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How much of what we’ve built has been unmasked as slum?

I’m still trying to make sense of the contradictory muddle of this slippery time, writes Christine Murray

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Couple sunbathe in the City of London during lockdown Photo: John Sturrock
Couple sunbathe in the City of London during lockdown Photo: John Sturrock

Over the months of lockdown, it’s become social custom to express gratitude for a balcony, a garden or the view of a tree. Thoughts of those less fortunate now include inhabitants of shiny towers in prime neighbourhoods with no private outdoor space.


What struck me, as our homes morphed into cages and we adapted to life in captivity, is just how much of what we have built has been unmasked as slum.


I’ve found myself thinking about people in office-to-residential conversions with no windows; residents in airless co-living micro-flats that depend on shared facilities; and of social housing tenants, who are facing the highest level of overcrowding in 22 years, according to the most recent English Housing Survey.


Who designed and built these places? Have they come to regret them?


In the early weeks, stuck in the flat with the kids, the lawn a happy mess of moss and violets, we smiled at our swing-set and scrawny trees like sudden gifts. Even if London Zoo animals have larger enclosures, we were the lucky ones.


Our scrub of a garden felt lush and semi-wild. We watched robins, wrens, bees and butterflies. Aside from the occasional bang of a construction site, the constant migraine of traffic had stopped, and the sky turned blue with no contrails, as no planes flew.


It’s become a new social custom to express gratitude for a balcony, a garden or the view of a tree


Leaning out for the first Clap for Carers, we saw that every terrace windowsill on our Victorian street was filled with neighbours. I had no idea we had so many. Whole families peered out from top-floor conversions or banged pots on the streets-in-the-sky gangways of a nearby estate, the noise of human hands like thunder.


I counted heads. Nearly every house is divided into two, three, or four flats, roughly one hundred houses on the street – the sound of a thousand souls clapping. And we are just one street among hundreds in Hackney, where house prices have risen by 700% over the past 20 years, according to Lloyds Bank. That night, in short succession, three ambulances drove past our home – no sirens, but blue lights. We hoped the children wouldn’t notice, afraid of scaring them.


Ten weeks later, at the final clap, scant faces appear at the windows. One shouts, “Yeah, NHS. Sack Cummings!”


If collective gusto has waned and political cynicism peaked, we have quietly become more supportive of each other. So much has changed; and not changed.


When one by one my family got sick with suspected Covid-19 – first my husband, then the kids, then me – the neighbours dropped off bread, fruit and vegetables, ringing the bell and stepping back. Even from two metres away, their nearness was a comfort. 111 told us to drink fluids and call 999 if we couldn’t speak for breathing. The neighbours asked if they could help. We were not alone.


So much has changed; and not changed


When the weather, and our health, improved, I heard my neighbours’ stories over the fence or out the window. There’s the death of a local childminder; a funeral for a husband and wife; the loss of seven members of a family and a school friend’s grandfather. We are living in an epicentre, the second-most badly affected borough in the country. Hackney is a place where gentrification meets air pollution and deprivation – in 2012, The Economist described Dalston as “a fashionable mix of poverty and cool”.


We spoke more often to the households on our side of the road; parked cars are a conversation blocker.


The ordinary shops and services on the high street have meant that we have not run short of what we need. The big chain supermarkets ran out of flour and eggs, but the Turkish and Kurdish cornershops sourced new suppliers and ordered in bulk quantities, the small Italian delicatessen started delivering, and the local Growing Communities’ organic fruit and veg scheme never missed a beat. It’s the small, independent traders that proved most resilient and kept us fed – and we loved them.


Central London still feels remote to our village-like life, those empty photographs of Soho and the Southbank like postcards from a world away. How many so-called thriving places were really just full of tourists and office workers? How many neighbourhoods have been revealed as hotel lobbies?


In London, one in 50 homes was estimated to be an Airbnb. There were more than 2,250 Airbnbs in Hackney on 9 March, but it’s been a while since I’ve heard the sound of a suitcase being dragged along the pavement, a sound I’d never considered.


In the week beginning 16 March, Rightmove saw a 45% year-on-year increase in new rental listings in London, 78% in Bath, 62% in Edinburgh and 55% in Brighton. Neighbourhoods that depend on tourism will not have proved so resilient. Perhaps post-pandemic, these homes will be inhabited again.


It’s been a while since I’ve heard the sound of a suitcase dragged along the pavement, a sound I’d never considered


The green spaces are all busy, however. At first, Twitter chastised park-goers. In London Fields, a police van drove around the green, broadcasting instructions to only exercise. Victoria Park closed its gates. Benches and playgrounds were cordoned off. There was no acknowledgment of the elderly, disabled, pregnant or families for whom flats are pressure cookers and parks valves. Women’s Aid reported a 41% week-on-week increase in users visiting their Live Chat between 26 March and 1 April, and Refuge reported a 25% increase in calls to the national domestic abuse helpline.


Then it relaxes. But I find myself still ceding the park to those without gardens of their own. Hackney Downs, usually pretty quiet, once belonged to the neighbourhood children, but it’s now the domain of lycra-clad joggers, workout buffs and 20-something friends. The bushes in which we played hide-and-seek are full of toilet paper – pubs and public toilets are still closed.


But the park is also the site of our local #BlackLivesMatter meeting and protest. With news that BAME communities are at greater risk from the virus, a new racial divide emerges in the neighbourhood, with people of colour wearing masks, and white young people not. As masks are best at stopping you giving someone else the infection rather than protecting yourself, it should be the other way around.


In early lockdown, the roads were as quiet as Christmas, but the drivers barrelled towards us threateningly. They honked loudly should a pedestrian step into the road, swore at cyclists, and stuck two fingers up at me and the kids. This was contested space and the bullies who took it over were all men. But those days are over, now the traffic is coming back with queues of cars carrying one person each. On our street, there are fewer cyclists, not more.


“Do you remember before the virus came, mum?” my six-year-old asks. How long before she no longer remembers?


There are things I don’t miss: the commute, the rolling suitcases, the school run, the smelly air and the noise.


The kids seem to be growing up more slowly. I’m grateful every day for that. When we do go to the park, I notice how much they just want to run, too. They want its bigness. I question whether we’re living in the right place, even if only for this time. Without schools, the office, crowds of friends or culture on tap, what is the city for?


Urban density has failed to preserve the countryside, save the planet, promote biodiversity, provide affordable housing or prevent deprivation, joblessness and homelessness. It seems that to solve these problems, all we needed was the wave of a politician’s magic wand.


There are things I don’t miss: the commute


At the onset of the pandemic, councils commandeered vacant properties and hotels to rehouse rough sleepers. What will happen to them now the government has quietly withdrawn its funding for this vital programme? After years of rhetoric about the housing crisis, homelessness has been exposed as a deliberate policy decision.


Without Airbnbs and hotels, do we still have a housing crisis? Did we ever have a housing crisis? It’s one of many unanswered questions, along with how we will address prime minister Boris Johnson’s incompetent handling of this pandemic, which has led to the UK having the highest Covid-19 death rate in Europe, second in the world. Johnson’s failure to close construction sites and the corresponding high number of deaths among workers shames this industry, too.


For those of us eager to bounce back, this is the time to consider how to bounce forward, as architect Francine Houben writes in her letter from lockdown. Yet the recently announced planning changes suggests more permitted development: more slums. People keep asking me whether they should move out of the city. On Zoom, they turn to their windows and wonder aloud whether they’d be happier somewhere else.


Wars begin and revolutions happen overnight – it’s only a rear view of history that suggests otherwise. When it comes to trains, planes, buses, cars, bikes, offices, shopping, and exactly where and how we want to live after this, all bets are off. The only thing that’s certain is that everyone wants a private garden and high-speed broadband.


Our next edition of the magazine, created in lockdown, is a mix of reports and learnings that strive to make sense of the shocks and shifts taking place around us, especially in retail and transport. This is the beginning of a conversation that we’ll continue at our Festival of Place on 13 November 2020 and in our series of Bytesize talks.


Some of the articles in its pages were commissioned before the crisis, but all were completed after. I hope that taken together, this collection of photography and words has captured a moment in time, following the great pause, at the forging of a new normal.


Whether nothing or everything changes, it feels important to mark the moment when.


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