Wednesday, 10 August 2016
Death, Identity and Gentrification in Walthamstow, East London
By Deborah Talbot
There is a known phenomenon of relationships, called the ‘widowhood effect,’ which is that when one partner in a long-term relationship dies, the other one follows swiftly. It is not known exactly why this is. One study by Felix Elwert and Nicholas A. Christakis in 2008, which had a cohort of 373,189 elderly married couples, found that how the death occurred could significantly influence the impact on the surviving partner. Acute health events could trigger a greater likelihood of corresponding death in the partner, meaning that ‘anticipatory grief might' play a part, as does the loss of support networks involved with long-term managed hospital care for other kinds of acute illnesses, such as cancer. Whatever the cause, death is shown to be a complicated biopsychosocial event, not least for the surviving partner, and it required investigation that was not limited to biological causes.
The research highlights the extent to which identity and social connection are bound up with health. I wonder though whether a more poetic explanation might lie in how identity is connected to a long-term other, and to be shorn of that person means that the self feels insubstantial, as if you are a walking ghost for whom the future only consists of dying.
As you age, and as friends and family get ill, fade and die, the question of ‘who am I’ is answered by a void, which says, you are your memories in other people, people who no longer exist. I wonder when it becomes true that no new experiences, new people or new places lie open to you. That you have come to a full stop and the new, the idea of moving on, becomes something exhausting and impossible?
The question of what death feels like to those left behind has been on my mind as I contemplate the recent changes to the locality in which I live, a rather sleepy part of Walthamstow called Lloyd Park, which is more Essex borders than urban London. It is all greenery, community and William Morris. In this place, more than any other I have lived in, other than my childhood home, I have paced its streets and bonded with its geography. I have chatted to neighbours who have witnessed fifty years of change, rooted in the same house.
My experience in Lloyd Park stands in stark contrast to the rest of my adult life, where I flitted from one area to another, propelled forward by energy and life to remain uncommitted and mobile. Now I have been weighed down by place, and the connectedness brings it’s own sense of pain and loss because that place is going.
Locality, identity and death have all become fused in my mind as the geography I know has become turned over to a new landscape of rapid development and renewed colonisation. All life and mobility in the neighbourhood is conducted to a cacophony and hammering orchestra of loft extensions. Cafés, gussied up pubs, craft beer and new enterprise zones and projects abound. The arts and craft scene is exploding, albeit surviving more by an exchange of goodwill than money. It’s all engaging, yet quick and disconcerting.
And this change is nowhere represented more in the experiential sense of a changing architecture.
Walthamstow to me is flat country, full of small two bedroom houses that are incredibly short. Even its copious flats – the Warner two flat purpose built ones – are short. Everything here is miniature, rows and rows of tiny houses, with little gardens and narrow hallways. It’s paradise for the lover of Victorian cottages, and many of these are being restored as money piles in from Hackney, Islington and beyond.
I have lived in London forever surrounded by high rises and large imposing houses, so in moving to Walthamstow, my field of vision moved downwards; it shrunk, so that when I do see a large building it's received as a psychic shock of some kind, as though I am encountering a giant. That Walthamstow should be invoked alongside William Morris, whose focus was quality interior design for the masses, is fitting somehow. Here we hide, crouching in our little homes. Only bungalows feel smaller.
But they are barely houses, in fact. Just row upon row of huts bordering the roads, in various states of disrepair brought on by a love of uPVC windows and pebbled ash. To the extent that you feel like you live in the street, or the (small) garden at the back, or in your neighbours’ homes. One push of the fingers and the walls could be gone. It’s similar to the character in Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, who sees an alternate or emergent reality through the walls of her flat; except unlike the character in the book, all that you are seeing is the practical reality of your neighbours’ lives. In many ways, it is symbolic of the fragility of London. Why do we live like this, and constantly reinvent these homes, which are stubbornly too small for contemporary humans and were originally cheap sub-standard housing for the Victorian and Edwardian working-class?
I marvelled, when I moved here, how this area could ever be gentrified (or even why it would ever be so), given the cost of restoring all this to it's former (small) Victorian aesthetic. But people have seemingly replaced the windows with sashes and stripped the pebbled ash of the frontage, and instead, I marvel at where the money comes from. It was seemingly ripe for it, as the cultural middle-classes narrowed their horizons to ever-smaller plots of land and social expectations.
Five years ago, when one looked at Walthamstow from, say, Harringay, there was nothing to see. The place, when I first moved here, was hidden country. The end of the line. All you can see from a distance is the hovering cloud of pollution from the A406, which cuts Walthamstow off from it’s white and conservative neighbour, Chingford.
And so in Walthamstow, I became Alice, consuming a pill that makes you at once larger - because in amongst all this smallness, I have felt present and mysteriously grounded - and smaller, because of ever-narrowing horizons defined by a remote London geography and the burden of responsibility. Grounded, and ready to drown.
Walthamstow opens up to wide-open spaces, with only that Chingford to gallop through before you hit Epping Forest, that ancient, moody, broken and mysterious place (yet oddly well-worked) that goes on seemingly indefinitely, casting you out eventually to deepest Essex. It is not surprising that Walthamstow should act as the gateway to Essex because until very recently it was part of Essex, not London at all.
So Walthamstow is London/not London, connected to the urban yet surprisingly sedate. A zone of non-anxiety. To reside in inner London is to feel the weight of people and places around you, almost claustrophobic. There is a long way to walk before you leave, and so inner London holds you like a prison. The volume of people around you – nervous and competing - weighs heavy.
In Walthamstow, the countryside/not countryside is so near; you could walk to it in hours. Coming out of the tube into this place is to feel an openness. For me, it is but one step away from expelling London from my consciousness, a gateway to the world, though, unlike London, it is a world accessible through my volition rather than that symbol of inner-city escape, the airport.
Gone to the Dogs
All sentiments of place are disrupted, highlighting the folly of attachment. Mine came in the form of a huge residential development at the site of the former Walthamstow Dog Track (the Stadium) on the Chingford Road, just over the North Circular.
A popular destination for locals and beyond, the Dog Track is being developed by London & Quadrant after strong community opposition (and illustrates something of the priorities of Boris Johnson, our new Foreign Secretary, when he was Mayor). It’s nearly finished, and will consist of 294 homes with a leisure complex, allotments and a nursery. It is one of a number of high-rise, high-density buildings to spring up around Walthamstow. There are others in the town centre and Blackhorse Road areas.
I can’t claim to have an attachment to the Stadium – it was already closed (2008) when I got here. It’s also not exactly in a lovely spot, somehow worth preserving. It’s just off the Billet roundabout, which is an exit route for the North Circular. It stands opposite to a giant Sainsbury’s superstore, the attached car park, filling station, and a car dealership.
So why am I, and others who live in the area, fretting? Is it that yet another soulless and poorly designed modern flat complex has been laced onto its Grade II listed iconic art deco cum seaside arcade frontage, giving cultural capital to another corporate development? It is the absence of planning around transport, GPs and schools, which will add to the morning crush, complexity and claustrophobia that is at the core of London mobility and everyday life?
But I don’t think so. It is more about loss. The development assaults the feeling of place here, Walthamstow’s smallness and spatial reach. The development towers over the tiny houses, determined to conquer its tiny frames in the name of a cheapened modernity. It cuts off a connection to Epping and the country beyond, like a fortress.
Building upwards is not just about sustainability. It is a different way of living, as Le Corbusier realised. And it is about power, Foucault-style, delivered in the micro-processes of identity creation. It says that you have no right to occupy a place on the ground, only the air. It erases particularity and choice, as the flats are delivered fully kitted. There are no dirty corners and hidden places. It is all shiny and new, without memory, until decay begins to show in the low-quality build and amenities. It erases attachment to place and other.
Try as the corporate mind does, Jane Jacob’s point that the life of the city is in its streets, and our connection to those streets, still holds. They will simply never work, these high-scale, high-rise development in the edges of industrial estates. They have no vision of personhood or identity, and they fill the view with ugliness, even more than London already offers.
Some might say development and change is a good thing, and it may be. New buildings bring people, money, and jobs. As places fall away, other spaces are preserved. And if I could just push the walls of my house over with my fingers, maybe that would work for all of London? Knock it down and start again. Erase the weight of the past. But what vision would replace it?
The new development disturbs my psychogeographical relationship to Walthamstow, like a loved one who has lost their mind to dementia. You reach out, and it looks much the same, but that you knew was gone. The way my mind and feelings danced with the placeness of Walthamstow has been altered, invoking a spiral of loss. It is symbolic of the fact that the London that was – of transgression and counterculture, of roughness and urban dirt, no longer is. Where are the spaces of experimentation now?
Such is the meaning of place to people, especially as we get older, and perhaps the Brexit vote is not so difficult to understand, after all, misplaced though much of the sentiment was (attacking the best and not the worst of change). We do not understand nor take account of the sentiment of place as we rush to change, improve and disentangle social ties.
No wonder that, as gentrification hits, some members of older generations no longer feel it is theirs, and as they swap their memories for a suitcase of cash (if they are lucky), their new life becomes one of temporary mourning. Gentrification gives life but also invokes death in the form of self-disenfranchisement and expulsion. And I wonder, for how many, that death of identity (or the forced clinging on to an identity) is but a passageway to physical decline, as you ask yourself, how many times, and when is enough?
So I am leaving Walthamstow, with my suitcase of cash; shearing off this identity, ready to swap it for a new pile of bricks, equally transient and fragile. And will I, on leaving, come blinking into the sunlight asking myself how I lived with the ‘faceless peripheral wastes…the grey, mean little houses’ so acutely observed by Lessing in the Golden Notebook? And does that world which is not-London hold a possibility for greater vision or just new forms of constraint? We’ll see.
Deborah Talbot is a freelance researcher and journalist, based in East London. You can find her at Deborah Talbot.