Centuries in the Making: Lewisham’s Homegrown Culture (published by Kin Structures)

This essay was in a pamphlet published by Kin Structures in September 2022 celebrating Kin Structures 9 months at Orchard Gardens estate, “collaborating with residents to create art and explore new futures for their local community centre.” Thank you to Arman Nouri and Kwame Lowe for the invitation to write and sharp editing.

Kin Structures is “exploring new approaches to building and sustaining cultural and community infrastructure” through art and culture “to create just futures, recognising their potential to encourage imagination and cultivate exchange. Just futures can be realised when communities have their physical space and resources to proactively create their futures. Recognising the fact that some groups have been and continue to be under-served by enduring structures of power, our work centres these communities in the knowledge that their empowerment is crucial for the creation of a just world.”

People from all over the world have passed through and settled in Lewisham. For centuries, as Britain’s strength as an imperial and naval power grew, the wharves and docks of Deptford were a landing bay for all that British colonialism wanted to bring back: slaves, sugar, spices, to name a few. In recent decades, huge numbers of people – many of whom were born in communities in former British colonies – have come in search of jobs and housing, establishing roots and cultures in the process. 

Culture is the way people go about everyday life – how they move, talk, dress, eat, socialise, and express themselves creatively – informed by their ancestries and adapted to present situations. In Lewisham, residents shared their respective cultures through ordinary routines and carrying on traditions: children traded music on the bus to schools, friends collectively enjoyed food and music at house parties and Jamaican sound systems. This bred familiarity and rapport amongst neighbours which was later leveraged to organise themselves against injustice. 

For these communities, injustice has had many faces. The British government’s hostility has fluctuated over the decades, yet even when it invited people to settle in the UK (as with the Windrush Generation after World War 2), central government and local authorities harassed and criminalised immigrants, denying them access to quality housing, employment and recreation. Lewisham residents organised to provide themselves what British society would not: childcare (Black Childcare Network – 1984), housing (Nubia Way self-build – 1996), education (Positive Image Education Project – 1992), youth work (Youth AID – 1974), and immigration justice (Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network – 1992). They also campaigned against injustices like racist policing (Ladywell Action Centre – 1969), and far right terrorism and segregation (Brockley International League of Friendship – 1964). Although these groups were founded by Black Lewisham residents, they included working class neighbours and immigrant groups from beyond the Caribbean and West Africa.

These groups worked out of everyday places: people’s living rooms, houses of worship, small local businesses, community and youth centres, and the open public – streets, parks, and transport. Using these nearby communal infrastructures was partially a matter of convenience, but they were also where working class and immigrant groups could afford entry, or at the very least, not barred entry by prejudiced landlords. Where people gathered, spaces were transformed artistically as creators filled it with music, murals and food to reflect themselves. Conversations helped collectivise memories and make meanings of daily mundanities and significant events. Together these accumulated into a shared understanding of the world, starting with their new environment in Britain.  

This self-empowerment provoked hatred from mainstream British society. Racists, many of whom belonged to far-right political organisations such as the National Front and British National Party, menaced and firebombed important cultural venues like the Albany (1978) and Moonshot Centre (1977). Lewisham residents stood up for themselves and each other. Under the leadership of its founder Sybil Phoenix, the Moonshot Centre was rebuilt. Lewisham People’s Day, an annual celebration of the Borough’s local talent, originated as a protest against the National Front marching through Lewisham in 1977. 

The original Albany on Creek Road in the 1970s before it was firebombed by fascists in 1978. Photo credit: Transpontine.

This collectivity was and is cultural as much as it is political. People instilled community and mutual aid where white Britain kept them out. Sound systems, for example, were brought into youth clubs, where teenaged Lewisham residents innovated technical and musical practices. These were taken into dances in people’s homes and sound clashes, where MCs countered popular racist narratives with history lessons and criticisms of the British government. For these reasons, in the 1970s and 1980s, the BBC wouldn’t play reggae on its airwaves, so people made pirate radio stations and distributed records directly to independent businesses. If venue proprietors refused to rent their spaces for dances, people instead used church and community halls, or set up in homes and abandoned buildings. 

Professors Lez Henry (left) and Les Back (right) lead a walking tour to Lewisham Way Youth Centre, an important cultural venue for 45 years until the Council closed it in 2016. Photo credit: Studio Manifest.

This cooperative cultural action has built social networks that persist today thanks to generations of families staying in Lewisham, collaborating creatively, organising politically, running and patronising local businesses, and building communal infrastructure regardless of assistance or hindrance from national or local government. Subsequent generations continue to coexist and strengthen collective action, memories and attachments to places, but the Council’s regeneration strategies of the past two decades jeopardise this continuity and cohesion. 

Lewisham Culture Today: Regeneration and Commodified Ways of Being

In 2001, the Council paid a consultant named Charles Landry to write a report titled ‘Creative Lewisham’. The report described problems with Lewisham, like its physical appearance, bad reputation, need for better public transport and small economy. To solve these problems, Landry proposed a set of recommendations that have since transformed Lewisham Council’s regeneration and cultural policies. 

Incredibly popular with city governments in the early 2000s, Landry’s ideas were based around attracting a ‘creative class’ – people employed in creative and cultural industries like the arts and design – to areas that authorities wanted to regenerate. ‘Culture’ was the honey in the pot, but it was a ‘culture’ understood as ticketed events, flagship buildings and universities. Laundry promised these would make the borough more appealing to tourists, would-be residents and new businesses, in turn catalysing regeneration and helping ‘transform Lewisham into a stimulating environment so that it becomes recognised, locally and nationally, as a more visible and notable centre for creativity, cultural development, the arts and urban design.’ Landry, along with his contemporary Richard Florida, have helped shape urban development along these lines all over the world.

Transport plays a significant role in Landry’s ideas. In the 1950s and 60s, city leaders did not invest in public transport to south London which made the poorly-connected area cheaper to live in. In recent decades, Lewisham has become better connected with the rest of the city. The Docklands Light Rail opened a few years prior to Landry’s report and Overground connections throughout Lewisham were completed in the following decade. Today, if you stand on a hill with a view of the Borough you can trace Overground, tube and DLR routes between clusters of cranes slotted into building sites. Lewisham’s vision to attract more and wealthier residents is not possible without good transport connectivity. Better transport connectivity increases land value, making it more expensive to live over time. Private developers often contribute millions of pounds towards the construction of these routes so station locations are placed to serve their developments, not necessarily the wider area’s transport needs.

In the twenty years since the report was published the Council has awarded planning permission to a number of development projects Landry would likely approve of. These large regeneration schemes, such as the nearby Lewisham Gateway, are criticised by local residents for their lack of affordable housing and intrusive aesthetics and heights. The type of housing – often one or two bedroom flats – are unsuitable for many of the ten thousand and rising people on the Council’s housing waiting list.  Most families in Lewisham, for example, need three and four bedroom affordable homes. Many of the big new developments are in Opportunity Areas – large sites around London the Mayor identifies as a place where developers can build thousands of homes and large employers can provide thousands of jobs.  Of Lewisham’s 13.4 square miles, 3.8 square miles across New Cross, Lewisham Catford, and Deptford Creek fall within two such Opportunity Areas. Other Opportunity Areas in London include Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea, Kings Cross, and Brent Cross/Cricklewood (Brent was the London Borough of Culture in 2020). Opportunity Areas’ homes and jobs estimates are not informed by the existing local situation, rather London’s housing targets as a whole.

The New Cross/Lewisham/Catford Opportunity Area. Photo credit: Greater London Authority

As developments for newcomers are built, the Council reports how Lewisham can be imbued with ‘culture’ through a night-time economy (like restaurants, theatre, and live music) and provisioning workspace for ‘creative and cultural industries.’ These are envisioned to take root in the Borough’s Creative Enterprise Zone in Deptford and New Cross, but the Council says that affordable workspaces will only be furnished if they don’t compromise a new development’s ‘viability,’ or the private developer’s desired profit margins (typically between 15-25%). Despite the Council’s rhetoric, the major planning applications they approve make infrequent mention of providing cultural or community space. At Lewisham Gateway, the developer (Muse, who was a corporate sponsor of Lewisham People’s Day and had a booth at the festival) is building a cinema. The New Bermondsey development was supposed to contain a multi-faith centre, but the facility ended up being leased solely to an Australian Evangelical church. The Convoys Wharf developers failed to meet local residents or devise a cultural strategy (as the Council required), but suggested building a replica warship for display on its new pier. 

One of the Council’s main narratives about regeneration is that ‘culture’ will improve the Borough’s reputation, attract tourists, new residents, new businesses and inspire local people to be more ambitious. What the Council’s plans fail to account for, however, is how these new activities impact existing residents. Rental rates are a good way of demonstrating this impact. Across the Borough, landowners raised house prices 312% between 2000-2018. Landlords raised private rents 40% between 2011-2018. Of the new homes constructed within Opportunity Areas about one-third are ‘affordable’ and therefore well below the Council’s policy of 50% (granted, the Council has never adhered to its own policy since its enactment in 2011). Last year, less than 50 council homes were constructed. GLA, and TfL have transferred public land for 100 years for private developments like Lewisham Gateway, which limits the potential to build more council housing in the future. The Council has simultaneously sold off or demolished many of its own estates, outsourced its public housing management and approved countless private developments that do not meet local residents’ housing needs.

Exacerbating the precarity of housing for Lewisham residents are rampant evictions and immigration raids. Shelter has designated the Borough an ‘eviction hotspot’ and between 2014-2021 the Home Office or Metropolitan Police conducted over 1,300 immigration raids in the Borough. Evictions and raids are sometimes thwarted by groups like London Renters Union and Lewisham Anti-Raids – showing that Lewisham’s strong tradition of community organising in the face of state hostility is still alive – but a growing police presence in the borough continues to weigh the balance of power in favour of the state and violence.

The growing strength of the Metropolitan Police in Lewisham is another chapter in the force’s troubled history in the borough. The aiding and protecting of National Front in the 1970s, the above-average stop and search rates in the borough, the murders of civilians in police custody and intentionally bungled investigations into racist arson and physical attacks has resulted in Lewisham residents reporting the lowest rates of trust in the police of any London borough. In 2004, the Metropolitan Police opened what was then the largest police station (10,000 square feet) in Europe on the site of a former department store on Lewisham High Street. Situated right outside the new Lewisham Gateway development, the station is an impermeable city block operated on a 25-year Private Finance Initiative – a particular form of financing that supports private investment in public services.  

As a police station rose, libraries, community centres and youth clubs fell. Over the past twenty years, the Council has disinvested in the very spaces that create and sustain grassroots culture. There was a net loss of seven youth clubs between 2013-2018, and the Council has incrementally cut its youth services budget by 39% the past decade, or over a million pounds of disinvestment. Five libraries closed in 2011. At the same time, ‘culture’ has become a mainstay term in Council policy documents and an immovable part of the furniture at Town Hall. This is a paradox illustrated no better by Lewisham London Borough of Culture 2022. 

Established by the Mayor of London in 2017, the London Borough of Culture is a £1.3m prize and honour awarded to a local borough to support them in delivering a year-long programme of art and culture. Since its inception, Waltham Forest (2019) and Brent (2020) have laid claim to the title, with Lewisham (2022) soon to pass the mantle onto Croydon (2023). Councils are the lead organisation but work in partnership with a range of local cultural organisations, artists and businesses to design and deliver a diverse arts programme that typically celebrates the borough’s history and present-day communities. 

Given the richness of these communities in Lewisham, the Council has gone big in 2022, advertising its pride for the borough’s diverse heritage, radical history and energetic contemporary arts landscape. Its tagline ‘We are Lewisham. We Are Ready for Change’ is the umbrella for a programme ‘inspired by its rich history of activism and standing up for equality’. Specially-commissioned installations in public spaces celebrate Caribbean and African communities; there have been large-scale celebrations of grime, reggae and soundsystem culture; and sell-out, bustling events that deservedly platform revolutionary cultural figures such as Linton Kwesi Johnson. It is worth remembering these are practices and icons that were systematically censored and violated by the State just decades ago. 

In and of itself, Lewisham London Borough of Culture is not a bad thing. It can create memorable and unifying experiences for local residents and visitors, whilst affording time and space to reflect and celebrate important histories and cultures. New jobs and investment may be borne of London Borough of Culture activities (though rightly so, questions remain about who gets to profit and benefit both short and long-term). However, behind new public art and energetic festivals, not one square foot of new cultural space has been proposed or built. There has been no refurbishment of a library, community centre and youth club. 

When the Council is conceding affordable housing construction to developer profits and disinvesting in community infrastructure, when eviction rates are high and rising, when trust in police is so low and when a landlord raises the rent drastically overnight, the concern is that the people and conditions which made Lewisham’s culture so worthy of celebration are being forgotten. In 100 years time, what culture will there be left for Lewisham to celebrate all year round? 

Related Resources
Longest Journey: A Black History of Lewisham by Joan Anim-Addo. Published 1995 by Deptford Forum Publishing Ltd

What the Deejay Said: A Critique from the Street! by William Lez Henry. Published 2006 by Nu-Beyond Ltd

The Battle of Lewisham by Nacheal Catnott, 2017. https://vimeo.com/225413258