Weaving together place, politics, research and study

by Michael Keith

6 June 2024

︎ Michael Keith. credit Azi Besherati 

We were delighted that Professor Michael Keith, who did so much to shape CUCR as a project during his 13 years as Director, could join us to reflect on the founding of the centre and the promises Goldsmiths made to its local community.


First of all, a vote of thanks to Emma Jackson, the CUCR advisory group and all other colleagues past and present for the fantastic work bringing together this 30th birthday celebration of the Centre for Urban and Community Research.  

Thank you also for inviting me to speak at the opening of the event and in difficult days it is perhaps timely to think back momentarily to the Centre’s backstory and its place in Goldsmiths’ own promise to local people in Deptford all those years ago.

The foundation on which CUCR was built was a large grant won by Susanne McGregor and Nikolas Rose to carry out a long-term, real-time evaluation of the City Challenge programme in Deptford, supported by a team of five.  In early 1993, tempted by a five-year research contract I applied from a position in Geography at Queen Mary and Westfield. In my interview for the job leading the research team, Nikolas told me that he was interested in using Goldsmiths as a base for an urban research centre, theoretically informed, empirically engaged. He sold it on the strapline of a future fusion of the critical disposition of Frankfurt and the ethnographic practices of Chicago brought together on the south bank of the River Thames in historically rich Deptford.  

Now, Les Back was still at Birmingham at the time and he was to tell me later that he had originally minted that coinage in an earlier conversation with Nikolas, although perhaps they can be asked some other time who thought of this particular soundbite first. As it happened, I had already read the proofs of Les’s own landmark first book on ‘New Ethnicities and Urban Culture’ that painted such a vivid and inviting picture of this fragment of multicultural London, an inspirational text that exemplified the register of academic labour that Nikolas invoked.

And so, the pitch and the Back/Rose strapline worked for me. I was developing an ethnographic book project on the racialisation of city governance at the time. And Goldsmiths then looked like an exciting place to be. I had admired the work of Nikolas Rose from a distance. Paul Gilroy – who had been very kind when reading the manuscript of my own first book – had not long moved there from South Bank. Vikki Bell had just won a prestigious book prize. I had also heard a lot about and read some of Vic Seidler’s work in East London.  But it was crossing Lewisham Way coming out of the interview that I bumped into Paul in the middle of the road, almost causing an accident. I was told later by my prospective employers that Paul had then gone straight into the office of Nikolas’ and bullied him into offering me the job.  Although Nikolas never told me whether he regretted the decision.

Less than three months after I arrived in post Susanne told me that she and Nikolas had just been informed of a financial crisis that could plausibly bankrupt the College. She said that I might be returning rapidly north across the water as part of a negotiation mooting the merger of Queen Mary and Goldsmiths.  So, I guess - sadly - some things have not changed.

At the time the Warden of Goldsmiths was another geographer, Ken Gregory, more of a rocks and rivers researcher than a cultural scholar. He was an individual who eschewed new management speak, was self-effacing and most well-known for working extraordinarily long hours and his quiet commitment to institution building in the face of adversity.  So maybe – also sadly – not all history repeats itself.

But it was in the headquarters of City Challenge meetings in Deptford Town Hall that my own ethnographic work on city governmentalities found a space to develop. It was a building where my own iterations between participation and observation got somewhat confused. It was also where I became acutely aware of the ambivalence of local views of Goldsmiths itself and the College’s own real estate ambitions locally. 

A character in Eastenders at the time was banished to ‘dirty Deptford’, an exile worse than death in soap opera cartography of the time. The stereotypical public image of this part London was in large part a story of longstanding caricatures of poverty and violence that ran seamlessly from the murder of Christopher Marlowe in the 1590s to gun crime on Milton Court Estate in the 1990s.  But it was also a part of the city recognised for new forms of encounter, creolisation and creativity that was at the heart of both the ethnography of Les and also Stuart Hall’s writing at the time of London’s ‘new ethnicities’. 

A thematic of an alternative narrative of regeneration was also at the heart of a pro bono advert City Challenge were to broadcast a few years later, timed in the audience sweet spot of the commercial break in the old News at Ten. The advert contrasted Deptford’s future with that across the water where Canary Wharf Group was bankrupted again and the BNP were triumphant in a landmark 1993 byelection marking social divisions of race. This was superficially at least very different to what was happening south of the river, notwithstanding the clashes on Clifton Rise with the old National Front in the 1970s and the appalling events of the 1981 New Cross Fire.  

A pompous civil servant visiting the regeneration programme in Deptford a few months after the advert was broadcast risibly used his extensive knowledge of 1960s Rostowian growth theory to pontificate that Deptford was approaching the economic stage of ‘take off’. And Goldsmiths was to be part of this new story, selling off halls of residence to build a campus locally, the baths newly acquired and the future of the town hall a contest of local politics. At the time the College made a promise to the people of Deptford and the local government of Lewisham.  The subsidies and support received for the College’s role in shaping this new world in south London were foundationally tied to a commitment, specifically about keeping the town hall open to local people but also about the institution’s engagement in this part of London.

The baths became the base of the CUCR, the most beautiful office I have had the privilege to work in, the kindest colleagues, the most inspiring students. Many who taught me far more than I taught them.  But what I remember most was an ethos, a spirit, and a disposition that was both properly profane and morally serious, a sensibility that was founded on the principled commitment to an urban fabric that wove together place, politics, research and study. 

There are too many people to name in person but the ethos of the centre was animated as always by professional services colleagues who set the tone, the humour of Wendy the cleaner, the generosity of Bridget Ward, the quiet efficiency of Carole Keegan and Millwall Micky on the door. The baths and the Centre belonged in Goldsmiths and I can only hope that in the face of contemporary realities it can survive, whatever future Goldsmiths becomes. 

I hope that celebrating the last thirty years might play a small role in that future and I thank Emma and all of those organising today for allowing that opportunity.

Professor Michael Keith Michael Keith is Professor at COMPAS, Oxford University. He was Director of the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths, University of London between 1994 and 2007.

︎ Background image by Azi Besherati