Image: B24/7

Back in June we put up this post: DIY community activism:) 30.6.22. The story in a nutshell is this… Nick Haskins, a former chair of the Filwood Residents Association who is a retired landscape gardener, got fed up with a plot of land supposedly scheduled for housing development being allowed to lie derelict for twenty years. Nick and a few others took it upon themselves to start clearing the plot of fly tipping and fashion a football pitch and BMX track on it.

Sadly, Nick had to call a halt to the project: Man stops creating unpermitted youth facilities 24.8.22. What happened was that he tried to talk to some of the local youth about the project and they simply didn’t buy into it in any way. Such was the level of their alienation and nihilistic cynicism, they took lighters out of their pockets and started to set fire to the piles of dried grass that had been cleared, then left him frantically stamping out the fire to stop it spreading and becoming uncontrollable. Understandably, in the face of this destructive nihilism, Nick called time on the project.

When we were working with our Alternative Estuary comrades back in Essex, we experienced a few situations where we had individuals on estates wanting us to help them on community clear ups and in some cases, creating community gardens. Too often, we experienced indifference from residents who, for a complicated range of reasons, didn’t buy into to what we were trying to achieve. In some cases, while we didn’t experience the dangerous hostility that Nick did, we sensed that the atmosphere wasn’t exactly supportive of what we were trying to do and concluded that it was for the best that we pulled out.

We’ve had some difficult and sometimes painful discussions about this. It’s never easy to admit that you’ve got it wrong but doing so, and working out why, is a necessary process that will, hopefully, ensure those mistakes are never repeated. In a few instances, even though we had been invited in by an individual on an estate who wanted to make a difference, it felt like we were parachuting in. If residents feel like you’re doing this as some kind of saviour, there will inevitably be resentment.

Another, more disturbing factor is the level of atomisation, demoralisation, cynicism and even self destructive nihilism there is on some estates. Obviously, that’s not everyone but, if a significant minority feel this way, they’ll drag the whole estate down with them. We wish we could offer an answer to this. We’ll be honest, while we understand why there is this level of demoralisation and nihilism, as things stand at the moment, we cannot offer any solution to dealing with this. If anyone has had any experience of turning round a situation like this on an estate, we’d love to hear from you.

Sometimes, we get results. It tends to be when a community asset such as a park is under threat and a broad coalition of local residents come together in various ways to turn the situation round. When we were back in Essex, one project we were involved with for a few years was this: Passionate about Hardie Park. Hardie Park is in Stanford-le-Hope which is in the east of Thurrock, a borough on the Thames estuary.

As recently as ten years ago, Hardie Park was pretty much a no go area with a lot of anti-social behaviour. Fed up residents started a number of litter picks in a bid to send out a signal that they wanted to take the park back from the yobs. This developed over the years to the point where the park is now run by the community. In place of a no go area, there’s a park with a cafe and associated meeting rooms for local residents plus flower beds and a vegetable garden. Our involvement was with the gardening group. It has become a much loved community asset.

In the early days of the resident take over of Hardie Park, the naysayers reckoned we would be defeated by the vandals. In the early days, there were a few instances of vandalism. However, once it became clear that the running of the park was a community endeavour, the yobs backed off because they realised that if they did anything out of order, they would be answerable to the residents of Stanford-le-Hope.

Are there any conclusions to be drawn from this? Only some rough ones in that mobilising people to get together to save a community asset such as a park is generally easier than trying to do the same on the more troubled estates. As mentioned earlier, we haven’t got the answer to dealing with the demoralisation and sometimes, self destructive nihilism that will frustrate efforts to turn an estate around. An open and honest discussion is needed to help find an answer…