It was the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings, a warm July day. The big screen in the middle of Woolwich’s General Gordon Square broadcast live coverage of the memorial service at St Paul’s. Immediately to the north of the square a developer’s billboards proclaimed the ‘luxury of choice’ for new residents with the imminent arrival of Crossrail: a fourteen minute journey into Central London or working from home. Yet people lingering, loitering and passing through the square spoke to Samprada and I of their enjoyment of this part of the newly gentrifying space in very different terms, as a space of social connection, of hope, and of respite.
Janet talked about how Leanne was being assessed to see if it was suitable for her to move out and live independently. She emphasized the square’s positive effect on Leanne, enabling her to be calmer, and even to do some independent shopping for food – ‘she knows everyone in the shops’. Samprada and I asked whether they had a garden. Janet said they had but that sitting there could be lonely and that’s why they came here. Leanne interjected that they sat in the garden sometimes. She went on to tell us that she had recently made a cake for her sister’s birthday, and had given her a card and other things to celebrate. She sounded pleased to have achieved all that.
Later, at about 4pm, Samprada and I were sitting on the back of the bench reflecting on our conversation with Janet and Leanne. While we sat there we witnessed a boy in school uniform (one of a group of boys who were passing) swearing as he passed an older man, probably in his 60s, who was sitting with other men of a similar age, all drinking beer from 99p cans. The man shouted after the boy, who looked about 14 was and with a group of friends the same age. A couple of minutes later the boys came back and the boy who had shouted apologised and shook hands with the man. The man accepted the apology, gently tugging the boy's tie and telling him he could not wear a posh school uniform like this and go around doing things like that.
A few minutes later, the man, Brian, started to talk to Samprada and I. He seemed a bit drunk and held his can in his hand. He asked us where we were from and was excited to learn that I lived in Brighton. It turned out he had grown up there and had run for the city’s athletics club before leaving when he joined the Royal navy in 1967. One of Brian’s companions, Tony, said he was here often 'unfortunately' as he was out of work - he came to the square to socialise. Tony liked the title of our project very much and seemed to take ownership of it, waving our photo consent form at his friends and saying that I needed to photograph them too as they were all 'bench men'. By the time Samprada left and I was chatting with Brian, Tony and the other men with them, I felt completely relaxed and accepted in the square. I could have stayed for hours.
While corporate developers rapidly transform London’s housing to bring new choices for the rich, and while existing residents are socially cleansed from areas of redevelopment, the process around Woolwich’s General Gordon Square may be slower. Meanwhile people not part of the developers’ pristine visions, people unlikely to turn them a profit, are finding moments of ease and connecting with others on the benches of this newly designed urban space.