Monday, November 14, 2011

A piece of East London: an urban anthropology trip

I'm not sure how many of you know, but I did finally find a job here in Rottedam (in August). I work at a small urban planning company called Stipo--based in Amsterdam, with an office in Rotterdam as well. Stipo seems to be this hybrid private/non-profit company that's ultimately private but does a lot of work I consider to be in a non-profit portfolio. We work on strategic and community planning with a special emphasis in partnership building. I guess I should do an entry on working for a Dutch company--I'm sure my managers will love that!

Arriving at the incredible St. Pancras Station

One of the projects I have been working on is setting up a 3-day study visit or "exchange" with two partner organizations in London. We got about 32 architects, planners, and urban anthropologists together, mostly from Holland but also a couple folks from London, Spain, and Ireland, and organized a jam-packed 3 days. The theme of the exchange was discovering and learning from the innovators in the 'civic economy' in London. A lot of folks in the planning and community-building world are fed up with Big Government and strongly believe that government (and funds from the government) stifles innovation, limits their creativity, and curbs the extent to which they can reach out to the people.

With our partners we sought out grass-root organizations who are going against the grain. We focused our energy on the very hip and radically changing East London neighborhoods--where immigrants and low-income families and fashionista hipsters live side-by-side, and where in the same block you see up-scale Michelin star restaurants, degenerate factory buildings, and major Olympics-related urban regeneration.

All the hard work really did pay off and at the very last minute, I was invited to go on the trip! We left Rotterdam early Thursday morning, with the 25 Dutch participants (the rest we'd meet in London), and made our way to Brussels and then the Eurostar train to London St. Pancras--arriving at 13h30.

Our first stop of the day was (not the hotel) Arcola Theatre. Not only is this a theater, but it also hosts a music school, music and dance workshops, professional recording spaces, café and bar, and it runs itself by producing its own energy. The theater hires local youth to run the shows and coordinate events, gaining skills in technical and event planning. It was the highlight of the trip for me. 

After a very interesting lecture and Q&A with a researcher from 00:/ Research--the team behind The Compendium for the Civic Economy, the whole inspiration behind this exchange--we checked into our hotel in Shoreditch and then had a lovely, British meal down the street at Albion Café

Day Two started very early with an 8am rush-hour Tube ride on the Central Line towards the city center. Even though the train comes every ONE minute--it's not enough for Londoners. Our group of 30 had to wait for 3 trains to pass before we could squeeze in through the doors. It was quite the London experience! 

Our first stop of the day was at the brand-new HUB Westminster--no, not in East London, but the original HUB Islington was our last stop of the day and we couldn't pass up the opportunity to see this incredible space. Described as a social entrepreneur enterprise, this is a flexible time-based gathering place for people and businesses to work and meet. The warehouse has facilities for conferences, small meetings, individual use, plus kitchen equipment, wifi, printers, scanners, and anything else members need. It seems a bit difficult (and expensive) to become a member, but who wouldn't want to work in a space like this?! Very cool. After a group round-table discussion and small-group exchange, we ate a delicious quiche and salad lunch and then divided up for the afternoon parallel visits. 

My group checked out People's Supermarket--one of the few co-op grocery stores in London--before heading to The School of Life in Covent Gardens. At first glance at the website and their nicely-designed bookstore, I loved it. Basically, the company offers workshops about life--such as "how to deal with death," "are relationships necessary," and "reconnecting with nature." They give Sunday sermons (non-religious) and offer psychotherapy. After our group met with one of the faculty memebrs, I now have very mixed feelings about this so-called school--started by the famous philosopher Allan de Botton--because of a few contradictions. First, the faculty member explicitly stated that the School is not a replacement for therapy or religion and yet they offer psychotheray and "bibliotherapy" (a personalized reading list). That seems inconsistent--they even had a typical therapist chaise-lounge in the room! Also, when the difference between self-help books and the School of Life came up, the nearly-offended faculty member went on and on about how "those books" give you no answers and only force you to purchase the next book and the next. A few minutes later in a different conversation, she mentioned the upcoming release of the School's own compilation of books about questions of life (aka: self-help books?). Hmmmmm. Finally, my last reason of discontent is that they were the only ones who actually charged us to come and talk to them about what they do, which actually is very much consistent with their high-costs classes (50$ for a 3-hour class with 25 strangers; 200$ for a full day course). So, really good intentions and I love the idea, but it seems like they have some disconnects to work out. Ok, that's my rant.

The evening session was located at the HUB Islington--another super cool, converted warehouse space. We recapped our parallel sessions and heard from the other groups who checked out Meanwhile Space, a very inspiring company who finds temporary use for empty buildings; St. Paul's Church, a renovated and transformed church into an important cultural and community center; and Hackney Co-operative Development Trust, an economic development organization with strong ties to the local community and civic economy. At the HUB we had an interesting discussion--facilitated by wine and hors d'oeuvres--examining several tough questions about the benefits and detriments of urban regeneration, gentrification, and the roles of groups, communities, and organizations in the evolution of "the city."    

That evening, six of us trekked out to Song Que in Hoxton. It's been voted the best Vietnamese in London many times over and it was delicious! I had the hot and spice tofu noodles and let me tell you, it was hot and spicy!

[above] our tour guide, Belgian journalist Ekle Lahousse; [below] walking down Columbia Road
Day Three started a bit later than the previous day. The large group split up into two and participants chose one of two "urban walks," lead by our partners. One walk was through the Olympic area via the Fat Walk, a walking and cycling riverside parkland leading from the Olympic Park to the Thames River, following the Lea River. The other walk (which I chose) guided us through the 'sub-culture' nodes of East London (read: hipster-villes). Our guide was the fabulous Elke Lahousse, a Belgian journalist conducting research on urban sub-cultures in East London. 

From our hotel we walked past the Hackney City Farm, Columbia Flower Market, the very cool Redchurch Street and Shoreditch High Street's surrounding warehouses turned cafes and bars and shops. We walked down Brick Lane and had to pass by so many amazing vintage shops and antique stores--it almost killed me. Labour & Wait, Rokit Vintage, and all the fun goodies at the Upmarket and Spitalfields will just have to wait til next time. 

We ended our walk at the Broadway Market in Hackney, near London Fields. We had a wonderful late lunch La Vie en Rose, wandered around the market and more adorable shops, and then it was already time to find the nearest bus stop and head to Hackney Wick--a very East London, industrial neighborhood at the heart of the new Olympic development. 

Enjoying the new sidewalk furniture in Hackney-Wick, the heart of the Olympic development
Our final stop of the whole trip was at the Electric Matchbox, an IT computer service lounge-warehouse-café. Here we rehashed our walks, brought up the tough questions from the previous day, and attempted to solve the problems of 'the city' once again. Phew, it was a lot of work and a lot of thinking! 

The next morning, I woke up very early to catch my train back to Holland. Overall, what a trip! A wonderful group of people with such diverse backgrounds and experience to bring to the table. Never a dull moment. And I can't wait to come back and truly experience the civic economy (read: shop)! 

1 comment:

  1. Wow, looks like you got a lot of work done... not just fun and games hey?!
    Lovely pictures - as always! x


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