Trump angered Brits when he cited London’s increasing knife violence recently, saying a city hospital there was “like a war zone.” In this excerpt from Tales of Two Londons, the authors describe the joys and threats in a London neighborhood.
The longstanding push and pull between London and New York made headlines this year for a grim reason: London’s murder rate passed New York’s in two of the first four months of 2018. In London, knife crime is the main culprit. In this piece, adapted from Tales of Two Londons: Stories From a Fractured City, edited by Claire Armitstead (OR Books $18), two friends—a director and a youth worker—walk through a neighborhood in a north London borough, and discuss the two Londons they see layered atop each other: One has gastro pubs and boutique shops; the other, fatal bus routes and enemy zones.
Penny: I live in the top half of a shabby Georgian house in Barnsbury, an affluent area in north London. Opposite there’s a pretty little park with massive horse chestnut trees and 50 yards on the left a beautiful larger park. We have three gastro pubs nearby, it’s a five-minute walk to the Almeida Theatre and just up the road from the Screen on the Green where we can sink into a sofa and sip a cocktail while watching the latest cinema release. Pet dogs trot around amiably day and night but our pavements are spotless because well-behaved owners always scoop up the poop. It’s an oasis of calm, occasionally disturbed by a motorist and a cyclist yelling at each other at the narrow chicane on the corner of Thornhill Road. This is the Angel, Islington.
Penny: I’m halfway between Upper Street with its snooty estate agents, boutique shops and dozens of expensive bars and restaurants and the Caledonian Road—the Cally—still shabby but sprinkled with the telltale signs of gentrification. Apart from remnants of the white working class and Asian market traders on Chapel Market, it’s uniformly posh and very safe.
Or is it?
Look carefully and you might notice a uniformed security guard outside the McDonald’s on Chapel Market, a sign that there is a parallel world right here. There are teenagers for whom this tranquil area is a deadly battlefield, laced with landmines and traps and this particular McDonald’s is one of its most hotly contested territories. These same streets have doppelgangers, not elsewhere in the universe but under our noses. In London we literally don’t see the young people dying right under our noses, their bloodstains just seem to evaporate. My eyes were opened after making two films about gang life in inner-city Birmingham, leaving me no longer able to conveniently unsee this parallel world.
At the Copenhagen Youth Project (CYP), my friend Steve (who is a senior youth worker there) and I were talking to a group of teenagers about the recent murder of a young rapper they knew in south London. Nobody seemed shocked or upset.
Steve: We had a discussion about what goes through a young man’s mind when he leaves his house armed, on a mission to harm one of his rivals. So many teenagers on the streets wear grey North Face or hooded tracksuits that one realistic hazard is stabbing the wrong person. But the boys were more concerned about the danger of leaving their immediate area at all.
Steve: O J said, “Say I need to go Angel now, it’s only a short walk. Maybe I catch the 274 [the 274 bus] and maybe that’s safe. But it’s a warm evening so say I decide to walk, well I could be caught slipping and something happens.” Sadly, a year later O J was in intensive care after a stabbing. It seemed he had been caught slipping. O J was one of the lucky 1,000 London stab victims every month who survive. Over a single fortnight in May, 11 young people were stabbed to death. This is not Chicago but we’re on our way.
Penny: Half an hour later I walk home to Angel not thinking about losing my life. As I cross the Cally Road I think about turning left to buy a pack of deliciously salty olives at the little Turkish shop next to the Coop, and I walk as far as the Tarmon pub on the corner of Richmond Avenue. I decide I can’t be bothered to buy the olives and turn back to stroll up Copenhagen, go left at Matilda and turn up Everilda Street.
Some evenings a group of Cally boys gather outside Angel stores on bikes and mopeds and it can feel dodgy. I’ve had a couple of narrow escapes on that corner. One time I kept my wits and made eye contact, nodded and smiled at a boy who was swooping down to snatch my phone from my right hand with his three friends hovering on my left. He was disconcerted and backed away—his friends hooted and called him a pussy but I had briefly become more than a phone to him and it put him off.
Today it’s calm. I smile at the pigeon lady with her long grey hair but she ignores me, and make my way through the Sainsbury’s car park past the owner of the weird secondhand shop with her ratty leopard skin coat and erratically applied lipstick and into Chapel Market. A few stallholders are clearing up and a stooped old lady with white hair is foraging for squashed peaches in empty wooden boxes. I pass McDonald’s and now I can see the gleaming silver angel wings outside the N1 shopping centre [Named after a North London post code, North One].
Created for CityLab by Esri, this map shows the location of stabbing incidents in London for the first three months of 2018.
Steve: For the young people I work with the same journey goes something like this: Is it a walk up to Angel or shall we jump on the bus? The bus brings back memories of a stabbing on the platform of Caledonian and Barnsbury Station last summer. The perpetrator, an EC1 boy [EC1 is a post code for East Central London] ran out of the station and jumped on the 17 bus only to be confronted by a group of Cally boys unaware that he had just stabbed one of their boys on the station. They beat up the EC1 boy and left him in a bit of a mess, but who knows what would have happened if they had been aware of the damage he had just caused to one of their own.
Once on the bus they’re pretty much trapped and often the question is where to look if another youth boards the bus; to look away could seem disrespectful or weak and to look could be seen a challenge.
The Cally Road shouldn’t be a problem, it’s fairly open with many known faces. However, a few years ago, Alan Cartwright, a boy from our youth club, was fatally stabbed by an EC1 boy as he was innocently riding his bike up the Cally. Now Cally boys feel vulnerable even in the heart of their own territory. Across the Cally Road and through the Barnsbury estate, where there is a lot of cover, is probably the best route. But EC1 boys now maraud around our area without fear, looking for Cally boys. So whilst there is cover, it might be safer to stick to Copenhagen Street because there are more random people about. But on the other hand there’s more chance of being caught if the EC1 [boys] are on bikes or in a car. So better stick to going through the estate up to Chapel Market, where it becomes seriously dangerous for anyone involved in this life. Lots of people, lots of hustle and bustle as you walk through the market, but there are strange faces from different ends, so the Cally boys say it's too bait.
Steve: This lifestyle is a vacuum that never turns off, and young people who are sucked into it accept it as the norm. People on the other side of the street don’t see the detail of it and therefore will never understand we can’t just turn off a switch to make the vacuum stop sucking. There are some young people who have an extraordinary talent that could offer a way out, but more often than not the force of the vacuum puts an end to any dreams. People like Lewis Johnson, a boy from CYP was signed by Crystal Palace [A professional soccer team in Britain’s highest division], a good scholar on a fast track to becoming a professional player. At Crystal Palace, he was the model academy boy, but during holidays and off-season his involvement in criminal and gang activity grew and grew until at 15, he turned his back on football for life on ‘the Road’. I met him again at the funeral of one of his friends who died after crashing his moped while being chased by the police.
I had worked with Lewis since he was eight and thought I could help him again. At the funeral, he was clearly on edge, looking over his shoulder after every few words and, after a hug and a brief conversation, he told me it was too dodgy for him and he needed to leave. The next I heard he had been killed while being chased by police.
I take the young people I work with into other worlds—to theatres, to restaurants, to Sadler’s Wells, the English National Opera, to the Roundhouse [a theater space] to give them experiences outside the vacuum, to broaden their map of the world. Out of their environment a lot of the swagger vanishes, heads go down and insecurity emerges. But there is one place where this never happens. They walk into any McDonald’s and they’re in familiar territory, whatever geographical space it occupies. In McDonald’s they have a licence to behave however they wish, which often includes abusing the staff, leaving a mess, disputing the bill, claiming the order is wrong and returning food. As far as they’re concerned, if you work in McDonald’s and are not one of their boys your only option is to hand out free food. Otherwise you’re an easy target because you’re all the same, just like the fast food chain itself, where you are guaranteed to get the same food anywhere in the world.
Penny: Street robberies sporadically provide brief but meaningful encounters between our two cities but, most of the time, most of us float around in our own bubbles, blissfully unaware. If you’re a north Londoner you’ve probably hung out in Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell where the Islington postcode changes from N1 to EC1. It’s a short strip of hipster paradise, where you can squeeze into Moro’s and eat tiny tapas at tiny tables at whopping prices or drop into its sister Morito, or any of the other 20 bars and restaurants squashed next to the hairdressers, gift shops, flower, jewelry and leather boutiques.
Steve: This area is also home to the EC1 [the EC1 gang], also known as Easy Cash because of the ease with which they accumulate money through criminal activities. Shoreditch and Dalston provide not only a booming hipster market for recreational drugs but also lots of dozy punters with expensive phones ripe for the picking. Easy Cash have been at war with Cally for about 15 years following the death of a Cally boy. The war subsided for a while but recently younger even more reckless groups have reignited the feud. These boys feel they have nothing to lose: they are usually in the criminal justice system, excluded from school and able to roll a joint before they have even considered what work they might do. The top boys are often those who are the most intelligent; they can call on backup to implement their violent talk and usually have little or no parenting and therefore no foundation. They are surrounded by negativity, which they accept as the norm. In my experience, without one adult who really cares about you, it is almost impossible to escape this life.
Nobody remembers the original reason for the feud and it no longer matters as it’s now about who has the most cash in their rucksack and who is perceived as the most violent. Last summer, Easy Cash were using Periscope to advertise how far they were advancing into Cally territory, into the same parks that other people use to walk their dogs, lie in the sun and play with their children on the swings. These incursions into Cally are known as a violation. And when you’re violated you have to retaliate, otherwise you’re seen as soft. Walking the streets is genuinely terrifying so you carry a knife to defend yourself.
A map of violent crimes in northeast London, March 2015- February 2018, by Esri. The number of incidents ranges from fewer than 200 to more than 1000 as the shades darken.
Penny: This whole city is carved up into little bits of turf and the rest of us blithely cross invisible frontlines every day. Where I live is one of these front lines and they are all over the city. A couple of years ago I went for a walk through Camden, just west of Islington, with Hassan, a young man who grew up on the Queen’s Crescent council estate just behind the grand houses on Queen’s Crescent. Camden Lock [a part of Camden near a canal], a mecca for tourists and teenagers, was a business opportunity for QC boys, perfect for selling weed or, if you’re broke, picking a clump of grass from the pavement, wrapping it in cling film and pretending it is weed. Hassan felt sorry for young people from poorer areas like Tottenham without easy access to crowds of mugs. We walked from the Lock to the south side of Hampstead Heath, a favorite location for romantic comedies, a vast green space where the middle- and upper-middle classes bird-watch or walk their dogs, swim in the various ponds and the Lido, picnic, play tennis, hike and fly kites. I asked him whether he and his friends ever visited the Heath. Hassan flashed his lovely smile and snorted, “Hampstead Heath is ours.” Hassan didn’t mean that the middle classes at play were trespassing on QC territory—they mean nothing to him. In his parallel world he would only see boys from rival gangs committing a violation by venturing into his green space.
Steve: Walking around with a knife is the same as carrying a mobile phone—for many of these young people it’s part of the kit. If you’re carrying a knife you’re going to have to use it or lose face, and in this world losing face can’t happen. Young people can be stabbed or shot or sprayed with acid over territory, or drugs, or criminal activities, over a stolen bike, over social media, over a girl, over being disrespected. If you’re an uneducated young man with no prospects, having a gun or a knife makes you someone, and too many times I’ve heard the words, “we have nothing to lose.”
Penny: Early this summer I walked past a large group of teenage boys standing with their hoods up in broad daylight by Tottenham Green on the Seven Sisters Road a few miles north of Islington. I felt something was about to kick off, but 15 minutes later I heard that a 16-year-old boy was already lying dead in the bushes. Osman Sharif had been stabbed in the chest with a kitchen knife by another 16-year-old, over a Snapchat argument.
Osman’s life is over. The boy who killed him will be swept into the prison system where he will be trapped in the bubble, the matrix where all everyone talks about is their next move.
Steve: The Caledonian and Barnsbury area, sandwiched between the King’s Cross Development with its expensive restaurants and fountains on one side and the leafy streets of Barnsbury on the other, contains six pockets of poverty known as Super Output Areas. These pockets are among the 20 percent most-deprived areas nationally. It’s like a third world country on the doorstep of the richest, complete with its own language (incomprehensible to anybody else) and its own rules.
People live in cramped accommodation, side by side and on top of each other, in little boxes with no space to breathe. If you walk along the balconies of these estates looking into windows, in the first you’ll see a family preparing food, in the next they’re eating, next door music is blaring and next to that there’s a party. Arguments are frequent between people living in these conditions and they quickly involve everyone. Everyone in the flats above and below can feel and hear the aggression, the swearing and the violent talk; they are trapped whether they stay at home or go out, and finding alternative accommodation is impossible. So the boys I work with choose a lifestyle that seems to offer easy access to what other people have.
Penny: In the hood there are more words for money than the Innuit have for snow. We have taught them well. They worship money and they’ll stop at nothing to get what they want. But the eight richest men in the world are as wealthy as half of humanity and we are fighting seven covert wars in the Middle East right now. Is there a connection between grotesque inequality and petty criminal activity, between state-sanctioned violence and small turf wars? I believe there is.
What I do know is that if white middle-class kids were killing each other on the streets of London, we would see them very clearly.