“Spaces for creativity, spaces for spiritual enlightenment, spaces for cultural celebration…”
Parts one and two looked at the Westway Trust’s initial proposals for the space under the Westway and Westway23’s response. But, what is Westway23’s positive vision? I spoke to Toby Laurent Belson, Artist/Designer/Organiser at Westway23, aware that the Westway Trust’s approach won’t be challenged effectively without a credible alternative.
“We want wellbeing through healthy minds and bodies that can fulfil Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’. Also spirituality and a connection to the earth and a larger purpose. We want opportunity. Break all of that back down to concrete ideas and you have spaces for creativity, spaces for spiritual enlightenment, spaces for cultural celebration, spaces for education, spaces for socialising, spaces for health, spaces for innovation, spaces for the development of people in ways that do not limit their potential. All of it led by and initiated by people who are hardly ever given the reigns to such things”.
How does this contrast to what is happening at the moment? “This area – the Westway Trust and the council – sells itself for a dollar amount on the image of diversity and creativity. Yet those who are actually responsible for that image struggle to survive, let alone prosper”.
So what will work instead? “Let’s have a can-do attitude. A ‘Why Not?’ outlook for our people that extends further than tired, top-down developments that could be anywhere in the world.
The 23-acres of the Westway has always been there to fulfil the wants and needs of the local people and it has been kept away from them”.
To this end, Westway23 has organised itself in to five sub-groups: Marketing, Fundraising, Legal, Research and Alternative Vision, with members designated to each based on their area of expertise or profession. As well as lobbying on behalf of the community, Westway23 told Urban Dandy that it “is supporting community members and organisations currently facing challenges on, and in many cases eviction from, the 23 acres as a direct result of Westway Trust’s actions”.
On the fifth of July Westway23 held a demonstration attended by hundreds of people who marched along the route of the 23 acres. Children mixed with drummers, flamenco dancers, artists, teachers, bohemians, normals and Martin. This followed an earlier march to Holland Park Opera House, beneficiary of millions of pounds of public money, despite it being a loss maker.
Westway23 are active, drumming every Sunday on Portobello Green (weather permitting) and with regular Wednesday evening meetings at the Venture Centre. Keep up to date here: http://www.westway23.org/.
Metres away from the Westway on Ladbroke Grove, the KPH pub is under threat from private developers/speculators who want to build more flats for the affluent. Meanwhile, across the borough, children are being displaced in to insecure, inadequate temporary accommodation miles away as government cuts to local government budgets are deepened. Many families earn their poverty in insecure, under-paid jobs. In these circumstances, people rely on their culture to provide attachments and a sense of identity, worth and shared values; a sense of belonging.
Under such pressure, uncertainty and insecurity define the economic, political and family life of communities. It is appropriate that people look to the custodians of the 23 acres, the Westway Trust. But how will they respond? Their updated Portobello Village proposals are fresh off the press, see here and Urban Dandy has requested an interview. Watch this space.
Part two, “Community isn’t something you can just use as a colourful backdrop to your daily activities”
(Read part one, in which we explained what’s going on and how and why Westway23 was born, here).
Westway23 states that they are not opposed to change along the 23 acres of land set for upheaval under plans drawn up by the Westway Trust. Their protest isn’t against change, but against incongruent change implemented without due consideration for the community. Acting chair of Westway23 Niles Hailstones told me, “They (the Westway Trust) say ‘we had to do something’ – this is a disrespectful comment. They should have talked to the community at the beginning. It’s an abuse of power by the Westway Trust and the council”.
But the Westway Trust is big on celebrating the local community, I point out. “People put on clothes that say ‘community,’ but community isn’t something you can just use as a colourful backdrop to your daily activities” Niles responds, “look at the ‘About Us’ page on the Westway Trust website, look at the photo, does that represent the Westway Trust management team?”
I asked Niles how the area is changing more generally; “This area was known for its political and social conscience, everyone was in the same boat. Now, there’s millionaires living next to people signing on”.
Westway Trust states that it was “formed out of protest” but Westway23 points to their track record as concerning. “Look at Acklam, where Westway Trust started,” Niles tells me, “Acklam Hall, the playground – these were in the original mandate, but they no longer exist. They used the same language to get rid of them – ‘regeneration,’ ‘development’”.
“An era of music was born at Acklam that continues to enrich the area. This shows how resourceful we are. But they only see resource as meaning money, they don’t value our resources. We have access to resources that they can’t attract, like people who will agree to contribute to something worthwhile”.
“There’s an ideology behind all the plans – retail, private flats, office space are top of their list”.
On such gentrification, Sylvia Parnell of the Portobello Café Society states that “it’s what’s happening everywhere: people imposing their ideas on a community”.
Niles agrees: “They think they know better, it’s part of the colonial attitude. Gentrification refers to the gentry. The gentry is a class. So it’s not just about money, it’s a class battle. The elite got rich out of the enslavement and exploitation of African people and resources. That’s going on to this day and it’s flippant to think that it isn’t connected to everyday life”.
Westway23 is switched on to the dangers it perceives in gentrification, wherever it appears. Toby Laurent Belson, Artist/Designer/Organiser for the group explains how he sees the problem: “It’s a loss of diverse human cultures being able to stay in a place and exist with a sense of freedom and agency. It goes without saying that if people cannot feel comfortable, emotionally, socially or materially, then they will leave”.
And, how about our area specifically? “Here, it’s being exacerbated by the local council’s apparent mission to socially cleanse the area. We have traditionally had a great mix of people, many of whom belong to a socio-economic class at the lower end of the spectrum. Current planning intends quite clearly to alter the demographic with a programme of “regeneration” which means knocking down current social housing stock, replacing it with new buildings that will typically see the loss of open space, loss of community facilities and denser populations in what is already the most densely populated borough in the country. The resultant housing stock is likely to contain the usual mix of shared ownership and market rate properties – out of the reach of anyone on less than 70k annual salary. Social housing will be replaced with smaller units that many families will be unable to practically relocate to”.
Picking up on Niles’s point about class battle, Toby views what is happening as “a direct attack on our communities, wrapped up as ‘economic viability’ by those who do not live day to day with the realities of life in the Grove. Or Shepherds Bush. Or Brixton. Or Hackney and so on…” Westway23 is actively engaged with other, like minded organisations in these areas, he tells me.
“The wonders of our diverse and genuinely special community – and others across London – simply cannot survive in an authentic manner because we are forced to adapt to this economic juggernaut”.
And, in the face of such an economic force, how does he rate the performance of the Westway Trust?
“The Westway Trust has failed to provide any permanent or outstanding use of any space to celebrate and support the community. We actually see closures of art spaces and community children’s centres. We see inaccessible, dead space and 20-year services threatened with eviction. We have a sprawling sports centre that was bought with Lottery money; we have a monolithic and moody structure across 23 acres that has never been properly utilised as a space for the creativity that is inherent within its local population. And a specific section of the community – one that has given the area much of its magic – now has countless stories of marginalisation and outright discrimination”.
“What is worse….this has been the situation for over four decades”
Tom Charles for Urban Dandy London @tomhcharles, @urbandandyLDN
Part Three, on Westway23’s positive vision, coming soon
Portobello Road, its market and a long stretch of land crossing Ladbroke Grove and Acklam Road has become the subject of much debate as a result of plans for changes to the area published by the Westway Trust. The Westway Trust became responsible for a mile / 23 acres of land under the Westway when the dual carriageway was opened in 1970. The Trust’s remit is to ensure the land is used for the benefit of the local community as compensation for the concrete eye sore that dominates and darkens the areas underneath it.
Of the area under scrutiny, the Westway Trust says: “The markets only operate for three days a week and, outside of those days, areas like the canopy space and Acklam Village do little to contribute to the local area. Acklam Village is hoarded-off and is not accessible to the community from Monday to Friday”.
This is the economic thrust of the Trust’s argument for change, but they are insistent that any changes will not overturn the unique character of the area. Their plans are called ‘Destination Westway’ and include a major proposal for the ‘Portobello village’ – on Portobello Road, where it meets Cambridge Gardens.
But, there is significant opposition to what the Westway Trust has so far proposed. The founder of a 38 Degrees petition against the plans, Chris Sullivan, says that the “last esoteric, bohemian part of West London” is under threat. With creeping gentrification in the area, the Westway Trust’s plans may be a step too far, and community with a very clear sense of self is reacting.
The organisation Westway23 has called for a new consultation process, complaining that the “plans have been developed without proper consultation with the local community and threaten to add to the already negative effects of gentrification on the local area”.
As a result of the community’s reaction, the Westway Trust’s plans are now on hold and an apology appears on their website for the fact that the images of people in their designs didn’t represent the community (they were all white.) They are also at pains to stress that the designs were not intended to be final.
But, despite their attempts at assuaging the community, other recent developments in the area mean that the Westway Trust aren’t taken at their word. The Westway riding stables have effectively been given their marching orders by the Trust who refused to pay for the required improvements. And Maxilla Children’s Centre / Nursery has been closed, its services picked up elsewhere in North Kensington. Westway Trust have been blamed by some for the Maxilla closure, but this seems to have been more the decision of the council who were unwilling to provide assurances about funding despite earlier informal agreements.
A recent release of funds for a community grants programme has been viewed by a number of people I spoke with locally as Westway Trust’s attempt to improve their public image. The same people were critical of how difficult it is becoming to work with what they see as an increasingly corporate organisation.
Amid the upheaval, the Westway Trust has been advertising for a new chair and has engaged two recruitment firms to help them, and so are currently making decisions without a leader.“How much money have the squandered recruiting a chair?” wondered Niles Hailstones, acting chair of Westway23, when I met with him on Portobello Road. He told me how Westway23 was born:
“I challenged the illustration (the initial artist’s impression drawn up by architects Stiff + Trevillion) – they hadn’t included any black people so I offered to facilitate a genuine community meeting. They didn’t get back to me within two weeks, which was the time scale I’d set, so when I contacted Westway Trust again, I was introducing them to Westway23”.
Sylvia Parnell, of the Portobello Café Society, one of many people who stopped to greet Niles as we talked, told me “the Westway Trust wouldn’t let us see the minutes of their meeting about the proposed changes so Niles took the lead, as he was already engaged with the Trust on issues of concern”.
On the Westway Trust, Hailstones is critical of their actions and their approach to the local community: “They always feel that they know what’s best for us because they’re in a vacuum. On the one hand they can be seen as having a colonial perception – that’s unavoidable if you look at the history of slave ownership which has deep roots in Kensington and Chelsea. And on the other hand, the public are accustomed to a system of servitude, where they play a secondary role in the conversation”.
A substantive take on gentrification is at the heart of Westway23’s approach, along with an instinctive urge to protect the local area. Niles continued: “What we’re seeing here is a super imposition of a culture and perception from outside imposed by people from outside the area…like this idea of a ‘village.’ The Westway Trust held their community festival right next to the area they aren’t representing. This is hypocrisy, this is ironic”.
“The biggest component of this has been irony. They are supposed to represent the community, but these changes were all decided without our knowledge”.
Here’s the footage from my phone of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s victory speeches to supporters on Saturday afternoon shortly after Corbyn’s victory had been announced:.
Not exactly a hardcore volunteer (I did a day at the Corbyn campaign office this summer), Urban Dandy still had the best seat in the house having spotted Corbyn’s taxi pulling over as we walked down to St James’s Park.
John McDonnell MP, Shadow Chancellor: “The earth moved” – cue loud cheers…
Jeremy Corbyn MP, Labour Leader: “Hope…justice…inclusion”
North Kensington is an area of high economic deprivation with stark contrasts in wealth between the haves and have-nots and creeping gentrification. Neighbouring the conspicuously affluent Notting Hill and Holland Park areas, North Kensington is a livelier, multi-cultural area with large Caribbean, Moroccan and white British communities, among many others. It is the bright glow of North Kensington that reflects so well on its neighbouring districts and attracts the tourists. But the growth of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in the Middle East is having a profoundly troubling effect on the area as geopolitics collides with family life and a simple explanation for the phenomenon isn’t easy to come by.
In recent times North Kensington has gained media attention with a number of high profile examples of recruitment to ISIS. Internet searches for details of these North Kensington individuals provide plenty of macabre coverage and voyeuristic media fascination. A former classmate of two young fighters wrote a piece expressing his shock at seeing his former friends on television and stated his hope that “If someone turned these average teenagers into killers, something can turn them back”.
Identifying what turned these local children in to men travelling to Syria and Iraq in the name of “jihad” is no simple task, and I spoke to a number of people in the affected North Kensington community to find out their views and to try to grasp the extent of how what happens in the Middle East affects the communities left behind. All the names have been changed.
‘Muhammad Ali’, a 50 year-old Somali community leader in North Kensington told me that the ISIS phenomenon is a “cause for concern” in his family and he now keeps a close check on his son’s movements and timetable. He says that he believes ISIS attracts those that are “not succeeding” in the UK, but that there are exceptions to this rule.
Muhammad told me about a local Eritrean who he knew throughout the boy’s primary and secondary schooling who ended up going to fight in Syria. He says the boy used to attend Muhammad’s Saturday school for local youth and he saw the boy struggle after his father died of cancer. On seeing that this young man had joined ISIS, Muhammad says that it was “a shock…the mum was in shock, a lot of distress”.
Like all of the people I interviewed, Muhammad pointed out that the ISIS view of Islam is completely un-Islamic: “You can’t kill a civilian, how many times does this need to be in the Qur’an before they understand it? There’s no verse that allows you to kill Shia or kill non-Muslims”.
Muhammad identifies UK foreign policy as a pertinent issue, seeing the spread of ISIS’s reach to the UK as a spillover from the Iraqi Sunni-Shia civil war that was caused by the US-led invasion and destruction of Iraq. This has nurtured a sense of victimization of Sunnis, he says, who often feel like they are viewed as second-class citizens in the UK. “Being told you’re a second class citizen, even if you have a degree in medicine (as his son has) is also a factor. I know we already have to work harder than the English, but ISIS affects the poorly educated, the unemployed, those with criminal records, those affected by the police’s stop and search tactics”.
‘Nour’, a middle aged Moroccan community activist who has lived in North Kensington for 17 years, describes the impact on local communities as “devastating. Parents are suffering in silence.” He tells me that local parents have been unable to get their sons’ bodies sent back from the Middle East, saying that he knows the families of Moroccans, Somalis, Syrians and Iraqis aged between 19 and 26 who have travelled to join ISIS.
Nour connects the appeal of ISIS to the materialistic culture of the UK that is especially prevalent in London. By travelling to Syria, these people are offered “money for clothes, for travel, it is a very sophisticated recruitment drive” in which the economic inequality of life in North Kensington “plays a big part.” The average price of a flat in North Kensington is over £600,000, just under one million US Dollars, so the vast majority of young people have no option but to live at home with their families, often in overcrowded accommodation and without realistic prospects for upward social mobility.
Add to this what Nour describes as “an unreal age where these young people don’t differentiate between what’s real and what’s in the digital world” and the fact that the ISIS recruits are “extremely impressionable” and there is the perfect storm for young people to look for a cause to fight for, to “search for an identity as they develop their personalities”.
Nour is critical of sensational media coverage of ISIS, which he suspects may make the group more attractive, but he stated clearly that he thought that to blame UK foreign policy is “an excuse.” He focuses instead on the UK government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy which he says is “failing to talk to Muslim community leaders. They don’t understand the intricacies and don’t seem to have a clue.” He says that the government should instead facilitate the promotion of “real Islam”.
Nour’s approach chimed with the government and media view that these young people are ‘brainwashed’ in to joining ISIS. But 30 year old British Somali ‘Mustapha Bakr’ asked me the rhetorical question: “Some are already radical, so why does the government label them as ‘radicalised’?” He calls this approach “disingenuous”. By blaming a process of ‘radicalisation’ the government don’t have to tackle the fact that there are UK citizens who are already radicalised and ready to go to war. “People would ask them: ‘what are you gonna do about it?’” Mustapha explains, “and the government don’t want to explicitly say that this (ISIS) is Islam, so they use the narrative of preachers of extreme hate”.
In North Kensington, Mustapha says that ISIS recruits, “from the dole (those receiving unemployment benefits) to the well-educated ones, they get trapped in a small world of wanting to do something. With the social cleansing and gentrification of London, they instinctively link this to foreign policy, such as our military aid to Egypt”.
Add to this the “egotistical thing – ‘I need to be the big boy’ – and the fact that these people can’t say what’s on their mind for fear of being labelled ‘radical’ and you have people with fear and resentment of the authorities in London. Then you have white, British guys fighting with the PKK, supporting the Kurds, and they get welcomed home as heroes”.
I asked Mustapha about the cases he has knowledge of in North Kensington. He says that quite a few people have started by seeing the opportunity to do some charity work to help the Syrians, but they then feel a strong urge to act on the injustice they witness. He tells me about a North African resident of North Kensington, who “definitely wasn’t radicalised. He went to Syria. He was a nice guy, he was well educated. You have to speculate about why he went there. Maybe his friends went. Just like that, he was gone. There’s no conveyor belt, and a common denominator isn’t simple to find”.
Not far away, on a housing estate near Latimer Road underground station, British-born Moroccan father-of-three ‘Zico’ tells me that he has seen people from his estate and a friend of his in Morocco go to Syria.
“We used to see this guy on this estate; he was quiet, educated, about 20. He used to say ‘Salaam’ but would never stop to chat. Next thing we knew he’d made a YouTube video and all the reporters came around here. His mum didn’t even know, she thought he was going off to study in Germany.” Why would he join ISIS, I asked Zico. “You have to have some kind of gullibility, to see Syria as ‘my jihad’ or ‘my way to paradise’”.
Zico also identifies anger against UK foreign policy as a cause – “while you’re in other people’s countries slaughtering their people, there’s going to be a backlash” – and says that a “minority” start with a genuine wish to help Syrians in need but a majority probably see no difference between themselves and British soldiers in Iraq, with “an attitude of take no prisoners”.
Of his former friend in Morocco, Zico tells me he was a successful businessman with a large house, who “left everything and went. He died fighting the Kurds three weeks ago. His three brothers and dad went too. He took his wife. Their daughter was born over there and a week later he was killed, it’s deep. Only one brother is left, plus his mum and son.” Zico saw his friend change over time, becoming more introspective. “I thought he was deep in thought about his shop, but it turns out he was thinking about Syria”.
Zico describes the reaction in Morocco as similar to that in North Kensington. “Parents in Morocco are asking the government ‘why are they taking our kids?’” And he identifies poverty as a motivating factor. “Kids in Morocco are on £3 a day, it’s not enough to survive and the internet’s opened up their eyes”.
Zico’s advice to the potential British ISIS recruits: “Do not bite the hand that feeds you…this (the UK) is the best country you can live in. IS? Sharia law? I don’t think they can handle it really. Here, we have the freedom to do all that, we can live as Islamically as we want. You can’t beat freedom”
“And why choose Syria? You can go and live the Sharia life in plenty of countries. Once you go to Syria, you ain’t coming back.” As the balance of power continues to shift in the Middle East, the North Kensington community is experiencing its impact first hand, and the truth of this succinct statement is all too clear. And while the motivations of those joining ISIS may be difficult to fathom, the tragic consequences are not.