Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Ghettos? What ghettos?

A few days ago, I was chatting with a friend on the phone about going for a walk around London to take some photographs. This is something we have been doing for years now and the pair of us have covered pretty much every part of London on foot. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we have achieved an almost Zen like sense of ‘knowing’ what is going on in most parts of town; famous and not so famous districts alike.

At the end of our chat we decided, even though it was beautiful day and we had time on our hands, that we could not be bothered and watched television instead.

London has become arse.

Surf a photo-sharing site like Flickr for a while and you can see what I mean. Look at pictures taken in other cities around the world and you’ll see vibrancy and life that are almost totally absent from photos taken in London. Sure, lots of people are grabbing shots of the London Eye and other tourist attractions but the photographic record of the true life of London is almost totally non existent.

They are a couple of reasons for that.

One of the reasons is that large swathes of London are looking increasingly like third world ghettos. Your average Joe with a camera tends to deal with the spread of social exclusion and squalor by pretending it doesn’t exist. Not only is it less troubling emotionally it is physically safer.

One of my minor heroes Charles Booth, a pioneering Victorian social reformer, drew up a colour-coded map of London in 1889 that recorded the relative affluence of each individual street. The interesting thing looking at that map 116 years later is that if I were editing it now most streets would either be the same or downgraded. Upgrades are few and far between. I have been toying with starting my own 2005 version of Booth’s map that charts the location of crack houses, stabbings, street crime black spots, streets where people live ten to house, brothels staffed by sex slaves, stuff like that. I even had a complete set of cute little icons worked out but gave up on the idea because it was just too damned depressing.

What was just as depressing was reading the public reaction to a speech made Trevor Philips, the Head of the Commission for Racial Equality a couple of weeks ago. He warned that ghettos divided by race and religion could be developing in the UK and said that a New Orleans-style separation could emerge in the UK. The gist of the public response from politicians and the media was that things were nowhere near that bad.

Ghettos ‘could be developing’?

It’s already happened mate.

True, most of the parts of London I consider to be ghettos aren’t single race/ single religion locations. There are lots of races and religions jammed all in together. London in 2005 is a lot more inclusive than New Orleans. Absolutely anybody can be a member of our burgeoning underclass, regardless of race, colour or creed.

It just happens that I know both London and New Orleans pretty well. It is true that the scariest parts of New Orleans were off-the-scale-scary in comparison to London but that is because there are more guns in America, for now anyway. But, having said that, the underclass in New Orleans is a lot more cohesive than the one in London. Blacks in New Orleans share race, language and culture in a way that many of the groups jammed into shitty parts of London do not.

I never bought all those stories about the rape, pillage and murder that were supposedly taking place in New Orleans and recognised that coverage as being part of a now familiar fear driven agenda. But I'll let you in on a secret, if London ever underwent a calamity like that endured by New Orleans, life here would become very nasty indeed.

Come to think of it, it is not exactly a bowl of cherries for millions of people right now.


Sparkling said...

People where not meant to be crammed into big cities... !?

Love the irony in your picture

Anonymous said...

London has always had ghettos!
Call them what you will.


Postman said...

I love the idea of updating Booth's map - also combine with Mayhews London.

How about a TV show of Booths map then and now ? Fuck me they show nothiong else but tarting up derilict hoels in leighton Bizzard, how about Brick Lane ? Shoreditch ?

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