The focus of the City Play Empty Gallery Project is to uncover a shared heritage of the multi cultural residents on the eastern borders of the city to foster a better sense of identity and to promote visibility, knowledge and greater respect among their adjoining communities. The project especially aims to engage and bring attention to the residents of Mansell Street and Middlesex Street, two poor social housing estates in the Portsoken ward. We believe that the mutual factors to bring people together can be found in the historic parallels, where the past resonantes with the present.
Four Great Chroniclers of London who all lived in the east side of the City
The History of the Community
Portsoken sits just outside the city wall, adjacent to Aldgate and on a busy traffic route. In Roman times a busy route from the Roman capital of Colchester. Chaucer observed the comings and goings of travellers, itinerant traders, the young and the hopeful migrants seeking a better life in the city. The walls were built as a defence and the gates as a control point that protected the trade inside the city. Portsoken was the home of squatters, who lived in poor ramshackled dwellings where they could serve the city, live of it’s crumbs and wait for an opportunity to improve themselves. Houndsditch, that runs through Portsoken, was the main city dump, invisible to the city workers. Portsoken became the home of immigrants fleeing persecution, the Jews and Hugenots, at first only tolerated if they stayed outside, but later they and other immigrants and migrants came to be the influential definers of todays city. Portsoken remains a place of hope and sanctuary.
The residents of the city of London are the remaining vestige of humanity’s first world city, a once seething and constantly growing metropolis. Migrants and immigrants filled its neighbourhoods and gave to each one a distinctive character, which in turn changed decade by decade as new waves of both the desperate and the hopeful from Britain and across the world came to occupy the bright streets and the dingy courts of the capital. In 1674 when the city was just starting to spill beyond the confines of its square mile, the population was around half a million, today it’s little under 7,500.
Connecting the Community to its Heritage
Contemporary Portsoken residents of all cultures have recognised and related to the historic images we showed them when we consulted them about the project. But the great majority of them have little knowledge of the heritage that connects them. We want to connect people through research, preparatory workshops and facilitating individuals, families, or groups to make personal exhibitions, recordings, film, writings or ‘presentations’ relating specifically to those who create it. These exhibitions will then be shown across the wider community and adjacent neighbourhoods. These personal small projects, will finally be brought together in a collective exhibition to show that contemporary residents of all cultures have a shared heritage. The process and the final products will help people to better understand their contemporary community, learn something of their heritage, not least that everyone’s history has been and remains a vital influence on the development and future life of the city.
This project allows the residents of all cultures to discover how their roots penetrate the very foundations of the city. Virtual shoes is about people connecting, identifying and ultimately empathising with others through time and across cultures. From ‘public soundings’, which are workshops that identify and debate potent contemporary issues, we will look back in time to find events that resonate and have significance for us today. There is an organic continuity about the community and this area of London, which gives us a rich seam of connectivity to excavate.
The process will also better connect residents to the heritage sites, museums, art galleries, libraries in the city, not only to visit but use as a resourse. For the majority of residents of the two portsoken states this will be ‘first contact’.
Migration: Stories past and present of British people who migrated to the city, why they came and how they were received. Historic examples: It has been estimated that one sixth of all Englishmen became Londoners in the late 16th century.
Following the Great Fire of London hundreds fled to areas unscathed by the flames such as Aldgate and Portsoken.
Immigration: Possibly the most contentious issue of our times. Historic examples: 16th century immigration of bookbinders from the Low Countries tailors and embroiders from France, gun makers and dyers from Italy.
The Huguenots in the 16th century seeking refuge from Catholic persecution provoked a general alarm so ‘the great watch’ in the city of London was established for fear of insurrection against the ‘strangers’.
The positive contribution of Immigrants: The food, music skills, trades, talents entrepreneurial spirit on which the development of the city is now defined and on which it has always depended.
The Chroniclers of London: Whilst this project will focus on the lives of ‘ordinary people’ it will draw inspiration from 4 of the major London chroniclers each of whom, coincidentally lived in the four wards. Geoffrey Chaucer 1343-1400 (Aldgate); John Stowe 1525-1605 (Lime Street); Samuel Pepys1633- 1703 (Tower) John Strype 1643- 1737 (Portsoken). These chroniclers also demonstrate different styles: John Stowe was fanatical about accuracy and his chronicles are deemed to be reliable. Pepys writes in diary form so his writing are as a witness to events so will be sometimes dubious, apocryphal witness, and bias, nevertheless a rich and valuable testament. Chaucer was observant and interpretive, he writes of the universal, of men and women and their reactions to human situations, inspired by movement of people entering and leaving the city below his rooms in the actual Aldgate. To reflect this we would like to create a community chroniology that includes a contemporary community diary as a blog. And publish a written history of the research that went into informing the exhibitions and a play script as an interpretation of that research which has parallels and significance for a present-day audience.
What we will do
We want to explore and present these themes in four ways
Portsoken in Camera: A Street Tour of historic photographs displayed at external sites as close as possible to the point of view of the photographer.
Portsoken Voices: Recorded interviews and conversations between people who know each other.
Exhibitions in a Suitcase: A series of personally made exhibitions in a suitcase that reflect the history and lives of the individuals who make it. Starting with exhibitions in small spaces the number of suitcases will grow over the year and culminate in a major exhibition that brings all the elements from the ‘smaller projects together.
Chronicles: On line access to the exhibitions, local history and it’s relation to contemporary life, and a play script that interprets the history to give it significance for a contemporary audience.