Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Imagine that they built a Dome and nobody came ...

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I've just finished wading through a stack of photographs I 'made' on Saturday during a walk from The Dome to Rotherhithe. We saw more squalor than you could shake a stick at and captured several images that are unlikely ever to be included in the 'BBC Sights of London' web page'. Far too nasty. We wouldn't want to spoil the party by posting photographs of how 80% of this City's population really live would we? A shame really; images of South London are so under-represented on the web. Anyway, I'm happy. I filled my boots with enough photos to stock my blog for weeks ...
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Saturday was the first time I have walked around The Dome site since its completion. I appreciate that the Dome and its contents were intended to be a second Great Exhibition but, for some reason, the prospect of trolling over to North Greenwich to fork out £15 to be assailed with vapid New Labour propaganda never really grabbed me. Think of all those wonderful things I and 99% of the other people who paid for it, missed by not visiting it when it was open; The Choice Zone - The Stakeholder Zone -The Starbucks Zone - The End Zone.
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I heartily recommend a visit now though. In its current condition, today's Dome is arguably more interesting that it ever was when it was open. There's a strange, Scooby Doo Haunted Fun Fair atmosphere about the place. Acres of empty car parks in the early stages of being reclaimed by nature, abandoned ticket booths, dozens of silent, rusting turnstiles.
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The Dome project failed on so many levels. It's empty. It cost a fortune. It failed to capture the public imagination and the much heralded regeneration of the local area just didn’t happen.
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In fact, less than two minutes walk from The Dome's main entrance lies what feels like the only still active Dome exhibit; the South East London Scum Zone.
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... the least the organisers could do is issue you with blue flak jackets.
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Back in the days when The Dome's backers, including Tony Blair, still thought the project would make them look good, a tourist footpath was cleared between The Dome (Home of our Millennium Celebrations) and Greenwich (Home of Zero Longitude and Millennium Ground Zero). The problem is Blair's people never finished, neither the footpath nor the area around it. Once everyone realised how disastrous the whole project had become they decided to skulk away from North Greenwich; like an embarrassing mattress stain.
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What remains is a footpath marked with cheery signs embellished with cutesy acorn icons and lined, along most of the route, with razor wire. I don’t think the wire is there to stop people breaking into the derelict buildings that line the walk. I think it's there to prevent the occasional misguided tourists who walk the path from drifting off and being eaten.
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Even though we hadn’t secured a copy of the official Scum Zone walking guide, it was clear that at least some of the Zone was anthropological in scope. From the safety of our Jurassic Park-style protective access ramp, we could stare across huge open areas filling up in real-time with discarded household rubbish and broken motor parts. Future generations of archaeologists digging on this site will deduce that the Old Ones based their economy on trading worn truck tyres and made, and buried, occasional naked child sacrifices. All available walls and enclosed spaces are extensively decorated with primitive art and messages to the spirit world. Most of the art and messages relate to fertility rituals, though not all of it; apparently Dwayne smells.
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Spaced at regular intervals along the length of the path you can inspect the remains of long abandoned, small-scale urban regeneration projects; a couple of benches here, a few dead flower beds there. Most are marked with a plaque that proudly proclaims the improving agenda of these works. All of the plaques are obliterated with graffiti and you get the distinct impression that, as soon as the brief opening ceremony was completed, the project sponsors hurriedly fled to their waiting cars; the site turning to instant neglect before the near-side passenger doors had even closed.
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You see a lot of this kind of stuff around London; commemorative benches, statues, murals, all sorts of things. Aside from being handy spots to trade and consume drugs, their genesis serves no other purpose than to line the pockets of select architects at public expense.
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We are never permitted to know how much The Dome or similar projects really cost. The Dome certainly cost something in excess of £1bn. Somebody benefitted from it and they certainly don't live in North Greenwich.
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After a while, North Greenwich merges into Greenwich proper. An altogether more affluent experience, which I won't write about here; except to say that it's equally horrible, in a different way. We did, however, pause to check out the Cutty Sark. Just this very week, £13m of public money has been granted towards its total restoration cost of £26m. Of course, the actual restoration will cost nothing like £26m but the 'improved visitor facilities' will add to the final price considerably.
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And yet again, thoughts of obscenely overpaid architects with contacts in local government and public bodies, and the sacks of public loot under their control, came to mind.
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There's a peculiar rhythm to walking around much of 21st Century London; despair filled sink hole -> expensive gated residual development -> waste of public money -> despair filled sink hole -> expensive gated residential development, and so on; for mile after mile.
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And, right on cue, immediately after central Greenwich, there's Deptford. Brrr, nasty.
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Times are changing in Deptford though and the architectural errors of the past are in the process being erased. The old landscape of crumbling industrial buildings and forty year old, ugly, low quality, high density, multi-storey residential developments is being replaced with ...,
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… brand new, ugly, low quality, high density, multi-storey residential developments
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In the language of New Labour this crap is referred as aspirational housing; relatively low-cost dwelling units that semi-destitute povs scraping a living as inner city teachers, nurses and care workers can one day dream of living in.
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As with many parts of London there's absolutely no connection between reality and political rhetoric.
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I've no doubt it's been said before but if the people who plan, design and build this muck had to live in it, it would look a lot different. If their wives and kids had to walk home in the dark in these places they would also be managed differently. Whilst I'm at it. If they and their kids went to local schools, used the local hospitals, ate the same crap and lived the same daily life as the majority of people in London do, everything would be very, very different indeed.
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On a previous walk a few weeks ago we passed through Islington. Islington is the kind of place where our ruling elite lives and raises its families. I came away with a powerful wish that someone would cluster bomb the whole district, Iraq syle, and re-house the surviving residents in Tower Hamlets, Brent and Woolwich, just for a laugh. A kind of champagne socialist Diaspora. You could cap it all off by spending millions of pounds of money earmarked for regeneration of their new areas on some rubbish sculptures and glass domes, built by your friends, then kick them to pieces and abandon them as a soon as they're complete. Now I'd get on a tube and pay fifteen quid to see that.
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But I digress.
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We passed through Deptford and continued on towards our final objective for the day. Our pilgrimage was nearing its end. To the North lay Rotherhithe and Michael Caine's birthplace ...
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2 comments:

Peter said...

Islington is like one of those remote towns in the Wild West where the shops all have ludicrously big wooden fronts to make them seem impressive. If you accidentally stumble off the (previously quaint independent and interesting, now Walkabout Inn-esque) main strip you'll almost certainly end up in one of the many hidden council estates and perhaps get thrown into the canal.

The tri-wheel pushchair pushing 35 year olds dressed as 20 year olds have their parts, but so do the Burberry brigade, and the rest.

I did a comparison of Hackney and Islington as an A-level Geography project and Islington was statistically worse in unpredicted ways. Average income was lower and crime rates were higher. Can't remember any others.

"I watched a film called life, through a broken window on the stairs
It weren't long before the police appeared, all flashlight shining in my face
Same shit all the time - Junkyard, where our lives don't change
Little kids like orphans check me for a sponsor on the icepoles?
Nine year olds plottin for a title like Ollie Twist
Snatch your purse like the dodger, disappear in the bricks
The Junkyards a playground, crime's a safe pound, drink's a way out
The kids sit and blaze like there's gonna be a drought
Ain't no love here, not for self or surroundings
Just close encounters, and scoundrels of all kinds
The money-mad'll rob you blind without foresight
And speed off somewhere into the night
To get high off this world, create their own space
From the Junkyard AKA Highbury Estate"

Skitz feat. Taskforce - The Junkyard

(sorry for posting lyrics on your blog)

Stef said...

I like having song lyrics on my blog ...

Oh yes, I wouldn't pretend for a moment that Greater Islington doesn't have it's fair share of trash. Off the top of my head I can't think of many places more aggressive than Upper Street on a bad Saturday night. And, yes, I have strolled along those bijou little highways and byways you mention. There's something about the juxtoposition of scum council estates and Baghdad Green Zone style yuppie compounds that really makes my blood boil.

However, when I call for the cluster-bombing of Islington I think you know what part I'm talking about, if taken in context. East of Upper Street and the land of the 30 and 40 something trendies you so neatly described ...

'The tri-wheel pushchair pushing 35 year olds dressed as 20 year olds'

... spot on