Comments, EdgeNotes, In Focus

Parallel London, parallel lives

Recently, a friend of mine awoke to find that his street in Bethnal Green had been the site for a battle between two rival gangs.


Steve Latham


Instead of the black-on-white violence which characterised the 1990s, this was a fight between two Asian gangs.

In parts of London, the chequerboard of ethnic communities exists cheek-by-jowl. There may be concentrations of certain groups, but they also live interspersed with other communities.

Community may still be geographically-defined for some, especially for the poorer people; but for many their community is shaped relationally, by networks. We will travel across the entire city to be with people like us, who share our family’s country of origin, our taste in food, our musical interest, our religion.

We know more about friends who live in the furthest corners of London rather than the people next door. A single floor in a block of flats might contain several nationalities.

Some flats will be inhabited by families, others by congeries of individuals renting single-rooms, often several to a room, from a private landlord who bought his council flat to rent out.

With little in common, the construction of genuine community can be difficult in any particular neighbourhood.

Events may transpire in the same street, developments may emerge, that come as a shock, like my friend’s mini-riot.

We can walk through the same area, housing estate or shopping street, and have a completely different mental map than someone else. The significance is completely different, depending on our age, our gender, our family stage, and our own individual interests. We notice different happenings, and different things happen to us.

An area may feel very safe for a middle aged white man. But for a teenage from an ethnic minority, the same neighbourhood might feel very dangerous.

Young men between fifteen and twenty-five are very at risk from street violence, perceived as threats by local gangs based on postcodes. These gangs defend their turf from any invader.

My own teenage son was brought home three times by the police, not because of anything he’d done, but because he had been attacked by gangs on his way home from school.

Twice he had blood all over his school shirt. Our whole family was shocked, if one of the perpetrators had pulled out a knife, he could have been murdered.

For young men, this has been all-too-frequent an occurrence. Once such was Jimmy Mizen murdered in 2008 in Lewisham. His family responded with love, forgiveness and compassion to their tragedy. They set up the Cafe of Good Hope in Hither Green to commemorate their son, but also to help other young people.

Given training and educational opportunities, young people are having their lives re-directed toward positive outcomes.

Young people need support. But cuts to spending on education and for youth provision in London mean that such help will not be so forthcoming in the future.

The parallel lives we live in the capital conceal people’s problems. We need more civil society initiatives to meet them.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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