We don’t only study community but we are a community: Introduction from the Centre Director to 30 years of CUCR

by Emma Jackson

30 May 2024

    ︎Emma Jackson and Michael Keith. credit Azi Besherati 

The Centre for Urban and Community Research (CUCR) celebrated its 30th Anniversary on Friday 17th May 2024 at a fully-booked event that included walking tours, discussion panels and the launch of the exhibition 'Picturing Urban and Community research: 30 years of CUCR' (on display in the Kingsway Corridor until 7th June). The event revisited the original mission statement and founding moment of CUCR from 1994 and also celebrated the launch of a new manifesto. It was an incredible day and one that I will always remember. Here are my opening remarks: 


It’s my great pleasure to welcome you as the Director for the Centre for Urban and Community Research – CUCR. We are here to celebrate our 30th anniversary and among us we have former centre directors, current students, and many more. And whether you have been here from day 1 or if this is your first encounter with the centre, we are so pleased to have you here.

This centre is a special place, it’s an academic home for many of us that has become even more important in these gruelling times. Since taking over as director I’ve been taken aback time and time again by the warm feelings people express towards CUCR and I think this is because we don’t only study community but we are a community. 

Over the years we’ve welcomed hundreds of students and visiting researchers who feed into the vitality and community of the centre and make it what it is and contribute to its global sense of place.

What I hope we can do today is consider the work and legacy of the centre but also its future. As part of our celebrations, we have written a CUCR manifesto. And part of the reason for doing this is to take stock about what we are and what we want to be going forward. 

CUCR was founded in 1994 by Nikolas Rose, with Michael Keith subsequently taking over the reins in 1996. I won’t say so much about the early days and this founding moment as Michael has kindly agreed to do that. But the centre was set up to ‘encourage, develop and support multidisciplinary research upon all aspects of economic, social and cultural life in cities and communities, with the aim of promoting excellence in research and developing basic social scientific understanding.’ I think sometimes that the people who set up the centre are a bit modest about CUCR and I understand that. But I don’t suffer from that in terms of the centre, being of the second generation – I got gradually involved in the centre from being invited by Les Back to write a piece for Street Signs as a second-year undergraduate student in 2002, to being Director today. The centre has more than delivered on this original promise and indeed branched out from its mission statement. 

One of our strengths, and something that distinguishes us from other urban studies centres in London is our location and our response to our location. It’s not just that we apply or questions to the area New Cross, Deptford and the Borough of Lewisham more widely ask questions of us. 

For example, right now the effects of years of austerity government can be read through the streets of New Cross and the stories of its inhabitants - and I have in mind the visible rise in homelessness in the area and a recent evaluation we did for 999 Club – a day centre for homeless people in Deptford – which is under serious pressure due to multiple national crises, and the closure of other local homeless services.

Historically, our strength has been and continues to be examining these global, national, and hyper-local currents as they intersect and feed into urban space and communities at ground level. This is also the point where such things are challenged and new meanings are made. How does migration, community and nation look like from a Deptford fishmongers? As Dawn Lyon and Les Back explored. Or how do the residents of Deptford forge a sense of belonging and resistance in the face of multiple waves of redevelopment – as in Anita Strasser’s work. Not all of our work is so local but New Cross and Deptford are crucial in the forging of the work we do here and our urban sociological imaginations. 

In working in this way, across everyday life, practicalities, policies and sociological frameworks, we are influenced by the legacy of Michael Keith’s long stint as director. Michael was central to shaping CUCR as a project. Michael can move in the world of local politics and also teach on Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project – and also find the links between these two things in quite dizzying ways. And this for me is indicative of the rich intellectual life of the centre. To quote the founder of CUCR Nikolas Rose, the centre was envisaged as ‘the Frankfurt School meets the Chicago School on the banks of the Thames’ which expresses that combination of intellectual ambition and groundedness in place. 

The university also asks questions of us. There is no avoiding the elephant in the room that, at the moment, every staff member associated with the centre and in the Sociology department more widely, is going through the redundancy process and we don’t know how this will play out – although we are pushing back strongly. After planning our anniversary for months we found ourselves wrongfooted by this and unsure how to proceed. 

I’m glad we went ahead but it's important to highlight that this event is taking place in a paradox where the college on an official level celebrates working with local communities and research at ground level. And there are excellent people co-ordinating that work in professional services that we work closely with. But the researchers who work in that tradition are under-valued and under threat of redundancy. 

I got in touch with Nikolas Rose as the centre founder about this event and although he had a prior event in Porto booked - almost as nice as New Cross! He did send us a message. I’ll read a bit of it:

‘I have, of course, followed the developments at Goldsmiths with incredulity, anger and sadness, having been one of the senior managers of the College all those years ago.  As you probably know, I was (the first) Pro-Warden for Research, helping build Goldsmiths’ status as a leading research institution and – in the case of CUCR – trying to link its research closely to its local community.  I am very pleased to hear that the CUCR is still a dynamic research centre, and still thriving after three decades.  I send you my very best wishes and congratulations on this anniversary – I hope it is a great occasion and maybe reminds the current management of the crucial importance of the work of the social sciences and humanities at Goldsmiths.’

I can’t help but agree. 

Part of what is so discombobulating about this moment is that very exciting things are unfolding here. I can’t wait to see what comes out of Nirmal Puwar’s current British Academy Fellowship on Coventry cathedral. Jennifer Fleetwood’s work on ‘A Story of Her Own’ is doing amazing things with thinking about how to work with women’s narratives of criminal justice. Alex Rhys-Taylor has been working on a great new ethnography of leisure space, wellbeing and masculinities. Louise Rondel and Eleanor Smith-Hahn are running a new series of workshops on Building Civic Space. We have Toby Martin joining us from Sydney next month to talk and perform about song-writing place and belonging. I could go on... 

I hope you experience some of this vitality today.

Dr Emma Jackson is Reader in Sociology and Director of the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths, University of London.

︎ Background image by Azi Besherati