We met Jo at Surrey Quays, a primarily residential area that makes up the southern part of Rotherhithe. The area, formerly known as Surrey Commercial Docks, was given its name in 1989 after a massive redevelopment project under Thatcher. The new name caused much controversy at the time, we were told, as locals believed an important aspect of their heritage was being erased – Quay after all is an American word and the development (coincidentally or not) certainly seemed to have adopted a specifically American paradigm of generating profit through redevelopment.
Jo informed us that she had lived in the area for many years as an aspiring, and budding artist, and had experienced the changes first-hand. Having since moved away, it became apparent we were retracing an important part of her own personal history. The area, she revealed, for many years was caught in a limbo between severe social problems, including a series of racist attacks, and a desire for a utopian future, first envisaged in the 1930s by Ada Salter (the first female mayor to be elected in the British Isles).
We visited Dilston Grove – a de-consecrated church within the grounds of Southwark Park converted into an exhibition space. It is an unusual building to say the least, and we heard, was the first cast concrete building to be built in Britain. Following its de-consecration in the 1950s, the building had remained derelict for many years. Jo, showing us a book she made in conjunction with the project, recounted the role she played in working with the Bermondsey Artists Group renovating the site in a much-needed socially engaged project.
We visited the former site of the Southwark lido – built in 1923 – and long since disappeared. A sole remaining fountain, with original paintwork, and now used as a plant bed, gave us just enough of an impression as to what the site might have looked like.
Nearby homage to Ada Salter’s utopian legacy could be found – a tranquil rose garden and a “Tree of Heaven,” planted in her name. Ada was particularly fond of this tree Jo told us. It acquired its name through a propensity to shed its branches at any given moment, meaning the last sight for anyone unfortunate enough to be stood beneath it at the time, was of the sky above.