How housing segregation continues to shape London for the worse

How housing segregation continues to shape London for the worse

A new exhibition in Tower Hamlets explores decades of systemic inequality in the city, and how photography has been used to campaign for change.

Nestled just across the water from the skyscrapers of London’s financial district, surrounded by well-tended trees and fountain jets, is the The Liberty Building. By day, those returning home to the 26-story housing development are greeted by pleasant views of a landscaped piazza, and by night, are welcomed by illuminated paving stones. Inside, across marble flooring, a concierge waits to attend to their every need.

That is, of course, unless they happen to live in one of the building’s 51 shared ownership or affordable properties. The entirely separate entrance to these homes, with its grey carpet, plastic noticeboard and rows of identical letterboxes, owes rather more to an office block than it does a gateway to luxury living. This form of division – between those who can and cannot afford market rents or mortgages – is a phenomenon known commonly as ‘poor doors.’

The use of these separate entrances has been described by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan as “an appalling form of social segregation,” and by MP for Tottenham David Lammy as belonging “more in a Dickens novel than in a 21st century global city”. The practice – which often sees ‘poor’ residents denied access to communal cinemas, bars, roof terraces, spas, gardens and playgrounds – has long been banned in major cities such as New York and, for many years, has weighed heavily on the mind of photographer Anthony Luvera.

“I was always very uncomfortable with the term ‘poor doors,’ it feels very stigmatising,” explains Luvera, who has spent two decades exploring experiences of homelessness and housing precarity. “At the very beginning of the project I was really curious about its use. I can see how it has all kinds of headline grabbing potential, but it seemed to me to belie the complexity of the experiences of people that pass through those entrances.”

The project Luvera is referring to began to take shape in early 2022 when, following a conversation with curators at Four Corners photography centre in Bethnal Green, he was offered the opportunity to create work exploring representations of home and homelessness in east London. Eighteen months later, Conditions of Living is now on display in the space’s gallery.  The project is framed by over 100-years worth of images by 30 other photographers, each selected by curators at Four Corners in collaboration with Luvera, and each capturing the systemic poverty endured by east London’s residents.

Top to bottom: Spitalfields Market 1973. Photo: David Granick. Restoration by Chris Dorley-Brown, Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives. Stifford Estate 1961. Photo: David Granick. Retouched by Chris Dorley-Brown, Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives.

Like all of Luvera’s work, Conditions of Living was designed to give a voice to those who are too often spoken for by others. The photographer began by identifying eight developments, including The Liberty Building, which make use of poor doors in the London borough of Tower Hamlets – the capital’s most densely populated local authority where, after housing costs are factored in, 39% of people live in poverty. He devised a plan for a community forum on the subject, sent a carefully designed invite to 1000 households, and waited.

Some weeks later, participants from across Tower Hamlets crowded into a small space above Four Corners’ gallery. People from different social classes, housing tenures and ethnic backgrounds all squeezed in together and began, gradually, to discuss their experiences of segregation and inequality.

Throughout the following months, Luvera spent time with each of these participants, taking them on photo walks around their communities and visiting them in their homes. Eventually, they developed a body of images which speak to the reality of life in these divided spaces – images taken not by Luvera, but by the participants themselves.

Top to bottom: Assisted Self Portrait of Ruben Torosyan, 2004. Photo: Anthony Luvera / Ruben Torosyan. Photographs and Assisted Self Portraits, 2002. Photo: Ruben Torysyan.

“For me, it's about using the skills and resources that I'm able to access to work with people to create material, whether that's photographs, sound recordings or videos,” the photographer says of his socially engaged practice, which involves subverting the power imbalance between photographer and subject to address issues of social justice. “There's also a common sense view, which is that if I'm going to make a piece of work about you, then presumably it makes sense to involve you in the making of that work in an active way, to help me create a more nuanced representation.”

Conditions of Living creates this nuance in several, distinct ways. First, images of poor doors and their more glamorous counterparts are overlaid onto the architectural plans of developments. Through this surprisingly simple method, the work explores how each home measures up in terms of stability, healthcare, culture, environment, education and infrastructure – the five indicators of The Economist’s Global Liveability Index. In doing so, less obvious inequalities such as access to lifts, pedestrian crossings and public transport are brought to the fore.

“The built environment plays a powerful role in determining the ways that people live together, and is at the core of the experience of housing.”

Anthony Luvera, Photographer (Image: ’Conditions of Living’ by Anthony Luvera, 2022-2023)

Second, images taken by participants of their homes and surrounding areas are paired with their thoughts, scrawled carefully on to pieces of white card. The photographs are simple but highly personal, highlighting the importance of space and community in the places we call home. None of the participants are professional photographers, but their images are brought to life by the experiences they represent, and are made all the more poignant by the words that accompany them:

“It’s all gated. It’s divided by rich and poor with metal gates. I find it really painful. Every day it breaks my heart when I see this.”

“Every day I go through these doors I feel really, really angry. I feel so angry. This land was given to investors to pocket money from poor people. How can I walk through this door and be happy?”

Finally, facts, figures, quotes and an in-depth timeline of relevant housing acts add essential context to Conditions of Living, underlining the work as a microcosm of a far wider, systemic issue. Perhaps most notably, there is a reference to Margaret Thatcher’s Housing Act of 1980 – the infamous right to buy scheme which allowed council tenants to purchase their homes at reduced prices, thus greatly reducing the UK’s social housing stock. There is also a pledge made by Sadiq Khan during his 2015 London mayoral election campaign:

“I would act to ban poor doors once and for all. We outlawed segregation in this country almost 50 years ago and I’m not going to allow it to rear its ugly head again. Poor doors segregate people who are living side by side, they drive a wedge between our communities.”

Top to bottom: “A sensational collection… styled to the last exquisite design detail” – The Liberty Building, Isle of Dogs, London from ‘Conditions of Living’ (2022 – 2023) by Anthony Luvera. “The very embodiment of city living in the 21st century” – New Holland Estate, Spitalfields, London from ‘Conditions of Living’ (2022 – 2023) by Anthony Luvera.

Eight years later, and following similar pledges from politicians on all sides of the political divide, Luvera points out that there is still no sign of a ban on the practice – something he is hoping to change when he combines all of Conditions of Living’s many elements into one publication. The book will soon be delivered to planning departments across the country, where it will convey a powerful message to local authorities: poor doors create divisions within communities that run far deeper than gleaming marble floors versus drab grey carpets.

“The built environment plays a powerful role in determining the ways that people live together, and is at the core of the experience of housing,” the photographer explains. “Architecture and planning can be used to enforce social inequalities through the privileging of market forces, resulting in discrimination and segregation.

“And so, through the project, I was trying to bring together the research with the experiences of people living in the buildings, to construct a multi-layered image of the phenomenon of poor doors. Because, I think, the voices of people who live and use those spaces are often not positioned centrally in the decisions that are made about creating those spaces.”

Top to bottom: Usher Rd, Bow, Tower Hamlets, 1976. Photo: Tom Learmonth. Bailiffs move along rooftops towards protesters as they evict Claremont Road on the route of the M11 motorway, 1994. Photo: Andrew Testa. Homeless men, Spitalfields, 1975. Photo: Marketa Luskacova. Norah Smyth, A Street, Bow, 1914. Photo: Paul Isolani Smyth. Shadwell Family, 1920. Photo: Topical Press Agency / Hulton Archive / Getty Images.

Conditions of Living: Home and Homelessness in London’s East End is on view through September 2, 2023 at Four Corners film and photography centre in London.

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