In Defence of Tottenham
There's so much more to Tottenham than the riots.
For a long time, Tottenham had one story. It's been repeated over and over in various forms and constructs, but the gist is simple: rough. Then, with the riots in 2011, this pocket of north London got a new reputation: proper fucking rough.
Ten years ago, I wanted to run from the horrific stigma that seemed to be crippling my community. But the reason I didn't was because I remember firsthand how it used to be, when things were completely different. My parents have told me stories of moving into the area in the early 1980s and finding it mostly full of elderly English couples. There was an M&S on the local high street and my mum couldn't find yams or plantain, so she travelled to south London for her Ghanaian groceries – but it all changed quickly. By the time I was eight or nine, it was a mixed bag of cultures: Greeks, Turkish, West Indians and Africans, with shops selling everything from green chilies to cow foot.
Music was a big part of being raised in Tottenham. I grew up in the 90s with the sounds of Jade, The Fugees and R Kelly blaring from cars so loud that I could hear it long before the car appeared and after it drove past. And although it was mildly irritating while revising for exams, I couldn't wait for weekends, when the older teenagers next door would play UK garage on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Years later, when I moved to a quaint and eerily quiet part of west London, I would miss the noise pollution of my youth – sirens, music, loud laughing. Even my mum played her part, with Diana Ross and Bob Marley vinyls, or gospel mix tapes that would stop and start in the middle of a song, like someone had only just remembered to press the record button. They were blasted at top volume and I would dance to them on the balcony of our flat, blissfully ASBO-free.
I remember my childhood with the backdrop of music, the sound of kids chasing each other and teens having raging rows about weed, cars and birthday cake in full view of the other residents on my estate. Hours and hours were spent in neighbouring parks, like Bruce Castle and Down Lane Park, while waiting for the ice cream van to turn up. I remember when it was hot, water fights, soaking up the sun on a swing and the winters saved for friends staying over. Pocket money was spent on football sticker books, magazines, Coca-Cola bottle sweets and saveloys from the local Hotspur chippy. I felt safe.
The only thing I can ever recall shaking my world was when I was followed by a car on my way to the Bottle and Basket corner shop for my mum, wearing a short black skirt and a tiny white T-shirt, just the way I'd seen Salt-N-Pepa wear it. The car was slow; the driver was a man and he drove at my walking pace for two roads. When I saw a couple of people in sight ahead of me, I ran as fast as I could into the shop and told the shopkeeper. When we came out to check, the car had gone, and so I walked home and forgot all about it.
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I do distinctly remember that, while I was at college, things changed. In that time, I regularly witnessed pills being sold in my estate – among other things. I learnt never to stare at people if I didn't want any trouble, and also not to go telling about things I had seen.
I've witnessed as much dire stuff in this area as I have elsewhere in the city, but there's no doubt that, at the beginning of the millennium, Tottenham seemed gloomy. The area changed, but so had I. I grew into a young adult and started making comparisons with other boroughs; in that light, Tottenham dimmed and lost all colour. The tangible changes didn't help: the basketball court on my estate was taken away. The garages were knocked down and turned into more flats. The green with colourful climbing frames and slides disappeared and tarmac was put in its place. I stopped hearing children play in the area like I used to. I too started to agree with the story of Tottenham I now knew all too well: low income, invisible, dark.
When I failed to find local contemporaries and a space to hang out, I struggled and took off. I commuted in my second year of university and, after that, moved around the rest of London for nearly five years. When I moved back to Tottenham it was because I could no longer afford to share flats with strangers.
While I hunted for a new place, I lived with my mum, back in my old estate. It was familiar, yet totally unfamiliar – at first I couldn't see past all the new faces. The Spanish, central and eastern European communities have also found a place in Tottenham to call home. I joined a local art group, a way of reacquainting myself with the area and with the community. Some things never change, though – I'm back to hearing random waves of loud music all over town: pockets of nostalgic joy.
The area still has a bad reputation, but I've discovered that we locals can change that. People who live outside Tottenham can make comments about it without being familiar with the place whatsoever, so it's up to those who know more about the unsung gems – like the River Lea canal, Stonebridge Lock, Tottenham Marshes, Broad Lane, Bruce Castle, Bruce Grove, the Bernie Arts Centre and the numerous large parks – to shout about it and enjoy it; and so far it's working.
Tottenham Art Group regularly come together to support and enjoy local arts and culture in the area; Tottenham Ploughman is a local community festival that celebrates home grown food and musical talent three times a year; and then there's also resident greats like the not-for-profit Living Under One Sun, which creates spaces for residents to share and build skills with each other. They're all fiercely protective over their nurtured groups, and they continue to grow. It's far easier to believe only the negative portrayal of Tottenham, or to dwell on it – I've been guilty of that, too – but there's so much more to it than that.
The most frustrating part for me is seeing the area that holds so many of my childhood memories finally discussed and noticed, like it's only just appeared. The hope is to get away from the boring riot story and to tell new colourful ones about the soul of Tottenham: its people, its charisma and its future, rediscovered and restored.
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