A couple of weeks ago, I visited Hackney and what was once deemed “the estate of the future”, now termed a “regeneration estate”, Woodberry Down.
Woodberry Down’s 20-year regeneration programme is one of London’s biggest, delivered in partnership with the Woodberry Down Community Organisation (WDCO) resident steering group, Berkeley Homes, and Genesis Housing Association. Critics highlight the cost of flats in Woodberry Park (3 beds for £800,000!) and high levels of foreign investment, describing the project as “state-sponsored gentrification”. Some residents find themselves between a rock and a hard place – regeneration they don’t want or deterioration of their existing buildings.
I meet with Simon Slater, part community-activist, part capacity-builder. Simon is based in Woodberry Down and has lived or worked in the housing sector in Hackney for over 30 years. He tells me how, in its early years, the Estate was a showpiece. Proclaimed as the ‘Estate of the Future’ by one newspaper and much visited by dignitaries and housing professionals, it was heralded as a model of community development. A strong community infrastructure was always at the heart of the plans, including a park, health centre (a model for the new NHS) opened by Nye Bevan in 1952 and Woodberry Down School, the first purpose-built comprehensive in the country, opened in 1955.
The HLF-funded The People’s Story of Woodberry Down Project tells the multitude of stories that trace the estate from its post-war beginning to the present through the voices of its residents.
Woodberry Down Estate in Hackney, currently one of the most socially and economically deprived areas in England is undergoing the largest housing regeneration in the UK. All existing 2000 flats will be demolished; some have already been replaced by a mixture of social and private housing. The upcoming years will bear witness to a dramatic change in the physical and social composition of the area. Using oral history methodology and archives research, our project will record the history of our community before it becomes unrecognisable.
Simon tells me about the power and importance of intangible heritage for community building. Its not all positive stories. It highlights the struggle, protests and determination of local residents at the sharp-end of low investment, social change and mixed development (not least the story of how residents fought over decades to save the reservoirs).
The events, memory shop and exhibitions excavated and celebrated the memories and actions of local people. They are collated into a book which is gifted to each new resident. I love the idea of a memory shop and how it speaks to people’s everyday concerns. Stories like these should be heard, shared, even form part of everyday conversation. Alongside work like Tom Hunter’s film A Palace for Us, they look beyond headlines and add complexity to our understanding. It’s what heritage does. One thing is certain, this area has started to and will continue to change beyond all recognition over the coming years
Simon and I wander around the estate (old and emerging) and then to nearby Woodberry Wetlands, the London Wildlife Trust (and HLF-supported) nature reserve of 11 hectares of reed-fringed ponds and dykes. It’s a striking contrast – with nature and city cheek-by-jowl, as too stark inequalities in wealth and housing. It’s quiet today (Tuesday afternoon), with mostly young families and joggers. The Wetlands feels otherworldly, a retreat and escape from the everyday. Its an invaluable local resource but I can’t help wonder, how many people from the old estate visit, from across the other side of Seven Sisters Road?
At the edge of the reeds, with birds nesting and warbling, Simon and I walk and talk about how funders might support communities to catalyse new activity and the changes they want to see. He tells me how, in his work, it has been critical to support people’s ideas and develop relationships locally. “The focus should be hyper-local, at block or street level. Start small, build belief and capacity”. Agreed, this is exactly how our most impactful work in Manchester has developed and it can’t be rushed.
We talk about whether investment should be in places or people and quickly decide this is the wrong question. Simon believes there has to be greater investment in community activism and activists and we chat about how funding that directly supports heritage activism might work in practice. He reflects on past examples; from the Settlement movement to the now defunct Scarman Trust and present-day Resident Association levy system. We ponder what a 21st century Settlement movement might look like? And does the growing shift towards place and asset-based funding have real potential to support and galvanise those at the forefront, leading change? To do this, funders will have to work very differently; with greater local knowledge, collaboration and shared commitment. But are they ready to make this change?
As we walk back to Seven Sisters Road, he leaves me with the story of Robin Redmond, a much-loved local policeman who left the force to focus more on community development and whose energy and resolve instigated the centre that bears his name. We pass what was once an old 1950’s disused and dilapidated branch library, now transformed into a Community Resource Centre and Library, home to Manor House Development Trust. Social events, meetings, creche, exhibitions and performance events, computer training, homework club and much more besides coexist here. Robin sadly died before the project was completed but his work lives on.
My visit here has been enlightening, not least to hear Simon articulate why heritage matters. For him, it is, simply, the “mortar between the blocks”. The memories, histories, rituals and sites are what bring people together. They remind communities of who they are, the values they share and the future they might collectively build, or as the book Woodberry Down:The People’s Story summarises;
The people of Woodberry Down have a history they can be proud of, the present and future generations could do a lot worse than follow in their predecessor’s footsteps.