Pop-up communities: here to stay?


This is an edited version of my contribution to a debate on Saturday, part of the After the Riots strand at the Battle of Ideas festival held at the Barbican, London.

I didn’t see the previous debates in this strand. My wife is expecting our first child so I have been in Antenatal class all day. I wouldn’t have mentioned it except that being a parent – or being a ‘good’ parent – seems to have more than a personal significance these days. Especially after the riots. Bad parents, problem families, or the ‘troubled families’ discussed this morning, were quickly blamed. Or else patronised by those claiming to want to ‘support’ them.

I don’t know what he had to say this morning, but I was pleased, shortly after the riots, to hear David Lammy say what a number of us had been banging on about for a while. Parents feel undermined by a political class that tells them how to bring up their kids; or in the case of smacking, how not to. Sadly he went and spoilt it all a few weeks ago when he blamed knife crime on absent fathers. Or was it absent fathers on knife crime? It doesn’t make much sense either way.

The tendency to indulge young adults’ very violent tantrums no doubt came up this morning too. But it is this notion that grown-ups just aren’t very grown up any more – that the previous debate focused on – that is a good way into this debate on communities. Adults don’t seem to have the authority they once had: whether it’s bringing up their children or holding the line against riotous youth. It is this crisis of authority that in my view created the conditions for last year’s riots, and continues to make an effective community response so very difficult.

I’m no localist but I was none too pleased to discover that my adopted neighbourhood of Walthamstow had been destroyed. Not by the riots – there was a bit of looting, but nothing too serious – but by the Boundary Commission. While the places we live – they are hardly communities really – tend to be anonymous and disengaging, especially in London, most of us still don’t like unwanted interventions and impositions from outsiders. So, while we barely talk to each other, I still resent the prospect of me and my fellow Stowians being divided up between neighbouring Leyton and Chingford as is proposed. On the non-parochial plus-side I also get a kick out of people sticking up for their communities.

So when around 1,000 residents of Clapham Junction arrived on their riot-hit streets armed with their brooms this was rightly celebrated after the events of the previous nights. It made a nice change to see communities taking the initiative where the authorities had failed. They were out there all big society-style and without the usual complaint about the impact of cuts that we’re used to hearing from the so-called community sector. The organised chaos of the rioters was shocking, but it was heart-warming to hear how those residents organised their own response quite literally overnight. Where the rioters used their blackberries, these residents used Twitter via #riotcleanup.

But there was still something not quite right. This ‘sense of community’ lasted only as long as the riots were deemed to be a threat. Once the police had regained what was left of their badly diminished authority on the streets of Tottenham, Hackney, Croydon and elsewhere; everybody went back home and got back to their socially detached lives. Still it was nice while it lasted and it wasn’t another consultant-led initiative claiming to be community-centred and bottom-up, when it is nothing of the sort.

I have in mind, for instance, the response to the burning down of the House of Reeves in Croydon. A family-run furniture store that had stood there for 140 years became one of the iconic burnt-out images of the riots. A year later the Reverse Riots campaign – run by the state-sponsored youth volunteering outfit vInspired – decided to plaster the remaining building with what The Guardian describes as ‘more than 4,000 images of young people holding positive statements’. That’s it. I have no idea what those positive statements were, because even The Guardian (a newspaper that tends to like this sort of thing) couldn’t be bothered to read out any of those messages. It was just another vacuous and uninspired ‘lets say nice things about young people’ initiative.

But there are good examples too. Personally I like pop-ups that don’t over-claim or take themselves too seriously. The likes of Sing London and Ping! England. Pianos and table-tennis tables just popping-up for no particular reason in public places. Really fun ideas that trust people not to nick the table tennis bats or the pianos for that matter. Table-tennis tables popped-up in Walthamstow during the Olympics; and last time I looked they were still there and being used. But the connection with The Games meant that they also became associated with the desperation for a ‘legacy’. Not just an East London legacy, but a feel-good legacy. In a way, the Games themselves were treated as one massive ‘pop-up’ response to the riots. According to The Independent they were an opportunity to regroup around a ‘common purpose’. But as Zoe Williams, who also spoke earlier today, put it: ‘We can’t hold an Olympics every year’.

The world of the pop-up community is very different to the cloth-capped communities of old. In the absence of a sturdier or more deep-rooted solidarity, we seem to be scrambling around to capture what are manifestations of a very impermanent sense of community. From the riots of 2011 to London 2012, every event becomes a pop-up vehicle. Every genuine sentiment, whether it’s that of the clean-up volunteers or of the Games Makers, is deadened by officialdom’s desperation to capture it.

In an interview with BBC News, Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, talked about the importance of the response to the riots, of the Jubilee and London 2012. With remarkably frank cynicism he said the government wants to ‘tap-in’ to these events. He was being interviewed about the recently launched We will gather website. Built by the people who brought us #riotcleanup, and paid for with £100,000 of government money; it is only the latest attempt to bottle that community spirit. While I wish them well I think this is an impossible task, especially when officialdom gets so eagerly involved.

But we needn’t be so cynical ourselves; there is still life in the pop-up community. I’ll leave you with an example. Last week I read about the Battle of Barnet. (This has nothing to do with the Battle of Ideas, by the way.) In contrast with the vInspired House of Reeves pop-up, this Guardian story featuring a ‘hotchpotch alliance of squatters, retired booksellers, local bloggers and international anti-capitalist activists’, is genuinely inspiring. Not the sort of people that I would ordinarily have much time for admittedly. But this was different. They had just succeeded in preventing Barnet Council from closing a library. They had turned the big society tables on the infamous no-frills ‘Easy Jet’ Council. It is now being run, reportedly, by a ‘volunteer staff of guerilla librarians’ and supported by residents who have ‘donated 5,000 books to restock the shelves’. Now that’s my kind of pop-up community. And the volunteers even run ‘children’s story sessions’. Maybe I’ll move to Barnet.

3 thoughts on “Pop-up communities: here to stay?

  1. Hi Kevin. In the old days it used to be called the charity or voluntary sector. Then it became the voluntary and community sector, or just the community or civil society sector. I distrust it calling itself after that which it would like to be/represent without actually being/doing so. I prefer the Third Sector; or the ‘extended state’ sector as Stephen Bubb, I think, rather honestly put it. Definitely not the ‘independent’ sector!

    • Ah, I see the confusion. I think it’s politically fundamental to distinguish the community sector from the voluntary and charitable sector. Activity in the former is about people working collectively to address the issues, particularly inequalities of resources and power, that concern them. It’s the opposite of philanthropy. Volunteering and charitable activity is essentially about addressing how such imbalances affect others; and people can’t easily do that without adopting a philanthropic approach – which in turn reinforces disempowerment. (This may explain why philanthropy appeals so strongly to the present government).

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