Imagine it’s a normal day. The sun is shining, traffic is moving, people are commuting, and somewhere amongst this all is you in your own world, traversing to the Underground station on the way to see a friend. But something in the corner of your eye catches your attention as you’re walking. It’s so gripping it causes you to pause your commute and stare intently to make sure you are actually seeing what you are seeing. By all logic, it makes no sense.
Through a window, you see into a curtainless flat on your council estate. Going against the order to “mind your business” your mother drummed into you when you were growing up, you stare into this curtainless flat and begin to comprehend what’s happening.
A football bounces erratically around like in a pinball machine – out of control, impacting windows, near enough breaking them. It’s the consequence of two friends each trying to get the football over to the other’s side of the room. I recognise this game, but surely there are more appropriate places to play one-on-one than in the kitchen of this brand new flat. A third friend, sitting at the edge, is encouraging them, smiling and laughing.
Aren’t they aware that this is a place for living and not for games? Well, it’s just a matter of time before they break… Yup, they’ve done it. A tap has been burst and now water is gushing from its wrecked new form. This is a brand new flat! But the friends play on unconcerned. Ghost like, they own the space but quite clearly do not belong. It’s only seconds later that the sound of glass shattering echoes and resonates imposingly around the estate. They play on. I begin to enjoy their insouciance.
Oddly, others on their commute are ignoring all this. In fact, it’s almost as though they cannot see the incongruent events that are taking place and, well, I quickly realise that they can’t. That is because they were the thoughts and images that came in to my mind when I was walking past a set of brand new flats built upon my former football pitch – “Big Pitch”, as it was known. My mind’s eye was conceiving an abstract protest, formed from memories of me and my friends enjoying ourselves in our beloved football pitch-turned-flats. It was a response to regeneration, or as it is often referred to, gentrification, and also the inception of a play I would later write called “Red Pitch”.
When I hear regeneration or, indeed, gentrification discussed, I’m particularly moved by the stories of residents having to move miles away from where they once lived. I’m also taken aback by the idea of small businesses being displaced by bigger ones – you know the displacers of which I speak. I myself, however, find deep fascination in how local communities are affected, specifically the young people within them.
Growing up on my estate, there was a large presence of youth – a community of young friends, very similar in age, who usually occupied Big Pitch. It was the go-to place, aptly named by us young locals for its superior size to the other football pitches around my area. It was an incredibly vibrant and burgeoning place.
At its peak, there were approximately two full football teams’ worth of young people frequently using it, all of them competitive and aspiring to be professional footballers. It was a place where we would train and expend our youthful energy. Summer time was always great – numbers would increase, weather conditions were favourable and, because Big Pitch had no floodlights, the longer days meant we got to spend more time there, playing and practising.
Big Pitch was something more than its physical shape connoted. It was also a safe space where friends could talk to one another without the fear of our parents eavesdropping and interrupting. It was a place where we could seek counsel from one another on matters ranging from relationships to school. It was a location where conversations became edifying in all ways, where friendships were strengthened and where characters were moulded. It transcended its utility – Big Pitch was more than just a football pitch.
By the time I was 16, I had started to notice that my council estate was undergoing a lot of change. Old buildings were coming down. Great, I thought. Finally our area is getting the refurbishment it’s needed. However, my naivety was quickly challenged. With the disappearance of buildings, came the disappearance of a lot of friends, one by one, fading away and not returning until there were only a handful of us left. In what felt like the blink of an eye, a once flourishing community of young people, who occupied Big Pitch for hours on weekends and holidays, was now barely big enough to make a five-a-side team.
But the few of us who remained continued. We made the most of what we had and we practiced and we spoke and we kept the essence of Big Pitch alive until the inevitable happened. Notices were slapped conspicuously onto the gates of this once thriving arena: the one local fixture which had seemed to weather the storm would fall victim to its wrath in the end. Big Pitch was to be gone.
Space. Space for a community of young people to call their own and engage in positive activity is so important. Furthermore, spaces house memories, they house a legacy. The sentimental value is both irreplaceable and unpurchaseable. There is a history to these spaces and a certain care is required when considering their future in a regeneration scheme. Yes, there were other football pitches around our area, but none quite like the revered, character-moulding Big Pitch. Building a brand new block of flats over it, unlikely to be inhabited by any of the estate’s former residents, is a perfect example of gentrification.
I wrote Red Pitch to highlight the impact that regeneration and gentrification can have on young people. It takes place on a stage football pitch. I decided to take the red astro-turf penalty boxes, better known as the “area”, in Big Pitch and name this fictional place after that.
Three 16-year-old friends who have impending football trials are attempting to ignore the enforced changes happening around them, but cannot do so as the new developments become too loud to ignore. As the play progresses, you see the strain their estate’s development is having on their friendship, their hopes and dreams and on their families.
I’m hoping the play sheds new light on this political conversation and highlights the great sense of loss – the kind I felt when walking pass those new flats and remembering what used to be. I want to analyse regeneration and gentrification microscopically through the lens of young humans and demonstrate how they could be affected by aggressive change.
I am aware that I have used “regeneration” and “gentrification” together and interchangeably throughout this article. I’ve done this to allude to my views on this complex topic. When researching for the play, I found a lot of catch 22’s and validity in arguments on both sides of the conversation and, like Red Pitch, I don’t want to be entirely one sided.
There are so many people to thank for helping me get this story told. Red Pitch began as a ten minute piece at the Young Harts Writers Festival at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, where it won the audience choice award. It then debuted as a full length piece at OvalHouse as part of its First Bites programme. I’m so pleased for its journey, given its strong autobiographical influence. I’m hoping it can be shared with many more audiences and start many more conversations.
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