The Teen Canteen - End or Beginning?

Submitted by Reddebrek on November 19, 2017

DAVID DOWNES IS QUITE RIGHT to point out in his article on the "Teen Canteen" (ANARCHY 27) that we haven't really come to grips with the problem of providing places where working-class teenagers can gather and feel that their sense of freedom and dignity is respected. It is also only too true that the "Canteen" idea has not "caught on" all over the country in the way it was hoped.

All is not darkness, however. Can I draw your reader's attention to what seems to me to be a remarkable development of the Canteen idea and from a most unexpected source? Anarchists may know of the quite spontaneous development, after the Second World War, on the growing number of council housing estates, of Tenants' Associations. Contrary to the general opinion, the great number of these autonomous, self-formed organisations are not "grievance" bodies but non-political associations formed for the purpose of creating some sense of community and neighbourliness amongst the uprooted in the often drab new areas of houses and flats that are often such a characteristic part of post-war Britain. (It should be mentioned that the Writer's experience has been solely with housing estates in the Greater London Area).

GERRY WILLIAMS is an expatriate Australian who spent eight years working at a progressive school run on the lines pioneered by A. S. Neill, and is now employed by a group of London Housing Estate Community Associations to advise them on youth matters.

In most cases the tenants have concentrated on providing something for the old age-pensioners (called "senior citizens" on one estate) and for the young. Sometimes (if they are lucky and there is no credit squeeze) the authorities may have provided a club-room on the estate which becomes the association's headquarters for functions and meetings. Now, often, housing estates are in areas where facilities for teenagers are unsatisfactory or remote. In these cases the youth on estates have often demanded that something should be done for them and the adults have responded. In consequence, on many estates, at least one night a week is given over to the teenagers in the tenants' club-room. In their wisdom the adults responsible have not tried to put on a range of "character-building" activities but there will usually be a record-player, a stock of the latest pop-records, the odd table-tennis table, bar billiards, and, of course, coffee and coca-cola. Visit a tenants' club-room on one of these nights and you may see up to 200 young people (and some of them really "hard nuts") gathered there, talking quietly, chatting up "the birds" or just sitting about watching the passing parade. Many of these are young people you wouldn't find within ten miles of the conventional youth club.

What is even more remarkable are the adults who make themselves responsible for these "clubs" and do so with a sympathy and a touch which many professional youth workers would envy. Particularly impressive is the way they are able to merge with the background so one is, at first, not even conscious of their presence. These adults are often drawn from the most unlikely walks of life — on one estate the youth "club" is run by a rag-and-bone-man (and part-time proprietor of a jellied eel stall), on another the two men responsible for the "club" are the estate boiler-stokers, on another, a railway lorry-driver. Here in a very real sense is the community taking responsibility for its youth and not completely leaving the responsibility to a remote organisation often employing an even more remote paid middle-class "leader".

Of course these "clubs" run into trouble. Gangs arrive, sometimes destroying but sometimes remaining to become staunch supporters and protectors of the "club". There is often opposition from unsympathetic tenants who feel that any large gathering of young people can only lead to disaster; and from the council authorities who find it hard to comprehend that any good can come out of self-organised groups run by "untrained" adults and, anyway, the whole idea is far too untidy to be fitted into a convenient administrative pigeon-hole.

And so every night all over London, these "clubs" continue in spite of immense difficulties, giving the lie to the idea that in the Welfare State there is no place for community self-help and group responsibility, and providing meeting places for the young where the adults present are not necessarily "them" or out to "improve" you. No, the Canteen idea is not dead!