We Come From Your Future: Dispatch Five 26 June 2008
Sounding Alexandra Court
Field Composition Five: Alexandra Court
Alexandra Court, 9th floor
"It's a nice place," our tour guide says of "Famous Alexandra Court" tower block in Hackney, North London. Standing on a balcony on the ninth floor, she talks of how she fled the war in Uganda during the 1980s. She began her university degree while peace negotiations were taking place in London. Listening to her story, we take in the panoramic view of the entire northern part of the city. She points to a nearby house occupied by squatters. “We never have problems with them,” she says. Alexandra Court is a hostel that provides temporary housing for the homeless. According to the hostel's rules, residents are forbidden to stay for more than a month. However, due to the scarcity of low-income housing, residents often stay for much longer - sometimes over a year, waiting for the council to provide more permanent accommodations. The squat and the hostel towering above it manifest in brick and glass the very terms of housing precarity for those who inhabit the borders of the market.
Alexandra Court, 8th floor
Community never exists in an ideal form. In August 2007, the residents of Alexandra Court, together with the London Coalition Against Poverty took action against the deteriorating situation in their tower block. The initial catalyst arose from a refusal to accept that the primary gate into the block could not be locked. For the residents, the issue was not a matter of security. Rather, the complaint emerged from the residents organising themselves. In order to take their fate into their own hands, the residents felt they needed to be able to identify who lived in the building. Securing the gate was seen as a way of identifying who had a stake in demanding changes.
Meeting in one of the tower's small apartments on the 8th floor, residents began to talk about the changes they wanted to their living conditions. Even though the local council manages the building as temporary housing for the homeless, residents of the small flats - such as the one used for that meeting last August - pay rents significantly higher than those paid for much larger council flats in North London. And yet, despite paying enormously high rents, the residents of Alexandra Court have shouldered the qualitative costs of chronic disinvestment. So when the residents assembled to voice their complaints, they called for essentials like heating and hot water during London's cold damp winters. They spoke of working elevators so the elderly and mothers with prams could access the upper floors without having to take the stairs. They imagined an end to false fire alarms in the night, the eradication of mice and insect infestation, and expelling the drug-dealing that takes place in the corridors. And they imagined a functional lock on the front gate.
From our own experience with social housing organising both in the U.S. and in Europe, the story our host tells us sounds brutally familiar. And like stories of chronic disinvestment in publicly managed housing everywhere, council officials consistently promise change although no changes ever come.
Alexandra Court, Ground floor entrance
The time had come for the residents to take action. Protesting in the streets, they brought their demands to HackneyTown Hall. The call for action from the council had the unexpected effect of bringing them into contact with other residents facing similar conditions. Our host tells us of how they came to hear of neighbouring residents also accused of intentional homelessness. "Those who experience precarious housing are too often blamed for a situation caused by structural neglect, disinvestment and, even, bureaucratic racism," she says. Placed in temporary accommodations, residents experience violence and abuse all the while bureaucratic entanglements make their lives a constant site of negotiation. The resentful discourse of the bureaucrat oscillates between patronising and hostility directed to the poor who dare to seek relief from the harm produced by the very institutions charged with administering relief. The council system disavows the harm it causes.
The practice of community, then, is not a product of the distribution of housing. Community arises out of the organisation of a demand. Anti-racism, in practice, is more than the fight against racism.
We ask: What is the sound of a demand for decent housing?
Field Report Five by Ultra-red
Regularise Undocumented WorkersDispatch Two
Day of Action to Abolish No Recourse to Public FundsDispatch Three
Migrant Organising In The Rural South WestDispatch Four
Next StopDispatch Six
Echo-mining at Deptford MarketOnline Episodes
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