Over June and July the BBC aired ‘The Secret History of Our Streets’ series that was co-produced with the Open University. The series explored the changes that have taken place in London since Charles Booth recorded the city’s social conditions in 1886, and focused on the unique histories of six streets: Caledonian Road (in the north), Reverdy Road, Deptford High Street and Camberwell Grove (in the south), Arnold Circus (in the east) and Portland Road (in the west).
Some of these streets had undergone extremes of social change, whilst others remained hardly changed at all. The series documented the transformation, challenges and endurance experienced by these places over the past few hundred years such as the destructive forces of the Blitz; economic decline; gentrification; migration; a prison; public and private ownership; redevelopment; the disappearance of rural areas, suburbs rising and a metropolis evolving; slum clearances; and, various social class influences. It also documented the transformation, endurance, and oftentimes despair of the people who lived, and still live in those areas: their ability and inability to preserve their past, control their present, and safeguard their future.
It was refreshing to learn about the humanistic approach that Charles Booth took when approaching people in their communities. Throughout the process of recording simple facts and capturing realistic accounts, Booth immersed himself and adopted a discreet and sensitive approach when conversing with, listening to and observing residents.
As a result of witnessing actual human needs and deprivation, Booth raised numerous moral questions and concerns. The exposure resulted in a shift in perception about ‘poverty’ and ‘social issues’ that would become acknowledged as a collective issue and provide a valuable record of a diverse history.
The themes of human needs and deprivation echoed throughout the series. As a result of a desire for and a focus on economic and aesthetic improvements by authorities, the real needs (social, physical, and psychological) of the people who lived there were neglected.
Hearing the experiences and stories recounted by residents provided an invaluable snap shot of the positive impact that ‘good design’ can have in the built environment (as well as the negative impact that ‘bad design’ can have). The inclusion, exclusion or availability of basic things, such trees and green spaces, social spaces, or light, proved that these have an impact on the places we live, work and socialise in. When places are designed, built, demolished and rebuilt, this impact (positive or negative) affects the wellbeing and needs of those who already exist there.
One statement made about design, in the Camberwell Grove episode, resonated and stood out. A resident, who was actively involved in building conservation for the area, spoke of how everybody deserves to have a well-designed place regardless of who they are and where they are. This is true as people are a vital component and fabric of communities, places and neighbourhoods.
It was equally valuable to hear people’s stories and personal histories that had been captured – to hear voices that may have otherwise been unheard. This series reinforced that “…history rises from street level… it is composed of the experiences of a multitude of voices… it can only truly be experienced by listening to these voices and absorbing the stories they have to tell.” (Quote taken from the newly published ‘The Secret History of Our Streets: London’ by J Bullman, N Hegarty and B Hill, London: BBC Books, 2012)
As well as learning more about London, it would be fascinating to learn about the changes that have occurred over the past couple of centuries in other streets, within other cities, across the UK.
Melissa Lacide is a Project Support Volunteer with The Glass-House. She is a grassroots campaigner and community engagement facilitator for sustainable communities, and is also a Director of The Empathy Collective.