Discovering Shoreditch past and presentSeptember 17, 2010
A few months ago I moved into the Shoreditch area from neighbouring Bow having lived in East London for nearly ten years. I’m attracted to it for many reasons: it’s an artistic, entrepreneurial, and technological hub, has a lot of social problems alongside tremendous wealth, and is a place where a lot is going on that feels quite big society in many ways, even though politically it is heavily dominated by Labour (which as I have argued before has roots in social action which are well worth reviving by its new leader).
In the past Shoreditch was also a hotbed of citizen-led social reform. Shaftesbury worked with others here to establish education for those on low incomes such as the Ragged Schools here. This was also close to the birthplace of the settlement movement in which those connected to universities settled students in slum areas to live and work alongside local people through whose efforts according to Wikipedia “settlement houses were established for education, savings, sports, and arts”. Octavia Hill was also active in and around the area, pioneering reforms that lead to the establishment of Royal Parks and social housing all over the country. Shaftesbury also started social franchises for ex-chimney sweeps and beggars called the Shoe Black Brigade in and around the area to help them make an alternative living.
Today there are tremendous challenges as well as opportunities. Hackney and parts of Shoreditch are known for their high levels of poverty, there are problems with gang violence and shootings, and high levels of turnover in the population and over-crowding among both the immigrant and white population relating to housing shortages, and while the council has clearly improved services over the years since it had to be taken over, there is still a huge amount to do. But once again there are examples of social reform from the Mayor’s Fund backed City Year initiative, to the Headway head injury charity’s centre whose Timebank I have recently joined (see this Guardian article on the potential of time credits to transform public services), to the work of Citizen’s UK who have recently hired a community organiser to work in the area funded by the Mayor’s fund which also supports the Playing to Win initiative led by Greenhouse schools with Street Lead, London Youth, working with schools and youth clubs to tackle social problems using sports and games; to faith-based initiatives led by local churches with the support and interest of organisations such as Street Pastors.
Shoreditch is undoubtedly very different from many parts of the UK, particularly compared to rural Cumbria which I visited a few months ago hosted by MP Rory Stewart. In Penrith, the concerns were more about access to broadband, and more control over planning to create homes for young people who would otherwise leave for the cities, and community transport since public transport could often be quite limited. In Shoreditch, the issues are more to do with people not knowing each other, crime, and unemployment particularly for young people and men. But there are similarities as well: from a desire in both places for more multi-use community spaces through which local services can be delivered by a mix of the people themselves, the state, and voluntary and community enterprises; to an interest in sustainability whether it be in anaerobic digesters in the one, or city farms and guerilla gardening in the other.
Above all there are paradoxical similarities to how poverty may need to be approached in both places, which is surprising given how one is extremely low density and the other extremely high density compared to other parts of the country. I was shown in Cumbria the farmhouse of a lady who was a widow on state benefits and one of a million people who are classed as in rural poverty. Recently, my church leader told me about a man he helped in Shoreditch who had racked up thousands of pounds in debts having been repeatedly sent warnings and notices because a) he had been misdiagnosed when getting his benefits such that his dyslexia was not picked up and support not provided to help him cope with it, and b) because the energy company had mistakenly read the wrong meter and charged him instead of his neighbour for the energy used.
In both cases, a local neighbourhood group is able to do far more and at a more human, granular level, than the state ever could, no matter how much non-existent money we pump into it. In the case of the rural widow, she would not have been picked up by the state’s statisticians since super-output level data in her area does not identify her (the farmland and property around her tend to be inhabited by wealthy farmers or second-homers). In the latter case, the managerialist approach taken by the state using databases and call centres and tick-boxes failed to ensure enough time was spent observing the man’s life and the difficulties he faced, which would have been easier and possibly lower cost had he been part of a group of citizens, encouraged to get out and about rather than isolated at home.
This is why I am passionate about groups, particularly those with a range of people from different backgrounds in them, supported by the voluntary, government, and business sectors, but not dominated or bypassed by them unless a high level of professional skill and interaction is genuinely needed.