Pigeoncote

'Iridescent sexual exhibitionists'
Pigeons

Pigeons are the first ‘critter’ guides in Staying with the Trouble, Donna J. Haraway’s exploration  of survival in the time of the chthulucene. [i]Pigeons are her ‘urban neighbours, iridescent sexual exhibitionists.’ They appear in her writing as  creatures of the Empire, spy pigeons, carrier pigeons, pigeons that recognise themselves in the mirror, pigeons that can identify objects from a helicopter.

In Haraway’s story, racing pigeons and their trainers are put to work measuring air pollution in Los Angeles while in Australia artists build nesting towers to help bring pigeon manure to the rewilding of a piece of ancestral land. In Caudry, France, Matali Crasset, an industrial designer, is commissioned by the local authority to design a pigeonnier. Haraway asks how, ‘when the best biologies of the twenty first century cannot do their job’ we can develop ‘response-ability’, back and forth, like a game of cat’s cradle.

Tagging along after Donna, pigeons are to be my guide too. They are nearly my bedfellows after all, building nests yards from my window, importing bird fleas, bringing manure into my garden. I wake to the rattle flap of wings, the pinkish sigh of feathers whiffling the air, throats bubbling like the sound of a coffee pot.

Five, six, twelve, seventeen pigeons are roosting, preening, courting, billing and cooing, turning circles on the corner of the empty cinema next door. On the parapet where the mortar’s worn away, and the bricks look like teeth, they strut up and down, peck at each other. They perch like Batman on the rooftop, head and shoulders against the sky. Or they roost in the blocked up windows, like dollops of grey paint, that also come in cream, mauve, brown. The biggest male makes a train of his tail, jerks his green neck feathers back and forth along the back wall of the disused Savoy Cinema.

A shapeless hangar of a building, it’s not possible to tell how big it is from the outside. Its Art Deco canopy has been destroyed. The foyer is now home to Class barbers and a tattoo and piercing parlour. In the corner, now the Tava Ocakbasi restaurant, a Rasta couple sold reggae records and knitting wool. The basement, variously named the Snooker Lovers Club, the Magnolia Banqueting Suite, Epic Dalston, has been used for club nights, Hindu weddings, Afro-Caribbean wakes, bar mitzvahs, Turkish circumcision parties and a Sunday flea market. To the rear is a flat, home to some Bulgarian Turks, a recording studio, an electricity substation. The last film to be shown, in 1984, was Scarface.

One afternoon, a slight figure in orange duffle coat and striped scarf knocks on our door and introduces himself as Auro. ‘I’ve just got the lease for the old cinema,’ he croons persuasively. ‘We’re talking to all the neighbours.’ He gives me his number and says to text him day or night. ‘If you’re unhappy about anything ….. no trouble at all.’ The local paper reports a budget of several million; the restored venue is to be as big as the Roundhouse.

Auro invites us to an open weekend. A small group of enthusiasts, we climb up and up the emergency stairs, picking our way over drinks crates, spare bar stools, lost umbrellas, arriving at the very top of the balcony.

The smell of pigeons is so overpowering, it even has a colour, a chalk white grey. In the gloom that filters through holes in the plaster ceiling, the original proscenium arch stands oddly truncated, as if flooded by the floor below.

The one empty space left, the largest, is the space for film projection itself. The void left by the projection of heroes, heroines and villains onto the screen has always been unusable, it turns out. The lonely individualist, the hunter gatherer hero, remains trapped in his pyramid of light. The real reason the building has  never been demolished and remains semi derelict, I learn from my partner, is that the owners are a Turkish family trust. Should the building be sold, the funds would be divided into unfeasibly small amounts of cash.

There are thumps in the street, van doors banging. Auro knows how to do things. He books parking spaces. Articulated lorries deliver thick cables, scaffolding tubes, sound equipment. Security men guard the vans. Sound checks begin at three. He boasts to the local press that he has cleared out six hundred pigeons and a sea container load of manure.

Several months on and the six hundred pigeons are living on the outside, at the mercy of cats, crows, passing seagulls, nesting kestrels. There have been sightings of a peregrine falcon. Wing claps like a carpet beating, a call to order. The flock takes off, circles the nearby blocks, swoops back up again, onto the parapet, onto the roof.

Except for the bookings that were already booked before he cleared out the pigeons, nothing much has happened in the disused but by no means empty Savoy cinema. Online Auro laments: gentrification means no more spaces for creatives like him to be creative in. He calls out the ‘municipalities’.

Faced with the nightmarish Doomsday narrative, beloved of climate change activists, where technology can’t help us and God won’t save us, I look for other narratives. In my reading I hunt for signs of hope. Donna looks for what she calls SF, string figures, ‘scientific fabulations’ to sustain and guide us into not ‘posthuman’ but ‘compost’. Instead of a doomsday narrative, we will become part of the ‘oddkin’. Stories of the chthulucene invoke the multi species ‘becoming-with’, creating stuff, breaking bread together, necessary for survival.

[i]Chthulucene, an impossible to spell made up word of two parts, chthonos meaning ‘of the earth’ and ‘kainos’ meaning time. We are nearing the end of the ‘anthropocene’ and the ‘capitalocene’.

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Pigeoncote

What has gentrification ever done for us?

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Pray and Work: Ora et Labora woodcut by Ade Bethune, 1935, Ade Bethune Collection, St Catherine

Just down the road from Giuseppe Conlon House in Hackney, in the same borough as the London Catholic Worker’s weekly soup kitchen, Urban Table, there is an unmistakable whiff of gentrification about the place, with all the changes going on.

Some might call it regeneration, others gentrification, others social cleansing even. The Catholic Worker would call it clarification. Dorothy Day writes, in Loaves and Fishes [1], ‘Poverty is a strange and elusive thing [..] We need always to be thinking and writing about it, for if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us. We must talk about poverty because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.’

There is plenty to laugh about how bad things were in the bad old days: an infrequent train service and a bus that only went half its route on Sundays. Before mobile phones, in the early nineties, my street was a sort of crack superstore; customers would stand in a row, staring in the direction of the high street, looking out for the dealer’s gold BMW.

Improved transport links, street furniture, cycle routes, regular rubbish collections, decent schools, more restaurants and cafes to choose from; the benefits of gentrification are obvious. Above all, an expansion in housing and therefore population. What’s not to like.

However there is also a housing crisis. House prices have risen out of the reach of most. Young people and those on low incomes have to rely on renting from private landlords, who can then charge as much as they like. Private rents in London are now 72% of income. Meanwhile anyone who is homeless, even if they are housed in the area, the minute they get a job and lose their housing benefit they won’t be able to afford the rent. The message of gentrification is: if you can’t afford to live here, move out.

I was looking around for an alternative proposition, perhaps an anarchist view on the situation. One housing expert friend suggested that, short of a riot, the way to bring house prices down was for all the school children to fails their GCSEs. Another warned, ‘Laws will be broken’. A mass squat.

Then I found ‘Hope and Rage’, an experimental series of six discussions on gentrification. Rob Schellert, the facilitator, told me he set up the group after feeling angry and frustrated at the evangelical churches’ response to the changes in his neighbourhood. He feels church Christianity has nothing to say about the real life issues present. The church he said just tends to be about ‘spiritual stuff’ and offered no discipleship. It offers only a superficial response to what it means to love our neighbour.

The sessions covered transport, shopping, socializing, education, and included an expert speaker, information from local government sources, and a scripture passage. As a group, we put our comfort filled domestic lives, under scrutiny, from a radical Christian perspective.

My first task was to speak to local people about their experience of gentrification in Hackney, so I combined this with setting up a justice and peace group in my parish. One parishioner I spoke to said he was moving; Dalston was too noisy and he had found a larger place in Enfield. He lived in the estate next door and we found much in common. The ‘hope’ part of ‘Hope and Rage’ was already working.

One evening the group took the 242 bus from Dalston to Homerton. When we set off the night time economy of Dalston was just getting started. Commuters were flowing out of its two stations. By the time we reached the far side of Hackney, the Nye Bevan estate, most passengers had already got off, and the road was poorly lit. The 242 bus is the only immediate transport.

For the session on ‘shopping’ Simon Jones, a Baptist minister and financial expert, told us about the small shops, barbers restaurants and businesses that have sprung up in the refugee camp at Calais. Whatever happens people always have a little money for a hair cut or a shave, preferably at a barber’s shop specific to their own ethnic origins.

That week we also read the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25. We discussed how the common expectation is that even if you have just a little, you should put it to earning capital. How many feel good stories do we hear about people who have risen from humble beginnings. The parable ends, after ‘there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth,’ with:

‘to those who have
will be given more
and to those that have not,
even the little they have will be taken away.’

Nowhere has this prophecy been more fulfilled than in Hackney, in the housing crisis and in particular in the private rental market. More and more people have to rent privately, with no hope of a council house or owning their own home. Where rents remain unregulated, private landlords, and those who own property, can only get richer. Those on low wages lose a disproportionate amount of their income to the landlord, effectively buying his property for him. In addition they are in danger of losing their home through ‘no fault’ evictions. Their situation becomes precarious, leading to anxiety, stress and ill health, the ‘gnashing of teeth’.(2)

Rob Schellert believes social cleansing is already happening. In a place such as Hackney, which used to be one of the most diverse boroughs, it would be a ‘tragedy’ if through gentrification that diversity was lost. Both at my local church and Urban Table, the weekly soup kitchen, I meet elderly people who seem to have been abandoned. Twenty years ago perhaps, their families chose to leave the old Hackney, of drugs and gang violence, for somewhere leafier or somewhere more affordable. The ones left behind are the elderly, the sick or the very poor.

‘What little they had’, their community, is being taken away. As gentrification as we enjoy the advantages, we can easily lose sight of those who are losing out.

The conversations on domestic matters, shopping, transport, made me think long and hard. I felt resistant at times – who cares if I take a bike or catch a bus? But this in itself reminded me of my own responsibility, the times I have thoughtlessly taken more than my fair share. It’s so easy for us to enjoy the benefits, thank you very much, without considering our relations to others and our neighbours. Even Radio 4’s Money Box Live recently ran an item on how parents giving their grown-up children money contributes to rent hikes and therefore the housing crisis.

Living in a family or community, I grow to understand the pitfalls of taking more than my share. If I take too long in the shower, I’m stopping my son from getting ready for work. If I extend this to my own neighbourhood, my shower, the one I am taking too long in, is someone else’s shower, the one I am taking from the poor. My house is the one I am taking from the poor. I am like the rich young man in Mark 10, turning away disheartened.

Hope and Rage, Rob says, is about recognising how our actions, whether consciously or not, affect others around us. Together we grow in awareness of how we relate to our real neighbours through shopping, education, transport. We persevere in sharing our experiences, until we see there is no right or wrong answer. The group is a place of encouragement to commit to something, to try new habits.

Dorothy Day writes, ‘But maybe no one can be told about poverty; maybe they will have to experience it; Or maybe it is a grace which they must pray for. [..] I am convinced that it is the grace we most need in this age of crisis.’

1 Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, Loaves and Fishes, Orbis Books, 1963
2 Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj, The Rent Trap: how we fell into it and how we get out of it, Pluto Press, 2016

This article was first published in the London Catholic Worker newsletter and is produced with permission

What has gentrification ever done for us?