Monday, 30 June 2014

Surveying Tottenham High Road

Today, for the first time, I began a face to face survey of the whole of Tottenham High Road, with the help if four fantastic undergraduate Architecture students from UEL, here for a year from Brazil. Towards the end of a PhD (mine is due to be finished on the romantic date of February 14th next year) does not seem to be the ideal time to start on a major new data and information gathering exercise, but here we are, thanks to a great funding opportunity from Cass Cities at London Met, the newly emerging research group led by former head of Design for London, Mark Brearley.

You can plan and plan, but until you get out in the field, there is no knowing how things will go, or what you may have missed. The learning curve experienced today by me and my students was steep, and pretty much encompassed a lot of the type of interpretive, embodied knowledge I am trying to get to grips with in the course of writing my thesis. 

It immediately became apparent that different shopkeepers and business owners react very differently to being asked questions about their business. The reactions we encountered ranged from people actually running away (!) to a stall-holder who kindly gave me a punnet of my favourite type of peaches. One ripped up the information sheet we had given her and dropped it pointedly in the bin, another - in a cafe where we stopped for coffee while surveying - gave us a plate of churros for our trouble: "from the chef". It's not yet easy to understand these different reactions, I think as we grow in confidence and experience we may begin to be able to predict how people will react, depending on the type of shop, and peoples' body language as we walk I through the door. In turn, I hope we can mitigate their negative responses - I noticed that we got a better reaction when we introduced ourselves by name before we began, and the other group found that confidence and being authoritative could be a good technique for getting a positive response.

Shopkeepers are also very busy people. So we soon realised that for some, it was better to drop in the survey sheet and information about our activities and then return later to pick up the answers, which could then be augmented by the surveyor's observations. 

At times, the most interesting information and insights we collected were in the conversation around the questions on the form, which could only be noted down briefly in the 'comments' section. These narratives, like the guy who mentioned he was working for his cousin, or the man who expressed the opinion that Columbian traders were probably criminals are deeply revealing about the metabolism, interrelations and tensions of this ordinary street. 

Our experiences today have reiterated just how deep and complex the physical and social landscape of Tottenham High Road actually is, where a thousand every day lives are lived... It turns out this may be a lot more than just an audit of 
the local, small-scale economy, it can't help but be, because the local even only is such a key and integrated part of absolutely everything else.

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