Down and Out in Southeast London

Kari Rittenbach

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Unlike many other city boroughs, Southeast London’s diverse neighborhoods somehow cohere into a community. This, in fact, is Southeast London’s charm. It is the sort of place where you can hear Ashanti echoing in stereo from the second level of a council estate en route to one of only two (dilapidated) Victorian cemeteries located below the Thames (ca. 1840); where patterned wax-print fabrics are more easily found than Neal’s Yard cheeses; where urban legend ascribes the lack of underground lines to too-damp soil; where there are greater numbers of funeral homes run by The Co-operative than either its upmarket groceries or bank branches; where Brockley can easily be misheard as its vegetal homophone; where proper Jamaican dance halls are slowly succumbing to gastropubs; where the storage facilities of Tate’s permanent collection are secured just off the Old Kent Road.

The area has its share of social problems as well, with postcode (ie. gang) wars unreported by city papers and some haphazard damage recently caused by aggressively discontented juveniles, so-called rioters. Reports came through last week that although both the Gregg’s bakery franchise and JD Sports on Peckham Rye Lane were looted, occupants of the creative conglomerate SPACE studios’ southerly properties saw nothing worse than the smoke of arson blowing towards the east in August twilight; metropolitan police advanced into a barrage of fireworks directly in front of Will Alsop’s cantilevered eyesore library.

Whereas the Heygate Estate at Elephant & Castle has long been slated for demolition, Southwark Council elsewhere attempts to mollify its constituents, e.g. by assembling an outdoor gym on the north side of Burgess Park. Other local authorities include Goldsmiths (YBA birthplace) and Camberwell College of Art; the two are separated by an approximately 15-minute cycle ride in traffic. As it happens, the A202 central artery stretching from Deptford to Camberwell is ever on the cusp of bursting with youthful, art-inflected exuberance—as illustrated by Gillian Wearing’s 1994 two-step in the Aylesham Centre (Dancing in Peckham)—due to the number of so-sympathetic individuals who make their homes there.

This nascent, semi-organic activity across the river from the East End (and its growing media demographic) has perhaps been encouraged by TFL’s latest overground train line linking New Cross to Dalston for a painless £1.70. While the air of general surprise at Southeast London’s cultural currency has in many cases dissipated into smug vexation (the rental market justification, the pejorative use of “amateur”) there are nevertheless things happening down here. Some have been happening for a while; some are occasional, some self-organized, others less casual. Many are community-oriented, and most are non-commercial: venues situated in places that used to have some other function than what they have presently and where it is possible, at times, to view “contemporary” art.