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Sunday, November 11, 2018

South Quay reflections

South Quay reflections

For me, the core of the 'old' new Docklands includes a memory lane. The wider Docklands includes a recent former workplace, which maybe one day will also seem historic to me. My memories of the area are informed by two very different phases of my life: as a teenager sent to live with his Aunt in East Ham in the mid-1980s, and as a resident of Bow Common Lane in 2004-2006.

On a recent walking tour of the ‘old’ Docklands started at South Quay. It is not something I can remember as the Docklands proper – i.e. part of a district containing working docks – as that was before my time. In the mid-1980s, the rise of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) as an entity separate from the old Greater London Council was a point of controversy. Ken Livingstone, then GLC leader, was critical of the loss of central control. Local residents were already expressing fear of being pushed out.

On both sides, reinforced by the left-wing politics of the decade, the connections between the LDDC and the Thatcher government also sharpened the conflict. One contrast between the two phases in Docklands history is the use of spatial markers to differentiate the two areas. An indicator of change in the area during the 1980s was graffiti on approach to the Isle of Dogs that read ‘loot Asda burn Barratts’. While the slogan likely originated with the Class War anarchist group rather than local residents, it is interesting that a relatively low-end supermarket and a mid-market mass housebuilder (that now markets its ‘executive home’ builds under the separate ‘David Wilson’ brand) were then seen as signs of gentrification. Also symptomatic of change is the way the graffiti lives on in the V&A-curated works of Laura Oldfield Ford, long after it was cleaned off the wall.

The politics of 1980s resistance to gentrification was sometimes problematic. For instance, the slogan ‘Island homes for Island people’ was originally aimed at the ‘Yuppies’ arriving in Canary Wharf, but once detached from its source it became increasingly directed at Bangladeshis moving home within Tower Hamlets. At my Aunt’s house we discussed the less charged politics of creating opportunities for disabled sports; the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) would set things up, the LDDC hosted occasional consultation exercises and the London Marathon was (then) actively hostile.

Whereas gentrification seemed like the headline issue in the affected boroughs, at home we talked about personality clashes within the LDDC – the personal was the political. In contrast to the 1980s, some geographical markers are less conspicuous and less conspicuously political: the ubiquitous bollard borders being symbolic of this. Without elevating their political significance, in the style of the ‘This is not a Gateway’ project (2007-2014/17), it appears that these simple objects mark off the different territories.

Once inside the territory, a mixture of vests – hi-vis and stab – are part of the framework of officious officialdom, huffing, puffing and often bluffing about how individuals should behave on its patch. The street-level indices of gentrification have changed, but it’s questionable whether the label of gentrification can still be applied, given the sheer cost of the properties involved. One symptom of this is the coffee-table book we saw in a South Quay estate agents: where else would find a hardback of Louis Vuitton City Bags: A Natural History on a coffee table?


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