There was a great BBC documentary this week, called the Secret History of our Streets. It was about the Caledonian Road in London (on iPlayer here) – just around the corner from the JRF London office a few minutes away (in Caledonia House, no less).
Hats off to the BBC for a generally sensitive documentary. One thing really shone through, though, which was that the people who have lived and worked there have never really had a good relationship with organisations and institutions.
In the 19th century rail stations and prisons were plonked down by the authorities. In the 1970s, Islington council ripped up streets of Victorian housing to build big, new estates – a classic post-war new Jerusalem – which were planted in the area without consent and with minimal compensation. In 1980s, British Rail had a plan to carve out a new station serving the continent, bulldozing homes and shops and pubs and parks, defeated by the twin opponents of recession and local opposition (now you get to sip your pre-Eurostar macchiato at St Pancras instead).
And in 2012, they showed a tragi-comic local landlord who apparently owns half of the road. The BBC suspended judgement on this dubious character, but it was hard to avoid the impression of a genial, charismatic shark cramming people into blatantly illegal and obviously sub-standard accommodation.
All in all, it's far from clear organisations that had plans to 'develop' the area did much for it. It’s the sort of thing that can be seen in some JRF studies too, like some of our work on community leadership. Relationships between communities and statutory bodies or companies or voluntary sector vary hugely – and there is a risk of these organisations being seen as outsiders coming in to do things to an area, rather than work with or for residents.
As the documentary made clear, Kings Cross is now going places. On the Cally road, you're now as likely to be solicited by Pret a Manger as a prostitute. It's more chugging than mugging these days.
But through ups and downs, and into its new lease of economic life, it seems clear the area has a remarkable core that has remained the same.
There's no way to say this without sounding cheesey and/or patronising, but outsiders and the powerful – whether that's councillors, governments, landlords or railway companies – don’t seem to have ever dampened that resilience.