I wrote this for the Guardian's Comment is Free site yesterday:
In 1886, Charles Booth and his researchers began walking round London, working on a famous social survey that would take the next 17 years and span as many volumes. The colour-coded maps he charted, with social divisions delineated in reds and blacks, represent some of the earliest “infographics”, a powerful visual primer on poverty and deprivation. The London School of Economics is shortly to launch a mobile app of Booth’s poverty maps, so anyone in London will be able to plot their location on the maps and see how it has changed over the last century and a half. Among the streets Booth and his assistants wandered was Deptford High Street, thriving in Booth’s time and now one of the poorest shopping streets in London – a jumble of bookies, pawnbrokers and pound shops.
While it seems that every TV documentary now has to be a “secret life” or a “secret history”, BBC 2’s series about Booth’s map, The Secret History of Our Streets, whose first episode featured Deptford, applies the term accurately. Most of us are amateur ethnographers of some sort, examining boarded-up shops or roadside skips as signs of a neighbourhood’s changing fortunes. And most of us know something of the history of the great social forces that have transformed our streets, like slum clearance and property speculation. But in this programme they are fleshed out with residents’ own words, merging social with family history and making historical change tangible and tragic. “My mum had lovely curtains,” said one woman whose house off Deptford High Street had been condemned as a slum.
And yet the main story of the past half century of development, gentrification and recession is the disappearance of the street as a social space, as our lives and attentions have been directed elsewhere. In his book The Comfort of Things, the anthropologist Daniel Miller interviewed the residents in an unnamed street in southeast London, and concluded that the street was now merely a “random juxtapositions of households”. Homes with digital televisions and broadband connections looked inwards for amusement and social connection, and networks of family and friends were increasingly dispersed. The street also had little concept of community because services, information and goods were supplied to homes in such an invisible way that “we do not seem to require any active allegiance to, or alignment with, some abstract image of society or community, which lies closer to our daily lives”.
Indifferent to the street as social space, we have let others map it for us. In the last two decades, the social meaning of streets has largely been defined by a quasi-sociological project no less ambitious than Booth’s: “neighbourhood information systems”, digital databases like Acorn (A Classification of Residential Neighbourhoods) and Mosaic. These systems profile streets using information like credit ratings and house prices. Mosaic, for example, divides postcodes into lifestyle groupings like “Liberal Opinions” (typical couple: Johan and Freya), “Suburban Mindsets” (Surinder and Bina) and “Claimant Cultures” (Jimmy and Shelley). These profiles are used by political parties to identify key swing voters and by property websites to determine whether a street’s houses have a chance of accumulating equity. No need for a Charles Booth any more: you can easily obtain a snapshot of the social composition of any street, from information about newspaper readership to how high its young people rank for university admissions.
Booth’s project of mapping London scientifically — by giving marks for the cleanliness of curtains or the number of flower boxes on windowsills — now seems like a product of late-Victorian paternalism and positivism. But at least Booth did the legwork. Neighbourhood Information Systems assemble their profiles remotely through datasets and number crunching. Social division cannot just be turned into a patchwork of consumer classifications in this way. Streets are real places in which people have to deal with the effects of political decisions and the vagaries of the market. “London in 1886,” the first episode of The Secret History of Our Streets began. “With its self-importance, its dirt, its wealth and awful poverty, it seems a mystery to us now.” In fact, the series shows that, minus the dirt, little has changed.