Urban 'regeneration' in Deptford

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Francisco Calafate-Faria discusses the history of 'regeneration' in Deptford throughout history, and most specifically, since the establishment of Goldsmiths' Centre for Urban and Community Research (CUCR)

Deptford has been in the news recently due to Mayor Boris Johnson's decision to grant planning permission to the redevelopment of Convoy's Wharf on the Deptford riverside into a series of high-market, high-rise towers. The decision was taken against the will of the local council of Lewisham.

This story of contestation between developers, local authorities and local communities is typical of an area marked by its rich history and cultural wealth, but also by its poverty and disadvantage; an area where projects designed from above have frequently collided with very different perceptions of people on the ground.

One of the ways to understand an urban area like Deptford is through local history.

Jess Steele's Turning the Tide: The History of Everyday Deptford traces the area's history, from the Roman Empire until its year of publication – 1993. The book shows the geographical traits that helped make Deptford's particular character. A citizen of Rome travelling to Londinium on the road from Dover (which connected to the continental part of the Roman Empire), would cross the river Ravensbourne at a deep ford, where Deptford Bridge DLR station is now located. The Ravensbourne itself flows into the Thames, London's ancient artery to the wider world, and later to the British Empire. That crossing point has set the history of Deptford as one of settlement and movement.

Perhaps due to its effervescent history, the exact area that Deptford constitutes is hard to define. It was a distinct municipality only during the first half of the 20th century, and it has been since absorbed into the boroughs of Lewisham, Greenwich, and Southwark.

One way to define a local area with no official boundaries is by its perceived borders with neighbouring places. New Cross is Deptford’s western neighbour, yet, the historical building of Deptford Town Hall stands opposite New Cross Gate Station, at the heart of New Cross.

To the South, Brockley starts where Deptford ends. Yet, Wickham Road in Brockley was built in the 19th century mostly to house Deptford's wealthy industrialists. One hundred years later, many Afro-Caribbean immigrants, who rented the flats in which those houses were divided, arrived to work in Deptford.

To the Northwest, the areas of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe have a shared history of riverine working class culture, exemplified by the history of the local football club, Millwall.

To the East, Deptford shares a blurred border with Greenwich . If the Royal Dockyard of Deptford represents a historical partnership with Greenwich in the construction of British maritime glory, it is Lewisham that has taken a more active role in Deptford's redevelopment, as revealed in the council’s role in the Convoy’s planning conflict.

The construction of the Royal naval dockyards at Convoy’s Wharf in Deptford by order of Henry VIII was perhaps the most decisive development in the history of the area. It brought in an influx of notable residents and visitors.

Jess Steele's project is to build a ‘history from below’ in which big developments like the royal dockyard or big events like World War Two are seen through the perspective and actions of local individuals and organisations. The book takes us through the post-war years and the convulsive periods of tense race relations in the 1970s and 1980s, through to the first struggles around the urban regeneration agenda.

In the last pages of the book, the Deptford City Challenge (DCC) programme is mentioned at a point where history became the author’s own present. It was at this point that Goldsmiths' Centre for Urban and Community Research (CUCR) was launched, its first job being to evaluate the DCC.

From then on, the Centre's approach to urban research has been in many ways similar to Jess Steele’s approach to history. Rather than following grand narratives and bird’s-eye perspectives, the Centre’s researchers tried to establish a close connection to local organisations and activists, people who could reveal the real impact of the projects to be evaluated as well as the alternative possibilities for official plans. Furthermore, the Centre developed a particular interest in arts, especially community arts, partly for their capacity to express alternative views from below on the contested space of urban change.

Many important events under the "regeneration" agenda happened in the last two decades – from the aforementioned City Challenge programme to the redevelopment into luxury home of Aragon Tower on Pepys Estate, to last week's decision by Mayor Boris Johnson to go ahead with the Convoy’s Wharf development. Artists have been invited to relocate to Deptford and they risk being priced out again.

The diverse generational composition of Deptford and the various waves of immigrants (from Vietnam, South America or Southern Europe), which have been drawn into and out of Deptford, continuously reshape its face and its community relations.

These intense processes of change open up space for the emergence of self-built community projects or DIY democratic forums, where unused resources and creative energy are put to work in available space and materials. Several groups of hackers, squatters, and horizontal forms of political association have contributed and continue to contribute to the liveliness and sense of creative possibility that are ingrained in Deptford.