Reading Wendell Steavenson in the latest issue of Prospect magazine reminds me of my conversation with her last year about the persistence of poverty in London. She writes how sites (like Nine Elms) are “stuck with the same problem that rendered them black on Booth’s poverty maps: they are cut off into cul-de-sacs by rail lines.” Back in 1967, the renowned urban historian Dyos wrote on the impact of railways on reinforcing poverty over time in an area: ‘The most general explanation for slum tendencies in particular places is that, without the kind of general control on the spatial development of the city that might have been given, say, by a rectilinear grid, there were bound to be innumerable dead ends and backwaters in the street plan… A more careful reading of Booth’s maps would show how some additions to the street plan – a dock, say, or a canal, a railway line or a new street – frequently reinforced these tendencies…. They all acted like tourniquets applied too long, and below them a gangrene almost invariably set in. The actual age of houses seldom had much to do with it and it was sometimes possible to run through the complete declension from meadow to slum in a single generation, or even less.” The spatial isolation of Nine Elms is not its only problem (though Steavenson writes eloquently about the lack of facilities within walking distance from the site). The lack of diversity in the housing provision, is another issue. Ironically, the site that 120 years ago was a pocket of deep poverty has become a pocket of prosperity; not the open squares by which London’s spatial configuration sustained the integration of rich and poor in the past, but an island of towers whose inhabitants are at a remove from the life of the city.
1. Excerpt from Sheet 11, Charles Booth’s Maps Descriptive of London Poverty (1898-9), Courtesy of LSE Library
Dyos HJ 1967 The Slums of Victorian London Victorian Studies XI 5-40
Steavenson W 2017 London’s nowhere neighbourhood. Prospect (May 2017, online version April 7, 2017)