For a long time, Tottenham had one story; repeated over and over but simply put: rough. Then with the riots came the same report: proper bloody rough. In part, it was true but in the last 20 years – or more – the stale theme hasn’t wavered from ‘Tottenham’s gritty streets’. It made me want to run from this horrific stigma that seemed to be crippling my community. My parents have told me stories of moving into the area in the early 1980s and finding it mostly covered with elderly English couples. There was an M&S on the local high street, and my mum couldn’t find yams or plantin so she travelled to south London for her Ghanaian groceries but it all changed quickly. By the time I was eight or nine, it was a mixed bag of cultures: Greeks, Turkish, West Indians and Africans with shops selling everything from green chillies to cow foot.
Music was a big part of my childhood. I grew up in the 90s with the sounds of Jade, The Fugees and R. Kelly blaring from cars – so loud; I could hear it long before the car appeared and long after it drove past. Although it was mildly irritating while revising for exams, I couldn’t wait for weekends when the older teenagers next door would play UK garage on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Years later when I moved to an eerily quiet part of west London, I missed the noise pollution of my youth – sirens, music, loud laughing. Even my mum played her part. She had Diana Ross and Bob Marley vinyl, and gospel mixtapes that would stop and start in the middle of a song, like someone had only just remembered to press the record button. They were played at top volume, and I would dance to them on the balcony of our flat – blissfully ASBO-free. I always remembered my childhood with the backdrop of music, the sound of kids chasing each other and teens having raging rows about weed, cars and birthday cake – in full view of the other residents on my estate. Hours and hours were spent in neighbouring parks like Bruce Castle and Down Lane Park while waiting for the ice cream van to turn up. I remember when it was hot, water fights, soaking up the sun on a swing and the winters saved for friends staying over. Pocket money was spent on football sticker books, magazines, Coca-Cola bottle sweets and saveloys from the local Hotspur chippy. There is no mistake: I felt safe. The only thing that I can ever recall to shake my world was when I was followed by a car on my way to the Bottle and Basket corner shop. I was wearing a short black skirt and a tiny white t-shirt, just the way I had seen Salt-N-Pepa wear it, the car was slow, the driver was a man, and he drove at my walking pace for two roads. When I saw a couple of people in sight ahead of me, I ran as fast as I could into the shop and told the shopkeeper. When we came out to check, the car had gone, so I walked home, back the same way and forgot all about it.
My first kiss was a magical peck in the school playground of Coleraine Park Primary School. A group of friends covered us from the teachers with coats, and I felt the soft squidgy lips of a lanky, English boy with white blonde hair. In a flash, we were back to playing football, and I was euphoric that Gary with the greenest eyes I had ever seen, liked me or so I was told. The romance lasted a day, and when our mums stopped to talk at the school gates, we would uncomfortably smile at each other and say nothing. When I got to secondary school, I took to daydreaming about the boys from Highgate Wood on my 40 min, W3 bus ride, from Tottenham to Hornsey Girls. So when my sister had to take me with her to a sixth form party (to stick to my household rules; if you go, your younger sister goes), I thought it was going to be my big chance to meet a boy from Highgate Wood. It wasn’t my big moment at all. I was too young and so awkward that I stuck out as someone’s younger sister. A year went by, I then met an older boy on NYE, at a Broadwater Farm Community Centre party. He held me close as we danced in a dark, tightly packed hall to Keith Sweat and Total. I couldn’t give him my number – my mum would answer the phone – so I took his. I would then go to the phone box at the bus station every Sunday evening to call him. It came to an abrupt end when we ran out of things to say, and I decided to spend my pocket money on something else. I didn’t get my first boyfriend until I was 17 and at college. Our time together has since blurred into one single moment: kissing on the grass, in the breezy Boundary Playing Fields at White Hart Lane.
I do distinctly remember that while I was at college things changed. In that time, I regularly witnessed pills being sold in my estate – among other things. I learnt never to stare at people if I didn’t want any trouble and also not to go telling about things I had seen. Yes, I have witnessed some dire stuff in this area, but I have also seen brutal acts all over the city, too. But there’s no doubt that at the beginning of the millennium Tottenham seemed gloomy. The area changed but now that I think about it, so did I. I grew into a young adult and started making comparisons with other boroughs, in that light, Tottenham dimmed and lost all colour. The physical changes didn’t help: the basketball court on my estate was taken away. The garages were knocked down into more flats. The green with colourful climbing frames and slides disappeared, and tarmac was put in its place. I stopped hearing children play in the area like I used to. I too started to agree with the story I now knew all too well: low-income, invisible, dark. When I failed to find local contemporaries and space to hang out, I struggled and took off. I commuted in my second year of university, and after that, I moved around the rest of London. When I moved back to Tottenham, it was because I could no longer afford ‘glorious’ flat sharing all over the city, and in truth, because I was sick of paying a fortune for a box room on a nice street with piles of other people’s dirty washing in the kitchen sink. I moved back to ‘affordable’, ‘dodgy’ Tottenham. While I hunted for a new place, I lived with my mum, back in my old estate. It was familiar yet unfamiliar – at first, I couldn’t see past all the new faces. The Spanish, central and eastern European communities have also found a place in Tottenham to call home. I joined a local art group – a way of reacquainting myself with the area and with the community. Some things never change tough – I’m back to hearing random waves of loud music all over town: pockets of nostalgic joy.
The bad rep hasn’t changed much, but I have discovered something along with many locals, we can change the savage, gloomy tale. People who live outside of the patch can make comments about the area without being familiar with it at all. So it’s up to the locals who know more about the unsung haunts like the River Lea canal, Stonebridge Lock, Tottenham Marshes, Broad Lane, Bruce Castle, Bruce Grove, the Bernie Arts Centre and the numerous large parks to shout about it and enjoy it – and so far it’s working. Tottenham Art Group regularly comes together to support and enjoy local arts and culture in the area. Tottenham Ploughman is a local community festival that celebrates home-grown grub and talents, three times a year and then there’s also resident greats like Living Under One Sun, the not-for-profit, creating spaces to share and build skills with each other locally. It’s far easier to believe only the negative story about Tottenham or to dwell on it – I’ve been guilty of that, too, but when the time is spent searching for more, one finds more.
The most frustrating part for me is seeing the area that holds so many of my childhood memories finally discussed and noticed like it’s only just appeared. The hope is to get away from the boring riot story and to tell new colourful ones about the soul of Tottenham: its people, its charisma and its future – rediscovered and restored.
Originally for The London New Journal, 2014 (rewritten in 2015, featured on the Vice website).