Anita Strasser is a Deptford resident and PhD student at Goldsmiths. Anita is writing a blog called Deptford is Changing about the ‘regeneration’ of the area . Anita has spoken to some residents and businesses in the Achilles Street area- we are sharing the posts here.
“I want to live in this flat for the rest of my life”
In September 2019 I met Christian, a young man in his mid-twenties who works as a project manager for a tech start-up. He lives in the building referred to as 363, which contains maisonettes above the shops on New Cross Parade on New Cross Road. The maisonettes and the shops are under threat of demolition as part of the Achilles Street development. From Christian’s front door you have a fantastic view into Fordham Park and over to the Pepys Estate and other high-rises scattered across Deptford. You also see the green shrubbery that surrounds the Achilles Street buildings. The approaching sunset over the buildings as we approach the door adds another dimension to the view. The first thing I notice is space – green space, space for play, for cars, space to breathe. We go onto the spacious balcony on the other side of the building, overlooking New Cross Road. This is Christian’s favourite place in his home and together with his dad we stand there for a bit and watch the world go by. It’s an interesting new perspective of New Cross for me. Being raised above the usual eye level, I suddenly see writing on top of buildings I have never seen before and I notice the sense of space you get from having the buildings set back from one of the busiest roads in south-east London. I ask them if they experience noise issues being so close to a major artery, but they say that the width of the parade does not allow the noise to come through good windows much. They can’t imagine what it would be like though if the building went right up to the road – like they will if redevelopment takes place.
The thought of having their family home demolished is very upsetting for Christian and his family. “This is our home, where our memories are kept. This is where some of our greatest memories happened, where our community is and where we feel a strong sense of belonging. I want to live in this home for the rest of my life! Having that taken away from us means we have to start building a life from scratch again because we won’t be able to afford a new place in the area”, Christian explains.
Christian gets his photo album out and together we look through it. It contains mostly family photographs taken in this flat, particularly in the lounge. Some features like the fireplace, the wooden beams and a lamp are still the same. Other things like the photograph of Christian’s late grandmother, who passed away last year, are newer additions. There are photographs of birthday parties and other gatherings, school photographs and family portraits (see below). Somewhere in the flat there is also a VHS of Curtis’ first birthday party.
Christian’s parents came to South-East London from Ghana at different times and didn’t meet until they were both living here in the 1980s. After they’d known each other for a few years, they moved into a flat in Hawke Tower on the Woodpecker Estate in Deptford in 1989. When the mum got pregnant with Christian, they were given this flat in the 363 building in 1993 – the year Christian was born. His brother Curtis was born a year after. When being told about the flat, the councillor at the time said: ‘You are lucky, your flat is in New Cross’ but Christian’s parents didn’t actually know where New Cross was. Now, they can’t imagine living anywhere else. Gradually, the family made the flat their home – they decorated it, had birthday and family parties. One of Christian’s favourite memories is sitting on the floor in front of the hot fireplace in winter, wrapped in a blanket and watching TV.
Christian and Curtis first went to St Michael’s Nursery on the Woodpecker Estate before they went to Childeric Nursery just around the corner from 363. The two of them were often dressed in matching outfits. “Mum had always wanted twins and since me and Curtis are only one year apart, we practically were twins. I remember walking through Fordham Park to get to nursery. I also learnt to ride a bike in Fordham Park and me and my brother used to cycle around the park. We always stayed in the area. We used the playground on Achilles Street, where we played with local kids from Azalea and Fenton House. The other kids often used to come to our flat”, Christian tells me. The boys then went to St Joseph’s Primary School on Deptford High Street before going to St Michaels Catholic College in Bermondsey. They often played football together on the parade in front of the block and they’ve had many parties and BBQs on the balcony.
There are other close connections located within the area. Ever since they arrived, the family have been going to the Catholic Church of Our Lady of The Assumption on Deptford High Street. “The boys were baptised there, had communion there and confirmation. Now I’m waiting for holy matrimony”, Christian’s dad laughs. Christian also loves Deptford flea market. Funnily, he didn’t like it too much when he was younger. “Mum always dragged us down to the market to buy second-hand clothes. We were embarrassed because we went to St Joseph’s. Now I love the market, I always get bargains and I know everyone there. Funny how perceptions change but when you’re a kid you don’t always understand things”, Christian says.
After about 8 years living there, his parents managed to buy the flat off the council. It took a lot of hard work. Christian’s mum, for example, worked 2 jobs and studied at the same time. Christian’s dad started studying later. The parents had a plan: to work hard and build up a secure future for their two sons. “In a city like London it is especially important to have a security blanket that protects you from a life of uncertainty and instability”, Christian says.
Having the dream of homeownership fulfilled and the ‘assurance’ of providing their children with a ‘stable and secure’ home, Christian’s parents were slowly preparing to move back to Ghana. Then news broke that the council was planning to demolish 363 along with the shops and the four blocks on Achilles Street. Since then, and particularly with not knowing what is going to happening, their lives have been put on hold. The move back to Ghana has been put off until no-one knows when, and the family feel that the rug is being pulled from beneath their feet. “We’re living in limbo. It is very destructive and hurtful. We’ve worked so hard to have security and provide opportunities for our children and this is now being taken away. Those making the decisions don’t understand what they are doing to us and our neighbours, who have been here so long as well”, Christian’s dad says.
Losing this home would mean losing a kind of structure for Christian: a secure home, a sense of belonging, and the connection to the building through all the memories that have been shared in it. “Living in a flat in a new-build won’t be the same. They lack character, they don’t have the same amount of space and it would be an empty shell. We would have no connection to it, no family memories. It would be a house instead of a home.” But Christian’s family probably won’t be able to afford a new build in the area anyway (except shared ownership which does not provide the same security as full ownership). Although it seems they are being offered the current value of their home plus 10%, it still won’t be enough to buy a 2-bedroom flat in a new development or in the area. In fact, the way things are going, it won’t buy them anything in Zone 1 or 2.
This isn’t just about losing a safe and secure home, it is also a story about belonging to a place where one grew up and where all one’s memories are stored. Both Christian and Curtis love living in New Cross, with Christian describing his life in the area as “wholesome”. “It’s been home since I was born, it’s where my family are, and my close friends are here on the Woodpecker, in New Cross, Deptford and Greenwich. It’s a great community, it has a very diverse population, good transport links to other areas, and a great mixture of busyness and quietness. It has everything from Jamaican, Indian, Turkish, African food to Pizza for a good price, my dad gets his hair cut in Unique Hair Technique across the road (I used to go there too but now I go to a hairdresser in Deptford) and I love listening to Motown Music on the balcony and people watching. It’s a great place!”
Ever since they have found out about the potential loss of their much-loved home, their lives have been full of uncertainty. Christian says that, at first, he didn’t buy into the idea of ‘social cleansing’ and he thought that the people employed by the council to talk to residents in the newly opened community space at Fenton House really had the community of Achilles Street area at heart. However, having seen what is happening in New Cross and Deptford and noticing how the demographic is changing, and experiencing the threat of displacement himself, he does believe it is social cleansing. “You just need to go to Deptford flea market on a Saturday and then cross over to Deptford Market Yard. You can see a barrier there.” To Christian it feels like the heart of New Cross will be ripped out if the redevelopment plans go ahead.
I ask Christian and his dad whether they’ve made plans in case their home will be demolished. They haven’t. They can’t bear thinking about it; it’s too upsetting. They keep hoping that their home won’t be demolished and that they can finally follow up on their original plans.
Photos and Text by Anita Strasser and CHRISTIAN IN ST JOSEPH’S PRIMARY SCHOOL. PHOTO: STANLEY BAKER STUDIOS LTD, WITH THE KIND PERMISSION TO REPRODUCE IT HERE