Originally published 11th Feb 2020
I was moved by Vicky Allan’s piece in Saturday’s Herald on what many call ‘The People’s Republic of Leith’, especially the emphasis on the importance of people being front and centre in decision-making with regard to the place we call home.
As I read it, I remembered a conversation I had the week before with a man I grew up with on a Leith estate in the 80s. I always spot him in the distance before he sees me – he stands out in the crowd as he is very tall and can barely walk after decades of drug abuse. His body is bloated, undoubtedly due to the cocktail of anti-psychotic drugs he swallows each day just to get out of bed. I always stop to say hello.
Everybody is deid!
His first words were, ‘Everybody is deid, Evie’. I nodded in agreement, and we discussed yet another death that had just occurred. It had been a topic of conversation with several people in the preceding few days, and it was that man’s funeral the following day.
Only a few weeks before this, I had had another memorable encounter: another lad I grew up with on the estate pinned me against the wall and shouted abuse; not at me, fortunately, but at something dreadful that was happening to him. I couldn’t understand it all. He was so close to me, all I could see was his rotten teeth – certainly related to his drug abuse, like his emaciation. He was so angry! I tried to soothe him whilst also cautiously slipping out of harm’s way in case his rage ended up being taken out on my face.
The middle of 'Trainspotting'
It was frightening, but somehow rather normal for a 9 a.m. encounter on Junction Street. You see, many of the children that grew up on that estate are now on drugs or dead, and many have been in and out of jail all their lives for petty theft: a community devastated and left behind. I grew up in the middle of ‘Trainspotting’: when we were only 10 older boys would try to sell us ‘DFs’ (dihydrocodeine) or ‘jellies’ (benzodiazepines) in the street, and we all knew where the glue-sniffers hung out, or where the latest murder had taken place (just down the road).
It is not rocket science to understand why I ended up spending the first part of my career working as a drug-addiction counsellor and attempting, often in vain, to get vulnerable people off heroin. After eight years in the sector you begin to realise that not many people get better; often you’re only able to perform limited harm reduction: to patch people up and temporarily fix some social issues, like homelessness, only to send them back out to use again.
The solutions were obvious
I began to believe that you couldn’t really help individuals directly, that the solutions to their problems lay in tackling systemic issues. The difficulties they faced did not start inside their bodies or minds, but externally. It was the place that made people sick. Poverty prevented them from functioning in society; lack of meaningful connection and opportunity killed their aspiration. This is a community that has been disempowered, that has no control or agency over the solutions, that has repeatedly been exposed to negative stimuli, so now simply embodies that trauma. It’s a community in which many individuals exist in a state of learned helplessness. Bruce K Alexander calls the phenomenon underlying harmful addictions ‘psychosocial dislocation’, a term that has become so clear to me when I think of those that have been left behind.
So I started to believe that solutions should be systemic – that they were about taking control of resources and giving a voice to the disaffected. In my thinking, if place had such an impact on entire communities then the solution must also lie in the land and external structures around us. The vital importance of land reform started to percolate in my mind, and also the notion that if we wanted to fix this community, we had to begin with the young: we needed to address nature deficit disorder in children. The land clearances and all that they meant – forcing people from their land to live in cities – lay at the root of the Leithers-left-behind issue.
The solution to me was obvious: we need to return people to their land, to their resources, to what made and created their mental and physical health. People needed to be reconnected to their heritage, to what binds them to land…. I became obsessed with this notion. That our health and that of the natural world were interconnected. We simply must bring the countryside back into the city. It was with these imaginings that I began to grow my own food. I was inspired by that well-known quote often attributed to the great German playwright and thinker, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: ‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.’
So you can imagine why it was such a shock to me when, a few years ago, I saw that the charity that I had created, Leith Community Crops in Pots, was in an article discussing ‘the gentrification of Leith’. It implied that Leith Community Croft, the community growing initiative on common good land, working for the common good of the people, was somehow part of ‘the gentrification of Leith’. Leith has left entire communities behind, this is absolutely true, nobody knows this more than I do, but we are proud that Leith Community Croft is full of diversity – plant, insect and human diversity – and we are also proud to say that all people are welcome there!
Let me explain further why and how Leith Community Croft is setting out to address the devastation in communities, because it is doing so in ways that sometimes can seem disconnected. Communities taking control of assets – common good assets, to be used for the common good of the people – is absolutely about redressing the inequality that has been allowed to run rampant in this town. Taking control of our food system is also to take control of the economic system that has so failed this community and so many others like us, and is also driving climate change. The giant supermarkets, that we all use, extract wealth from communities.
Circular economy and working with nature
Leith Community Croft, when it is functioning fully, will be about returning wealth to the community and building a local circular economy that combats climate change and works with nature as part of it, for example, by turning waste food into compost, which returns nutrients to the soil and nourishes healthy fresh food. …And every £1 spent shopping at the newly created Croft Farm Shop will help us do more work with the disadvantaged ‘nurture children’ we work with in schools, enhancing their education and giving them a better start in life. I know where I’d rather buy my bread and veggies, if I was aware that some of the money would go back into helping the people of Leith!
We can change the story for the next generation of children
I have learned that we cannot change much for the vulnerable adults of the 80s heroin era, but we can change the story for the next generation of children that grow up here. Never again should drug use leave all the kids from an estate ‘deid’ or shambling wrecks on the frayed margins of a broken society.
From 'Trainspotting' to potting sheds, and from Spud to spuds?