Cultural prosperity among poverty

As I have already suggested, acute misery is not confined to developing nations. Material poverty exists alongside prosperity. Nevertheless, culture can be wielded to alleviate poverty by recen-tring communities and by providing a foundation upon which tangible, material economies can be built.

Paris' Val-Fourre sink estate is Europe's largest council estate, with 28,000 inhabitants, sky-high unemployment and growing school drop rates - inevitably worse for the immigrants, most of whom are from North Africa. Despite the republican French ideal of equality, they do not feel treated and respected as French. The combination - no job, no education, no respect - is a dangerous cocktail as the riots in the banlieues all over France in late 2005 showed. But here, as in so many other places, there are bright sparks such as Radio Droit de Cite, run by 60 local teenagers. The station gives them a platform on which to shape their identity and foster self-belief through producing documentaries, phone-ins, community information, sports and music. More than a dozen teenagers from the station have moved on to jobs in national broadcasting.

Finally, back to my home country, Britain, where the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed that 70 per cent of Britain's poorest children are concentrated in just four conurbations: London, Greater Manchester, Merseyside (which includes Liverpool) and Glasgow.80 The Rowntree report points out 'the huge damage caused by the persistence of poverty and disadvantage in a generally prosperous country'. The poor areas in these cities, like Harpurhey in Manchester, Everton in Liverpool, Tower Hamlets in London or Easterhouse in Glasgow, can feel like desolated places, but here, as elsewhere, civic leadership can produce innovative ideas. For example, in Easterhouse a new Cultural Campus, appropriately called the Bridge, has opened, incorporating a library, a lifelong learning centre, a flexible auditorium, rehearsal, photography and multimedia studios, a flexible exhibition and performance space, and an education centre, the John Wheatley College. This large, multifunctional building also offers office suites, a new swimming pool, water features and a health suite, which will attract many users. Its goals are to increase opportunities to develop personal self-confidence, new life skills, such as communication and team working, and good health and to increase employability. Most interestingly and counter-intuitively, it is also the base for the new National Theatre of Scotland. Conceived as a 'virtual' body, with only a small number of permanent staff, it will research at the Easterhouse base and create plays for touring. This alone will bring people into the area who previously had no reason to be there.

In London the new Idea Stores in Tower Hamlets are remodelling the view of libraries, which were previously underused and unloved. The plan is to create a series of bright, new buildings in local shopping areas, combining lifelong learning and cultural attractions with all the services normally associated with libraries, from classic books to DVDs and CDs. They borrow the best that can be learnt from the world of retail - presentation, use of colour, sense of welcome - while retaining a public service ethos. The first three in Bow, Chrisp Street and Whitechapel have an airy, transparent feel, in tune with a democratic spirit and that of valuing users as citizens. The first Idea Stores have trebled the number of visitors. The dowdiness of the old libraries has been left behind and a new image has drawn in new users. Acting as a community hub, the word library has disappeared. We now have Idea Stores, complete with cafés, crèches and multimedia offerings. Whether the word 'store' reflects the right ethos is another matter.

The Easterhouse Cultural Campus and Tower Hamlets' Ideas Stores projects attempt to build social capital, characterized by encouraging social trust and mutual interconnectedness, which is enhanced over time though interaction. The analogy with capital can be misleading, because unlike traditional forms of capital, social capital is not depleted by use, but in fact grows by use and is depleted by non-use. It is accumulated when people interact in a purposeful manner with each other in families, workplaces, neighbourhoods, local associations and other meeting places.

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Health And Fitness 101

Health And Fitness 101

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