Social cohesion is a joke in my neighbourhood

Hackney Council defines cohesion as: “where people from different backgrounds live and work comfortably alongside their neighbours.” In Hackney we have a diverse population and high levels of poverty. That is well reflected in my block of flats. I live around lots of people who come from different backgrounds. And I can confidently say my partner and I do not live comfortably alongside our neighbours.

In July 2010 I moved into my partner’s flat in an ex-local authority block. It’s my third ex-local block in London and the worst by far. The neighbourhood has great parks, restaurants, shops and travel connections. But our block of flats is ugly and we feel completely powerless to improve our surroundings. There’s nothing we can do about a lot of the problems in our block, other than complain to the council or the housing association. And that goes nowhere.

It’s all of the classic issues: dog fouling in the building, piss-stained mattresses waiting to be collected for a week, loud parties downstairs, abusive parents yelling obscenities at their children upstairs, youth spitting and smoking pot in the lifts and stairs…you name it, and we’ve got it.

What can the council and the housing association do to fix this problem? I just filled in a survey from Hackney Homes about the problems in our block. I am fairly confident that nothing much will change as a result. Our tenants and residents association don’t seem to have much influence either. My partner tells me it’s much better than it was 10 years ago. That’s little consolation.

Would improvements to the look or feeling of the building improve the way people behave in it? It’s not the worst looking ex-local authority block I’ve seen. But there is no landscaping on the street-facing boundaries. There are fences and gates all over the place. What are all of the boundaries and barriers for? They don’t make me feel safe. If anything they make me feel like I live in a dangerous place and I should feel scared.

These buildings and barren grounds couldn’t possibly inspire any pride or positive sense of place and belonging in those of us who live here. The walls are peppered with signs: ‘no ball games’, ‘no smoking or spitting in the lifts’, ‘CCTV cameras are in place…’, etc. I look across the street to the award-winning new housing block and I feel jealous. Our block isn’t distinctive and from the street it looks horrible. When you live in one of the ugliest blocks in an area what motivation do you have to keep it tidy? You almost need loud music blasting day and night to comfort you from your sad existence in council housing.

I’m over it. I’m no longer willing to put up with the anti-social behaviour and lack of social cohesion that characterises my neighbourhood. So what does that make me? Am I just another educated white middle-class woman who can pay to get out of depressing circumstances?

The Guardian published a book review yesterday on geographer Danny Dorling’s “angry study of Britain’s increasing inequalities” called So You Think You Know Britain?. The reviewer, Lynsey Hanley, summarises Dorling’s view:

“The richer the area you live in, the easier your path through life will be; the poorer it is, the harder it will be. … [As a result, the good] areas become even more desirable, and therefore more attractive to people who can shell out to get away from undesirable people and areas.”

…[O]ur understandable desire to make our lives easier, wherever possible, leads us collectively to place greater pressure on parts of our social and geographical infrastructure than is necessary.”

So if I move to a bigger flat in a nicer neighbourhood to prepare to raise a family, will I be contributing to the problem? My partner and I got engaged in December and we know we want to start a family soon after we marry. I refuse to raise a child in these surroundings. I don’t want to live in a home where my neighbours have such blatant disregard for others.

I can see myself behaving like the people I read about in my old urban planning textbooks. We’re in the process of buying a flat further east in Hackney next to a huge park. As predictable as this may be, we probably feel more comfortable there as everybody looks like us, and importantly, how we want to look in ten years time. There are little children running around and playing in the many green spaces that aren’t paved and fenced-off. I just wish that moving out didn’t make me feel like part of the problem, rather than the solution.

So You Think You Know About Britain? by Danny Dorling – review by Linsey Hanley, The Guardian, 23 April 1011

PS: This was originally published in April 2011. My fiance (now husband) asked that I remove the content because we were still living there and he was uncomfortable with our neighbours somehow finding this. Over a year later I am republishing this post from my new flat (see last post on bike storage problems, nowhere is perfect…). The sentiment from this old post is still strong and I think it’s fair to throw this into the debate.

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