visited, where addicts live permanently on a few streets, but it’s bad enough.

My anxiety and antipathy, as I encounter these damaged individuals, makes me feel guilty, as I abandon my well-crafted, well-meaning, liberal conscience.

We do run a drop-in to help homeless people. But we discovered early on that there is a class system even here: the respectable and unrespectable. Only the former access our services.

So, to address the problems, we are trying to draw neighbourhood groups together. This requires a delicate balance between those wanting punitive action against addicts, and those favouring a therapeutic approach.

Moreover, many small local businesses are reluctant to join. They simply want to make their money and leave. There’s no concern for the common good.

Such communal myopia is normal in declining areas. Ironically they don’t see they might make more money, if the area improved.

So, what to do: facing business-led regeneration on one hand, and intense urban deprivation on the other?

For depressives, like me, a leap of faith. As Martin Luther said: “If the world was going to end tomorrow, I would plant an apple tree today”.

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