If you slip away, to the side of that staircase, them man running won’t see. If you pull up that curtain, or knock on this shelf – whoever’s keeping an eye out will let you in. We’re surrealists – like J.G. Ballard says – guides ‘towards a discovery of the secret formulas of reality’. Blending into our environments, rather than consumed, we course through.
It is these secret formulas that I remember most about growing up in Tottenham, and then Enfield, in the 90s and 00s – the way that moving through spaces in a city can reallocate the rules by which you operate. There is a formula to growing up on, or near, an estate such as Broadwater Farm. A hood surrealism begins as you walk in, where stairways seem to split apart, providing hiding points for locals that feds don’t have access to.
I grew up with stories of olders who knew how to make themselves disappear among farm’s walkways. A carpet shop doubling up as a front will be a place to duck into, if you know. Nooks of privacy were reliant on our ability to curate who we spoke to about the dilatations of concrete and wall. Our ways of living were adapted to speaking in codes, never fully revealing our routes, our getaway plan, or which turn we would take running up that next flight of stairs.
These are loopholes, that function in built-up areas because of their unassuming nature. Living in a place without these private spaces, these duck-outs, is an alarming prospect to me. It gives us boldness to have a web of bunkers created outside of a dictionary of catastrophe and pain, and created instead through hearsay, community whispers and breakdowns of activity.
There is a jump-off point near West Green Road that you can leap from if you run from a particular set of flats. There’s TTP, ‘Take The Piss’ alley, that starts at Edmonton Green Shopping Centre and stretches to the red and blue flats that back onto Montagu Road in N18 – named because ‘it takes the piss how long it is’. We can take risks with these spaces. Girls shout to each other, ‘Meet me at TTP!’, before they run with water balloons to catch the boys nearby. Elsewhere, another friend knowingly shares an invite before she slips away to see someone she shouldn’t be seeing. If you’re raised without these codes, if you’re not from ends, you won’t find the routes and you won’t find us.
The shop overlooking the alley getting shut down reveals another part of gentrification, one in which wood lice are laid bare by building works, no longer slumberous and journeying across the palms of waiting girls. We know that we arrived in these places at a loss. The blueprint was already an architect’s coaster. Gaps of absence are filled with memories, and reimagining after reimagining of what ends could be.
Broadwater Farm has a mural on the side of Debden block: The Waterfall. It was painted to create a sense of peace by retracing a nostalgia for the waters of the River Moselle that runs through Haringey. To those who live in and around the estate, these murals are markers of comfort sitting alongside cheap pre-fabricated concrete panels, vulnerable to fire. After the 1985 riots (though we call it an uprising) police spoke of feeling thwarted by the layout of the estate, their frustrations revealed in local blogs, internal reports and news segments. That frustration became a point of local pride, because it was a single form of relief against the over-policing and surveillance that targeted individuals in the estate, especially young Black men. At a talk given at the ICA by Stafford Scott, coordinator of Tottenham Rights, he shared that:
We seem to be a really special community . . . as a matter of fact we were identified that way, we were called a ‘symbolic location’ by Kenneth Newman [then Metropolitan Police Commissioner] . . . We didn’t know what it meant until we woke up the next morning and realised we would be over-policed and under-protected.
To create a secret understanding of the dilatations of an estate, either as a local or resident, means to gain back time for yourself. I know what it’s like, as a local, to be chased with a group of friends and to splinter off across the estate and its surrounding park and roads. At that same ICA talk, Stafford spoke about an inherent institutional desire for police and government bodies to ‘come in to our community’. When you come into farm from the street, you will be spotted. Either you will be known by the near five-thousand residents, or you are a stranger. There is no way to walk or run through, without a whisper rippling to announce you. Through this, the site of farm and the streets surrounding it become part of a web of routes that seem to exist in their own temporal shifts.
During day-to-day work, people may enter one building, taking a pause from another. The work site contains us for a period of time before we return home. In One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jung-eun, translated by Jung Yewon, the main character steps into their home and finds that it is unchanged after emptiness: ‘Inside it was dark, and seemed exactly how I’d left it even though I’d been gone a whole day.’ There are time warps where whatever is happening outside, seems not to penetrate the world at home. I am moved by this, the way that you can go to work the whole day in another universe, a universe built for the working self, and meanwhile the home site is untouched, waiting for you to resume the time flow and mood of the homing environment. In my case, it’s the equivalent of working in central London all day and coming back on the train, back to ends, back to this untouched parallel world.
The expectation of change sits in my mind, though it calls to mind a type of subconscious feeling of surveillance. I feel that these buildings that we live in are enzymatic, that the bellies of them process whatever is left behind when we leave, the moment we turn our eyes away. A catastrophic event can take place in a home, and you can return hours after and often a hole in the wall will already have begun to reform with plaster – micro physical changes that affect an impression of care from the home site. If the buildings are changing, thinking and feeling – then they may too grieve. This power that we could assign to the structures makes such a building a hauntological artefact.
In the poetry collection Thinking with Trees by Jason Allen-Paisant, the narrator arrives at a retired textiles factory and considers the lost futures within it, ‘the haunting of place / by place / how they haunt the facade of this building / how I came to meet their spirit here in the stone / everything now changes place’. Spirits in stone, alive with knowing, they ask you to consider your place, where you’ve chosen to be. This changing of place – over time, or in response to turning your eye away from its walls – is an extension of the warping that you feel in buildings with this hauntological mood.
In my novel, Keeping the House, Ayla, one of the main characters, moves to Tottenham in the aftermath of the 1985 Riots Uprising – her home is a life swap with the prior resident, and an agreement to take over not just the home but also its risks. Ayla and her elderly mother move in without a man to ‘protect them’. To them, the increased public perception of Tottenham as a dangerous area after the uprising merely represents cheaper rent, and a house with tall walls that they otherwise couldn’t get as immigrants with money troubles. Living in a ‘special community’ like Tottenham represents a risk of economic scarcity, which is met with a communal resistance from locals (mostly racialised communities) formed through discontent around government cuts, brutal policing and failed modernism. We resist because we should not have to suffer such risks, and social housing should not arrive as a package deal with danger, poverty and hyper-surveillance.
The oddness of this risk exchange is that it was never meant to encourage such charged living. Estates like Farm grow out of the mutations of Le Corbusier’s initial green and utopic plans. Corbusier always wanted ‘pedways’, walkways in the sky that allowed for residents in new builds to connect with nature and their neighbours. We know that Corbusier’s architectural philosophy was inherently flawed. In an unrealized urban masterplan called Ville Radieuse (the radiant city) he speaks of how the ideal urban housing project would require the ‘disappearance of the street’. We have seen how these ideals go wrong. To make the street disappear is to pretend that the streets are not part of our idea of home. To me, a pavement can carry the same weight as a shared balcony – our home spreads much further than the confines of a blueprint.
There’s a series of poems within POOR by Caleb Femi called ‘A Designer Talks of a Home / A Resident Talks of Home’, and in the first poem, a young boy, a resident of North Peckham Estate, is told by another resident that the apple pip he just swallowed will grow into a tree inside him. He asks, ‘don’t that mean I will be the first treeboy on the estate?’ In the same poem, a designer extols ‘design is not just a visual thing, it’s a thought process’. There’s a supposed awareness of how the design is meant to make residents feel, but actually, the residents are in a realm of the magical – these nuances of thought could never be predicted by the designer, and the very act of being a resident thwarts the designer’s assumptions. The nuances are instead formed through the multi-storied livings that flow in conversation and mutual risks undertaken.
In his essay Some Notes on Organic Hood Surrealism, Kareem Parkins-Brown compares the hood to a prose poem.
Since the prose poem’s face is formless, there is nothing to tell the reader how it is to be read. They may have thought they knew what they were seeing, and prepared themself in a certain way. Now they have to survive in a space that sends them in many directions, yet still appears interconnected.
Parkins-Brown presents an idea of the prose poem as one that is about slippages, of being lulled into a false sense of security, in just the same way that the turbo-capitalism of cities like London manifests. As soon as you start to enjoy something, it seems to get closed down – a family-run bakery will open, build a community around itself on Tottenham High Road, only to close down almost as soon as it opened. Nothing is guaranteed. For Parkins-Brown, a man lost in the hood must ‘survive in a space that sends [him] in many directions’, whereas a local can unpack what is interconnected and then move through the space accordingly. Perhaps this comes from asking your local bakery, ‘How are you doing? Are things running okay?’ Or in the case of Chuku’s, a local restaurant on the same High Road, supporting their ‘Six Week Charge’, an incentive to secure six hundred bookings over six weeks in order to guarantee the income needed to cover their running costs. The risk taken comes with an awareness of the slippages, the turns – there is no surprise in this life if falls are accounted for. Later he writes, ‘Hood people are not normal by default. We are fantasy, nightmare, desire, and casualty.’ I think about this a lot, the way that certain places, or being from certain places, can limit how we freestyle through the day. It comes down to the fact that good and bad are overwhelmingly conflated here, so you have to act accordingly.
There’s a photocollage series by the artist Richard Dixon, who is also known as lostintottenham, that I think encapsulates the glitchiness of space and event that reverberates through Tottenham. His images often splice together buildings, vehicles or metalwork, pasted at disjointed angles that disorientate the eye. In one photo, a police boat appears to be gunning it down a side road in Tottenham on a collision course with a bully van, while a sign pokes out from the middle that says ‘no cash, no problem’, alongside one of those ever-present parking-fine threat boards.
A flash of danger alongside a promise, a cashless deal for junking your car pasted alongside a car chase, ‘desire and casualty’ – it’s a thought process that has mutated into a superb coping mechanism for a design that is difficult to survive: an urban layout that tries to split streets away from homes, rather than making safer streets; architecture that signals police to watch your walls. Artefacts like lostintottenham’s photos – from the place, by the place – can become a homing resource when distance and chance take you away from a place. Locals, extracted from that living, can reach towards such documents to help clarify or remember a mode of being hard to capture or pin down.
Through the structural limitations of these underfunded and underserved sites, a local’s concept of the outside changes. Children of concrete always think of greenery, for it is everywhere, in shoots, overgrowth and nearby expanses. Caleb Femi once spoke to me about snails, how high they reach, how buildings don’t interfere, wholly, with nature and us.
People interfere though.
Once, in my first year of secondary school, I bunked and went to Jubilee Park in Edmonton with two of my friends, one of whom had an older boyfriend whose friends seemed to apparate from the bushes that they had trampled with their feet. We were sunbathing and I became very aware that I was twelve, and that these others were in their twenties. Everyone had told me not to visit that bit of the park, to always remain within view. In ends, risks circulate us, and we live through a constant negotiation – not just by being young and vulnerable, but due to the implications of the area, the loss of community surveillance once you ignore the rules and step out to the parks. I was lucky that time. The next month my brother started walking me through the subway because another girl had taken the shortcut to get to her school bus and she had not been.
I think we long for and sometimes create loopholes so that we can linger. We get off a bus and cut through so we can stop at a tree because we know it is our tree, even if it means we are seen, stopping to look at the tree. As Allen-Paisant writes in Thinking with Trees, ‘If only I weren’t out of place / how long I would continue my conversation with this form of water / Then I could stay here for hours.’
Cynthia Cruz, in her book The Melancholia of Class, writes about how class locates us within certain spaces, and how those spaces can encumber the way that we are received. You are put in spaces and positions that control your experience of time and place. You are forced to look at dry wall:
Being working-class is like living in a separate, parallel world. I am sitting in a window-less room of the NYC Department of Social Services amongst other families, workers, and the poor, who, like me, have been asked to arrive by a specific hour and, like me, have been waiting an entire day to be seen. Not because there has been an emergency or a misunderstanding, but because this is how the working class experience time.
Time becomes a rule of waiting for the working class. We take shortcuts that we hold close to our hearts. Wait for trains under playground apparatus, kissing to make up for delays. A state of patience can give us the incentive to sidestep and invent new ways to navigate through the days. It’s a state I feel often. In a time frame that is always hiccupping, we lean on the loopholes that help us to glitch out. We are warding off badness. An olive branch is set on fire and wafted through rooms. A box sash window is propped up by a slipper and we slip through to avoid the aunty (holding the other slipper).
Our day-to-day thinking follows us. I write this having just walked out of a bodega in the Bronx, bossman there reminded me of my own bossman in north London’s Tottenham Food Centre. I still feel the same, far away, though the codes are changed and disorientated. The ghosts or ephemera of the place are there. You can cross the world but still have ends mentality. I’m a girl walking home alone. I take a detour, and it protects me. I know there are codes to other places now, and want to learn them, to step through them. I want to rush these places, to fill them.
Photograph © Richard Dixon (@lostintottenham), No cash, No problem, 2020