Stay Home? They wanted to…

As England enters a third lockdown where all people are ordered to “stay at home,” at Spectacle we are reminded of a community in Clapham Old Town, Lambeth SW4 that was told to “get out” of their homes.

In Rectory Gardens, there lived a group of creative and industrious people. As young artists and divergent thinkers they turned a derelict bombed out row of uninhabitable houses into a flourishing artistic community. For forty years they lived in a housing backwater largely unaffected by social housing policies, despite sporadic attempts by the council to “formalise” the street. They created a housing cooperative, until Lambeth, the ‘cooperative Council’ began taking their “million pound” houses from under their feet. The community that now included the vulnerable, elderly, and unwell, was broken up and dispersed. 

A Tragedy in the Commons 

The street circa 1980

Rectory Gardens (RG) is a L shaped Victorian pedestrian street in Clapham Old Town SW4 that was badly damaged by bombing during WW2. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the decimated houses attracted a group of squatters who saw the opportunity to create a utopia. This motley crew of characters with their own ideologies, housing needs, and reasons for living outside of the norm, formed a collective community which lived in relative harmony for four decades.  

Rectory Gardens circa 1980

By the 1980s these squatters had revitalized the houses, and formed a housing cooperative. Rectory Gardens offered a home for all kinds of artists, free-thinkers, draft dodgers, and other socially liminal characters. Through the 80 and 90s, it remained a diverse community at the epicentre of a flourishing arts scene.

Squatters clear rubble, circa 1960

The street was host to an industrious community of artists, musicians, poets and unconventional ‘free thinkers’ who found a cheap way of living while developing their creative endeavors. It became a hub of cultural activities initiating art studios and cafes that brought life to the area. Spectacle interviewed both Vivienne Westwood and Maggi Hambling about the value of Rectory Gardens’s cultural contributions.

Bombed out windows, circa 1960

Residents of this dynamic community were the initiators of much that made the area distinct and attractive, the skate park and cafe on clapham common, Cafe des Artistes, Fungus Mungus, Voltaire Studios, bric-a-brac shops, rehearsal studios, artisan crafts and pool of skilled creative labour. The street itself had a public garden that served as a safe play area in the day and a performance and social space in the evening.

As with any tragedy, their success was key to their end as well. The artistic growth contributed to the popularity of the neighborhood and ultimately its subsequent gentrification. The council had its eyes on the properties, and though the residents tried to work with the council to legalize their living arrangement the deal fell through. The residents were recently evicted by Lambeth Council, who sold the houses to a developer on the private market.

Evicting the community was devistating for the mental health and well-being of many of these elderly and vulnerable residents. They lost not only their homes but their community and support networks. Many struggled to live away from their home of forty years, some died or were sectioned. Housing is integral to well-being, a point overlooked by this profit driven housing department.

Spectacle at Rectory Gardens

In the spring of 2014 Spectacle was contacted by the residents of Rectory Gardens. They wanted to record the final months of their squat-turned housing-cooperative. Rectory Gardens had been a lively arts community for over forty years, but growing conflict with the local council left the residents desperately fighting to avoid eviction, something that perhaps some media advocacy and intervention could assist them with, they believed.

Spectacle begins filming at Rectory Gardens in 2014

During our preliminary engagement with Rectory Gardens, Spectacle offered training to any residents who were interested in filming techniques. Spectacle conducted workshops where participants learned camera techniques, collected peers’ stories, and collectively discussed the footage and ways to continue the production process. The production process was dictated by the participants themselves, and they shaped the narrative scope by inviting ex-residents to contribute with their memories. This work developed into an archive of oral histories of the street. 

Peers interview eachother and collect an oral history of the street

The production has continued for over six years, far longer than the initial few months originally envisioned. Together, Spectacle and Rectory Gardens residents have collected over 150 hours of footage including: long interviews with residents; key events on the street; residents resisting evictions; historic footage filmed by residents during the 90s; and residents in their new flats, reflecting on living away from their community where they lived for decades.

Post evictions, the street is home to wealthier residents

During Spectacle’s engagement, RG has been dismantled through evictions and relocations, and the residents have been scattered to various and disparate areas of the borough. The street, on the other hand, has been transformed to make way for the arrival of new wealthy tenants. 

Framing the Street 

Spectacle’s video archive of Rectory Gardens brings out many topical themes and offers inspiration for the post-Covid City through an examination of the past. Rectory Gardens is a portrait of forty years of resistance to the government housing policies. 

The houses themselves were initially built as philanthropic poor-quality Victorian housing for low-income workers. After
Rectory Gardens was bombed and left derelict post WW2, it provided a solution for postwar homelessness through squatting. It offered fertile ground for experimenting with alternative ways of living, resisted the “slum clearance” in the 1970s, Thatcherism, and the sale of social housing in the ‘80s. Their methods and ideologies represent a range of approaches including anarcho individualism, anarcho-syndicalism, socialism, capitalism of small artisanal businesses looking for cheap space, and the daily necessity of the socially excluded and the legally marginalised. 

The beautiful rennovation by one of the co-operative residents, taken just before eviction

By the 2000s, the constant push to turn London’s affordable housing into profit, was nibbling at the edges of Rectory Gardens as well. The insidious forces of “regeneration” and contemporary privatised gentrification have been endemic in London where, even by global standards, the commodification of real estate is extreme. Through eviction and rehousing the community was broken up, and the squatters were replaced with live-in guardians, the modern sanitised, privatised version of squatting.

It’s important to note that not all parts of London have been equally gentrified, and Lambeth Council, where Rectory Gardens is located, was famous for its tolerance of alternative housing organisations and leftist leanings. They referred to themselves as ‘the cooperative council’ and ‘Red Ted’ Knight and his ‘Socialist Republic of Lambeth’ were the bete-noir anti hero of the tabloids. There were many houses like Rectory Gardens which were uninhabitable after the war, and Lambeth had few resources to deal with them. Squatters quickly took advantage of the council’s disinterest and moved into these spaces. Lambeth greatly benefited from the labour of these groups, and many cooperatives were able to legalise their situation, but RG was not.

The Project Now

The filming part of this project has come to a close, and we are looking for partners in the next phase – telling the story of what has disappeared. 

We are searching for funding and partners to assist in bringing the dispersed community together again for an online participatory editing process. The process will let the former residents of Rectory Gardens tell their story, by sifting through the 150 hours of footage and drawing out narratives and themes to share with a wider audience.

Searching for Partners for Rectory Gardens Online Participatory Video Project

If you are interested in exploring collaborations or can suggest potential funding streams please get in contact. We welcome academic researchers, activists, social historians, and all others. 

Read more about our model and past projects.

Please get in touch with projects@spectacle.co.uk or subscribe for more information.

For updates check our other blogs.

This project is relevant to: well-being, health, housing, social housing, urbanism, urban planning, human geography, sociology, participatory methods, co-creatation, co-authorship, knowlege sharing, community filmmaking, and participatory film.

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Kilner House showing at the Made Possible by Squatting exhibition

Our 1981 documentary Kilner House has been selected for the Made Possible by Squatting exhibition held in a squatted building.

Kilner House in Kennington was occupied as part of the Squat against Sales campaign against the first Greater London Council house sales.

Keywebland

The exhibition will run from 9th-16th of September at 15 Dock Street E1 8JN. During this time stories and histories will be collected into an on-line archive.  There are over 30 pieces going into the exhibition from interactive mapping of London squat history, to puppet performances, to some great documentary films, installations and pop-up books!

There will also be a rota to have people in the space at all times.

Made Possible by Squatting seeks submissions for an on-line archive that collectively celebrates how squatting has positively affected the lives of individuals & communities in London.

See our interviews with anti-squat company Camelot who lobbied in Netherlands, France and UK for squatting to be made a criminal offence.

See our Spectacle Catalogue for buying Kilner House.
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New Anti-squat interview material online

What is Anti-squat?

Anti-squat is a relatively new phenomenon, it is intended as a way to offer affordable housing in inner city areas, whilst also offering a solution to the problem of vacant properties. Like most traditional squatters, the residents maintain the property.  Unlike traditional squatters, the residents, or live-in guardians as they are sometimes known, are living in the vacant property with the owners’ permission. Residence via anti-squatting is arranged via a third party who the property owner pays to arrange the service. The residents often pay a comparatively low level of rent but are bound by strict rules, contravention of which can see them homeless within days. Plus their complicated tenancy status means they are not ‘residents’ in the traditional sense of the word that the law would understand, meaning that their rights can be compromised.

Inspired by the Broedplaatsen  (“broedplaats” is a hatchery or breeding ground) in Amsterdam which are designed to offer affordable work/living spaces for artists and what they refer to as “cultural entrepreneurs”. It is a model which has been used to challenge the concept of squatting and even the laws that allow it to occur. It has also been suggested that it may have a sanitising effect on the cultural and artistic scene of a locality. An idea explored by Tino Buchholz in his documentary Creativity and the Capitalist City. Tino also questions the idea that culture can be used for the economic regeneration of a city as per the ideas of Richard Florida.


Anti-squat in the U.K.

A company by the name of Camelot is one of the biggest proponents of anti-squat in the U.K. Their work is also being used to challenge the squatting laws here too. The model used by Camelot in the U.K is vastly similar to that in Amsterdam, however Amsterdam has a much wider ranging welfare state than the U.K meaning that they have less homelessness; herein lies a problem. Squatting is sometimes used as a solution by homeless or vulnerably housed people and therefore it should perhaps be questioned whether or not a scheme like anti-squat should be used as a basis for challenging squatting laws. Especially given the strict rules that are imposed by companies like Camelot, such as having a provable income,  are probably unlikely to be met if a person is homeless. Moreover, a person will not be accepted if they have a criminal record, so if squatting is made illegal, partly on the basis that anti-squat schemes like Camelot exist, a whole group of people that need the service might instantly become criminalised. These are amongst the many concerns that arise from anti-squat and its use a vehicle for outlawing squatting altogether.

On 22nd Sept 2010 Spectacle attended the 3rd annual Camelot Guardian Art competition at The Hatton, Faringdon. There we conducted interviews with Bob De Vilder, Marketing & Sales Director Camelot Europe and some current live in guardians. We discussed the scheme and some of the criticism surrounding its application. Please see our archive section to view these interviews. Please also bear in mind that the guardians were in the presence of, although not directly being observed by, Camelot employees at the time of the interview.

 

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