Alexandria, the Old South and mystic chords of forgetting

I recently spent a few nights in Alexandria, Virginia.  It’s a pleasant place on the banks of the Potomac River, just south of Washington DC.  There are boat trips, gift shops, waterside bars, art galleries and they used to buy and sell black people in the market square.

This still shocking fact, which of course is true of many other places in the US, isn’t entirely air-brushed from local history, but it isn’t foregrounded either.  Maybe that’s unsurprising if you’re trying to sustain a tourist economy.  But some of the things I saw in Alexandria suggest how and why the US continues to struggle with its racist past and present.

It would be entirely possible to visit Alexandria without knowing that it used to be the headquarters of Franklin and Armfield, one of the biggest slave trading companies in the antebellum US.  There is a historic marker outside one of their former offices and human warehouses (1315 Duke Street), but it’s not on the main tourist drag (King Street), so takes some special finding.  Similarly, the market square has a bit of easily missed information about what used to happen there, but the slave trade is referred to alongside other commercial enterprises, like selling fruit.  Elsewhere, at 515 North Washington Street, the official history of Alexandria’s first cotton factory makes absolutely no reference to how the raw material for that industry was produced.  Around the corner is a new, large corporate-sponsored mural allegedly providing “a point of discovery for all things Alexandria” that makes no reference to slavery.  My friend, David Rotenstein, is an expert in this field and I can hear him pulling his hair out!

By contrast, I saw several references to the arrival of Union troops in Alexandria at the start of the Civil War as an “occupation”, a significant choice of word to imply that North and South were (are?) separate places.  At the junction of South Washington Street and Prince Street is a prominent statue commemorating the Confederate dead.

How we chose to remember or ignore history is a vexed subject, but often the official version gets it wrong.  With a legacy as disgusting as slavery, it’s perhaps understandable that the Alexandria authorities don’t want to have their city defined by some of the worst things that ever happened there.  I’d say the same about Bristol.  It’s a balance.  But a visit to Berlin or Vienna, where awareness of the Holocaust is woven, sometimes quite subtly, into the city’s fabric, shows how it can be done.  It’s not an example most places in the US feel ready to follow because in truth, the country hasn’t come to terms with its past.

In a small effort to redress Alexandria’s historic balance, I’d like to share an episode that stands in the canon of the struggle for civil rights, but is less known than others.  On 21st August 1939, five local black men (William Evans, Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray, Clarence Strange and Otto Tucker) entered the city’s segregated public library, took books from the shelves and began reading, in breach of written and unwritten Jim Crow laws.  They were arrested (see photo below), but as with other such sit-ins, this was a deliberate tactic to challenge discrimination in the courts.  No legal conclusion was reached, but the city did build a new, but separate, library for the African-American community.

To be fair to Alexandria’s authorities, this important struggle is given proper recognition.  But the selective erasing of history continues.  Next door to the library won in the 1940s were some early – and structurally unusual – homes built as public housing for African-Americans working in Alexandria’s armaments industry.  I first saw and photographed them in June 2017.  In June 2019 they were gone, part of the unrelenting assault not just on public housing, but the places and past of black people.




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The Neoliberal City

I thought people not Tribuneites or part of the Twitterati might like to read this.


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Learning from the Selfish Giant

Oscar Wilde’s short story is a beautiful, enduring parable.  It’s relevance for today is starkly illustrated by a housing estate in Lambeth where a wall was built to separate children from different housing tenures.  Sadly, although this case has hit the headlines, it’s not unique.  At one level, it’s yet another example of private developers, including social (sic) landlords, running amok.  But there’s a much deeper significance to this issue.

Paranoia-fueled social segregation and the use of walls to enforce it can be traced from antiquity to Trump.  But it signifies a distinct 21st century regression that can be linked to the distorted place of housing in contemporary society.  The cult of private home ownership is one factor, but it goes wider and transcends tenure.  Before a meeting last week, I wanted to drink my coffee in the sun-lit communal garden of a Camden council estate, but it was fenced off and gated in a similar way to the private gardens of Victorian squares in Kensington.  Like my hero Hugh Grant in “Notting Hill”, I found a way in, only to discover there was nowhere to sit.  This stingy attitude to space that is at least communal, even if it isn’t truly public, is typical of new property developments where the acronym “POPS” (privately owned public space) has become insidious.  In such places, it feels as though public space is meant to be seen, but not used, except under conditions.

I recall doing some field research at a typical private property development in Kingston-upon-Thames where improving the “public realm” was one of the benefits that would, supposedly, result.  This was part of a quid pro quo, agreed with the council, for the developer being relieved of providing any non-market rented housing, again, a familiar tale.  The identikit plaza – branded bars, cafes, restaurants and shops beneath private apartments, with token public art – was pleasant enough, but included invisible social barriers.   As at the Camden council estate, there were no public benches (or public toilets, another important feature often absent).  All the seating (and toilets) was provided by the food and drink outlets.  In other words, you could only sit down, relax and enjoy the public realm (and go to the toilet) if you could afford, at least, a cappuccino.  At one point, I rested against a low wall, while carrying out my observations.  Almost immediately, I was challenged by a security guard who, apparently, had been watching me on CCTV.  He was friendly and a bit embarrassed, but said the residents who paid him were anxious to keep an eye on “loitering strangers”.  Someone I interviewed in a gated (actually, literally walled) community in another part of London, said:

“People outside say ‘it’s a walled city’ and my answer is ‘the walls are open’.  Anyone can come in.  There are lots of people here who have middle class values, but if you’re prepared to behave in a way that’s reasonable, you can come here…I’m not a shrinking violet, but there’s no way I’d go to any of those pubs across the road on my own, but here I feel completely safe and locked within my community. I don’t have a prejudice against people who come from Woolwich, as long as you’re prepared to operate by the reasonable standards of our community…”    

Reading this back nearly eight years later, the foreshadowing of some Brexit tensions are hard to avoid.  In fact, the constipation of the use of public space is part of the same “democratic deficit”.  As well as skateboarding, drinking alcohol that hasn’t been purchased at an expensive bar and a general anxiety about young people, limiting freedom of political expression has become commonplace in corporate-space.  Having organised several protests in areas that might be considered intrinsically part of the public realm, including Parliament Square and City Hall, I’m very familiar with the restrictions placed on people who want to demonstrate in public.  Many of these have been adopted within the last decade or so and reflect transfers of ownership and management away from democratically accountable bodies, towards private corporate interests.

But these different forms of social separation operate at different levels and extend to our own front doors.  At work, I frequently encounter an inability or reluctance of people to communicate with their neighbours, sometimes about very basic things.  Increasingly, I find myself called upon to mediate situations that, in the past, would not have required the intervention of external, official agencies.  We often talk and think about “housing privatisation” in terms of public policy and the transfer of public assets, but there’s another aspect of privatisation in which some of the day-to-day habits of social exchange and civility have been lost behind the edifice of private domesticity.  The American academic Andy Merrifield has described contemporary cities producing a state of “tragic intimacy of proximity without sociability…encounter without real meeting”.

Many of these issues converged around the body of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.  I’ve written before about the significance I attach to this appalling event and the warning it sends about the possible consequences of urban alienation, particularly when laced with racism and fear of the young.  I’ve heard many people talking about the segregated Lambeth playground with “Is this what we’ve come to?” disgust.  Our housing and urban policy is creating very divisive landscapes, but it’s not too late.  We need to remember the lesson of the Selfish Giant.  He built so many physical and social barriers around himself that in the end, he endured an eternal winter of loneliness.  But when he smashed the wall down, the spring and happiness returned.


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Sleepwalking to America

As the UK prepares to distance itself from one continent, it may get closer to another.  My book (nearly all gone, so please get in touch if you’d like a copy) argues that this country’s housing policy is following the disastrous footsteps of the US, but it feels like our fates are entwined in many other ways.  While Brexit remains uncertain, it seems likely this country will look more across the Atlantic than the Channel for its socio-economic and political  future.  Some Tories are actively pursuing this wish-fulfilment.  Liam Fox has talked about leaving the EU being an opportunity to “supercharge” the “special relationship”.

I sometimes feel it necessary to offer the disclaimer that I’m not anti-America.  The numerous times I’ve visited have been some of the happiest and most enriching of my life.  But some of those experiences have confirmed the many troubled aspects of US society.  For years, returning to the UK was to be reminded of the differences between the two nations.  I was sure our housing policies were converging, but overall, the legacy of the Welfare State protected the UK from the worst-excesses of Americanisation.  No longer.

The UK is mirroring the US across a range of social issues.  Our health service is being privatised by stealth, primary and secondary education is increasingly stratified, students in higher education are saddled with massive debt, trade union membership is falling as casual employment spreads, more workers are now long-distance, high-cost commuters, populist, racist and far-right politics are on the rise, as is deadly urban violence.  Each of these factors disproportionately affects people with lower incomes and darker skin.  As a result, our social fabric is fraying and tearing, producing the kind of  isolated individualism that’s a sad feature of US society.

This shift isn’t accidental.  As Liam Fox’s words confirm, there are people who hold the US as the highest form of capitalism.  They share the ruthless, devil take the hindmost ideology that is the worst aspect of America (although, in my experience, most Americans don’t live that way).  They want to open every aspect of our lives to corporate profit seekers and reduce social services to discretionary charity.

But the morphing doesn’t end there, or with chlorinated chicken.  In the week that Bernie Sanders launched his campaign to become president in 2020, some elements in the Democratic Party raised the spectre of anti-semitism.  As with the UK Labour Party, this shouldn’t be be entirely dismissed, but it should also be directly related to the rise of a left-wing challenge to the political establishment.

Perhaps the most troubling and telling aspect of UK-US twinning is the increased use of prescription drugs.  This form of self-medication has been at epidemic proportions in the US for decades, but the UK is catching-up.  There are many reasons for this, not least the pernicious role of big-pharma.  At a time of high political anxiety, it’s understandable that people seek solace in all kinds of ways.  But the soporific effects could hasten our journey to America.

For a partial antidote, the Homes for All campaign is organising a special conference looking at the toxic link between bad housing and bad health.  All welcome.  Speakers will include Guardian columnist Dawn Foster and the event will be opened by Raquel Rolnik, former UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, with whom I have a bit of fondly remembered history.  Above all though, it’s about widening the campaign for homes – and a society – that don’t make us sick.


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Flogging Off the Future

They’re at it again!  Housing Associations, so-called “social landlords” (annual surplus last year £3.5 billion), are flogging-off social rented homes.  The Chartered Institute of Housing has recently said 165,000 homes for social rent have been lost since 2012 and the figure is set to rise.  Privatisation takes many forms, but this is one of the most grotesque.

17 Robinson Road, round the corner from where I live (it’s in Bethnal Green, not Hackney – shows how much they know!), is one of 56 homes owned by Housing Associations (HAs), councils or other public authorities going under the auctioneer’s hammer in the next two weeks (with thanks to Peter Denton for the research).  15 of them are being put up for sale by Peabody, who made a surplus – i.e. profit – of £175 million last year.  Another 4 are being sold by Family Mosaic.  Peabody and Family Mosaic recently formed a merger, one of many in the corporate HA sector.

There are about 4,500 families on the Tower Hamlets waiting list for a home like 17 Robinson Road.  It’s a particularly nice house (formerly owned by the Queen as part of the Crown Estate, before she flipped it to Peabody) in a great neighbourhood, with schools, shops, Vicky Park and transport links on the doorstep.  Getting the keys, with a permanent tenancy and a social rent, could be life-changing for a family who might currently be suffering in temporary, overcrowded, overpriced housing.  These are the people social landlords are supposed to be working for.  Instead, Peabody, whose Chief Executive Brendan Sarsfield had a reported salary last year of £278,750,  are feeding the speculative property market.

If 17 Robinson Road is sold at auction, probably at a knock-down price,  it will either be resold, or more likely, rented privately.  The average price for a 2 bedroom home in Tower Hamlets is £580,000, the average rent is £360 per week.  No chance for the people on the council’s waiting list.

The auction on 26th Feb will be carried out by BidX1, an Ireland-based company.  A UK private equity house, Pollen Street Capital, recently bought a big chunk of BidX1.  Pollen Street Capital used to be the private-equity wing of the formerly publicly owned Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).  They are looking to extend their activities in to buying “distressed assets” – i.e. people’s homes – in other countries, particularly Greece, Spain and South Africa.

Peabody is happy to play a part in this Great Gatsby-like parable of greed and stupidity.  The housing casino has already done enormous harm around the world, with Ireland and Spain among the most damaged.  RBS was one of several banks bailed out with £1 trillion of our money because of their reckless investment in the property market.  Instead of learning from these mistakes – and perhaps even making amends for them – Peabody and other corporate HAs are helping spin the wheel again.

There’s a very clear alternative path.  17 Robinson Road and all the other social rented homes due to be flogged-off should be immediately removed from sale and made available to the next eligible families on the waiting lists of their respective boroughs.

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Shelter’s vision for “social” housing has a blind spot

Last Tuesday, I attended the launch of Shelter’s report “A Vision for Social Housing”.  First, the good news.  The recommendations significantly out-bid other mainstream policies, including those of the Labour Party.  The report calls for a 20 year programme to build 3.1 million “social’ homes, with investment of £10 billion a year.  Labour’s housing Green Paper only commits to spending £4 billion.  The current government has committed only £2 billion for “social housing” over the next 10 years.

The report makes an irrefutable argument that building the homes we need would pay for itself (within 30 years) through savings in Hosing Benefit and the many other costs resulting from the false economies of current policy.  Shelter is also calling for a broad political alliance to ensure that building the homes we need isn’t derailed by changes of government, or other political events like Brexit.  As one of the report’s commissioners, Jim O’Neill, quite rightly said, there are no excuses and it was refreshing to hear both Ed Miliband and Sayeeda Warsi admit they hadn’t done enough when they had more political clout.

The report was prompted by the Grenfell atrocity and there are some important measures suggested for ensuring that, as Doreen Lawrence puts it, tenants’ lives are never again put at risk due to “institutional indifference”.

There were repeated assurances that the report would not be allowed to gather dust and would lead to action, but worryingly, when asked, there didn’t appear to be any clear strategy for how this would happen.  Nonetheless, Shelter is a respected, influential voice, so this report could be a significant breakthrough moment.

Here comes the “but”.  Shelter has effectively air-brushed council housing and its specific identity out of the past, present or future.  The report goes into considerable detail about the causes and consequences of the housing crisis, with the fundamental, if obvious, conclusion that we’ve not been building enough new homes for people with low or moderate incomes, what Shelter refers to, misleadingly, as “social housing”.

With others, for years I’ve insisted on making the distinction between council housing and other forms of non-market rented homes.  This is not a semantic, academic or peripheral issue.  It’s absolutely critical to answering the question Shelter puts: “How have we got here?”

It’s disappointing that the report appears to deliberately manipulate data to present a distorted impression of post-war housing.  At the launch, Ed Miliband rightly drew attention to the country’s astonishing house-building achievements after 1945.  But it was, emphatically, council housing, not “social housing”, that carried the load.  Of the 860,870 homes completed in the UK between 1949 and 1952,  82% were built through local authorities.  The proportion of new council homes reduced over subsequent years, but was still over half of total output until 1959.  Throughout this period, the number of new housing association (HA) homes built a year averaged 4%.  Council housing continued to average over 40% of new homes built a year from 1960 – 1980, while the average percentage of new HA homes stayed in single figures.  During the four decades after the war, local authorities always built at least 110,000 homes a year

The Shelter report makes no mention of any of this.

Council house building has virtually dried-up since the 1990s.  Meanwhile, HAs have been promoted, by all governments, as the monopoly providers of non-market rented homes.  But they have never come near filling the gap.  The high-water mark of new council homes was 1953, with 245,160 homes completed.  HAs have never built more than 40,000 a year, or exceeded 22% of total output.  An increasing proportion of these homes have not been for social rent.  In 2016, approximately one-third of the 30,000 homes completed by HAs were built by the “G15” of big London-based organisations.  Of these, only 14% were for social rent.  28% were for so-called Affordable Rent of up to 80% of market level.  28% were for full market rent or market sale.

Again, the Shelter report is silent on this.  There is only muted, implied criticism of the role of HAs and their creeping – in some cases, galloping – commercialism.  Instead, the big HAs’ line that they’ve been reluctant to make their corporate shift is repeated, when in fact, they have actively lobbied for it.

This is about policy, not politics, although of course, the two are symbiotic.  By failing to acknowledge the true role of council housing, Shelter are ignoring the sharpest tool in the box.


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Streets Paved with Gold

I’m very flattered to be quoted by David Harvey in his paper “Universal Alienation and the Real Subsumption of Daily Life under Capital: A Response to Hardt and Negri” (sorry, I can’t add the link, but it’s well worth a read and available on line, reference tripleC 16(2): 449-453, 2018).  In it, Professor Harvey skewers the ideological and economic stupidity that underpins our approach to housing.  He describes the shift from the home of his 1950’s childhood as a place ” to eat, sleep, socialise, read stories, do homework or listen to the radio” to the neoliberal world of homes as an “instrument of speculation” in which “there should be no social housing at all”.  Some of his housing facts are a bit off, but I’m not going to nit pick about that and certainly not with one of the world’s most eminent Marxist scholar’s overall argument that these forces represent a fundamental shift in the pattern of capitalist accumulation, producing (among other things) new forms of alienation.

There are many symptoms of neoliberal housing neuralgia and for me, some of them are illustrated by this photo, taken round the corner from where I live.  Our area is an epicentre of the type of speculative accumulation of the type David Harvey describes, with all its attendant social contradictions and tensions, some of them captured by this image.  Late Victorian/early Edwardian homes, including the one I live in, have become huge financial assets, embodying numerous meanings beyond their basic function as shelter.

Artists are key arbiters of today’s East End.  This lane was refashioned earlier this year to restore its cobbles, at a cost of £100,000 – approved and administered by Tower Hamlets Council, paid for by Transport for London.  In a quixotic moment, I tried to challenge this flagrant inversion of spending priorities.  I was told what was being achieved was the restoration of an unusual “traditional streetscape”.  I countered with the argument that all our streets could be excavated to produce the same effect, but soon realised I was fighting a losing battle against fake historicism, as well as vested bureaucratic, financial and political interests.  But part of my anger was fuelled by the thought that the exchange value of the private homes and artist’s studios along the lane had been enhanced by thousands of pounds at public expense.

Not long after, I noticed that what I assume to he one of the beneficiaries had painted one of the street-stones gold.  I find a lot of the art that surrounds us too arch to understand or care about.  But in this case, I thought ‘You’re just taking the piss!”

Another poignant feature of the photo is that at the end of the lane is the local homeless services department, named after a man (Albert Jacob) who saw council housing as the key to resisting the universal alienation described by David Harvey.  It’s a tragic irony that Albert’s name now denotes our failure to preserve his beliefs.

But there’s another luminous street that may lead to different conclusions.  Dorothy’s Yellow Brick Road led to a shimmering city founded on illusion where she was reminded of the true value of Home.  Perhaps we’ll all take a step along a similar journey in 2019.

Happy Christmas.




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