The well viewed video of a woman lecturing rioters in Hackney last Monday reveals an identification with place that is clearly not shared with the young people she is addressing. We need to pay more attention to the ways in which the spaces inhabited by young people differ if we hope to engage young people positively in the shaping of our neighbourhoods.
Research on place reveals that different communities inhabit spaces in different ways, and that the subjective meaning of a space can differ wildly depending on who you are. Age, ethnicity and socio-economic status and gender can all be factors, and intersect in complex ways. The speaker in the video is black, female and adult, and speaks of being “ashamed to be a Hackney person. Because we are not all gathering together and fighting for a cause...sort it out black people”. This is not a voice asking young people to toe the line, to obey the rule of law, to submit to conventional authority. But rather to align with what she perceives the spirit of the place where they live to be: one where if there is disorder it should be a collective resistance of the community for a social or political end.
The thing that shocked and frightened so many last week, I think, is that there is a disconnect not only between young people from deprived areas and representatives of the state; but also between them and their 'own' communities, including those with a tradition of resistance to the state. There seemed to be no accountability, no control.
The Hackney understood by the looters is not the same Hackney understood by the speaker in this video. Nor is it the same one I know. I live near Hackney, and friends working for the local authority have t-shirts reading “I love Hackney’. This is partly ironic, but it works because places like Hackney inspire affection: they have a certain gritty romance in many people’s imagination. They are places where you find self-organising grass roots festivals, community choirs, guerrilla gardening, active freecycling networks: functioning and constructive forms of gentle disruption and challenge to bureaucracy and capitalism of which large sections of the public might approve.
But why aren’t large numbers of young people minded to care about these traditions, identities, senses of place? Well, because my Hackney, the Hackney of the speaker in the video, and that of many young people who live there are simply not the same place.
To illustrate, I am reminded of another incident from another area of London where I lived at the time: the stabbing of 16 year old Kodjo Yenga in Hammersmith in 2007. This was one of the first in a spate of highly publicised killings of – it seemed – ever younger victims across London in what seemed like an epidemic of knife crime. The murder happened on Hammersmith Grove, 100m from the house I shared with friends, in broad daylight, in front of dozens of witnesses. Hammersmith Grove, for those not familiar with the street, is a wide avenue lined with trees and huge, white West London town houses. Ralph Fiennes, the actor, used to live in one of them. It is the way I walked home from the tube because it felt safe. I remember thinking after Kodjo was killed: this street, on the same day, at the same time, is a different street for black or Asian teenagers than it is for me. It is quite simply not the same place.
We find it difficult not to be shocked at the gulf between how those involved in last week’s disturbances seem to value and interpret the places they inhabit, and how we feel they should. That gulf, unfortunately, was already there, which is the more frightening fact for many people. Young people, especially, can inhabit worlds that it is difficult for adults living in the same place to understand. For better or worse urban landscapes represent a multiplicity of meanings simultaneously and we need to look hard if we are to understand. Some fascinating work done by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (look at the drawings) on young people and territoriality reveals a world hidden to adult eyes: one where city streets are labelled “Asians and posh people”, “Estate: all chavs, no Asians”, or “Enemies”. I expect that to other people those same places might be “nice houses but too expensive”, “near the shops”, “trendy”, or an infinity of other things depending on the realities lived in by the observer.
Previous research by Professor Becky Francis has found that young people in some urban areas feel simply unable to leave their own estate: the boundaries of territory and space being set by observance of rules invisible to other residents. As such, the disturbances last week may have offered an opportunity to break more than the rules of wider society, offering a freedom of movement that is normally unavailable to certain groups of young people.
The RSA Area Based Curriculum seeks to promote better links between young people’s learning and the places where they live. But if we want to create a shared reality in our neighbourhoods and towns we need to remember that what those places are is neither fixed nor singular. What we understand those places to be is only part of the story, and young people in particular have a lot to teach us about the reality of the places where they live as well.