PHOTOGRAPHY BY NICOLA MUIRHEAD
The tragedy of Grenfell Tower has awakened the London community to the issues surrounding social housing in the most violent way – and in a broader context – to the negative impacts of gentrification and “regeneration” projects on social inequality in London. The fire of June 14th that consumed almost 80% of the tower block should have been a self-contained incident within that 1970s brutalist structure. Instead, the flames turned into a fireball, helped by the newly fitted cladding placed on the building to “beautify” its appearance for the luxury apartments nearby.
The severity of this event has left a physical and emotional mark on the community of North Kensington – and many residents have been dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and flashbacks of that terrible day. These nine residents reflect on the event, as well as the many other threats that the council imposed on the community, just months before the fire of Grenfell. Regeneration plans were set in motion for the Silchester Estate and Lanacaster Estate of Latimer Road, to be torn down beginning of September 2018. It was the fire at Grenfell, which stopped those plans from happening – for now.
Many fear the threat of social cleansing is still in the cards for residents. For decades, these residents and their families have been fighting with the council, in an attempt to prevent their lives from being uprooted from the community. This is the reality of social housing in London’s richest borough. The following quotes were collected between June 14th 2017, till present. It is a resident’s insight into the complexities of housing in North Kensington. It is a story they have lived, and re-lived, for generations in the borough of North Kensington. In Brutal Presence has been an on-going documentary project that began in 2016, and focuses on certain realities surrounding social housing in London, and the impacts of gentrification and “revitalisation” to urban communities through the borough of North Kensington.
The neighbouring council estates and tower blocks of Grenfell have all shared the same history and are all part of the same story. They have witnessed the changes to their neighbourhoods over the years through the process of gentrification, and are growingly concerned about the impacts this will have on their future. This documentary series seeks to highlight their thoughts and perspectives, using interviews and portraiture to narrate the story, as they reflect on living within the wealthiest borough of London. It is a chance for them to share their lived experiences; their hopes and fears in this ever-changing reality that is London.
Whistable estate resident of Silchester Road mourns with others at the Latymer Church memorial wall which is still maintained today. June 14th 2017.
Noreen King, Trellick Tower W10, 30 years resident North Kensington.
Whatever effort they (the council) makes, it will never be enough. People still need to be housed. And no, we can’t all afford what you (the council) have. We are at the bottom. But being at the bottom doesn’t mean we can’t be happy. And no, we’re not going to Manchester, we’re not going to Nottingham – because that’s what one council officer tried to make me do. I said, ‘Get lost. Born and raised in London, and you want to send me somewhere? why?’ My hope would be for the government and those that have the power to make decisions, to just look after those that are below your pay grade. Put enough housing out there for those who have got their children that need to move on, and can’t move on, or become independent. Stop segregating our communities. Stop clumping people in as a majority and making others feel uncomfortable in their own skin, or in their own area. Stop spending your money in the wrong places. Fix your country.
Elizabeth Stravoravdis of Kensal House W10, Resident for 26 years in North Kensington.
Despite knowing how powerless we are, we are still carrying on for our children and our grandchildren. I like to think that even if they [the council] succeed in doing their social cleansing in this area, our children and grandchildren would’ve seen a heroism in us. Since the fire, I have seen survivors more than survive. I have seen them become warriors. These are the people who are still in temporary housing, who are still in hotels. I’ve seen the bereaved become conquerors. Because this is not normal to be crushed to such a point, where you turn into Hercules. Grenfell was like having a suit sewn to look pretty – but it wasn’t actually sewn properly; you wear it once and it falls apart. And it’s not as if we’re short of talented architects or talented designers, or knowledge in structure. We can’t build or renovate a simple building and make it stand or not burn down. How? Why? The answer is the money.
Joseph Alfred of Hurstway Walk Lancaster Estate W10, Resident for over 40 years.
The local authority and central government showed very little interest in this half of the borough. To this present day, when compared to the south, the north is at a disadvantage in all aspects – like employment, crime, investment and education. My concern about the future of North Kensington and its residents pre-Grenfell fire, is that the council proposed the regeneration project that would demolish the houses surrounding Grenfell tower. My fear is that it will be disastrous if that occurs; a break up of a close-knit community, relocating residents to far-away places, and then having to adapt to a new environment. I’ve lost a friend in the fire, and there were some people living around here that I knew. They’ve moved now. Some friends moved because they were moreaffected than me by Grenfell. Once they move, friends are lost.
Singh Minder, Goodrich Court W10, Resident of north Kensington for 50 years.
Ultimately the council made a mistake. The media has always stirred things. Do you think they’re really worried about what’s happened here (at Grenfell)? They’re not going to solve anything. They’re here to discuss it. They’ll discuss about how Syria has been bombed, Russia and America… so that people can ring up and offer their opinions. It’s a ‘whisk in the water’. Nothing is produced except bubbles. Here at Goodrich Court, we’ve heard about the Housing Trust, which runs the estate, but they’re like gods – invisible. I said to myself ‘It’s easier to say a prayer to God, but it’s very hard to contact these people.’ I don’t know where they are.
Teresa Griffin of Bramley House W10, 28 years resident North Kensington.
The night of Grenfell, I really wish I’d stayed in bed and not seen anything. Bramley House would’ve been in the prize line for it (Grenfell), had the building fallen. There are people living here that should’ve been evacuated. The council didn’t value our lives enough to do that. When we got a letter from the council about three years ago, talking about refurbishments and ‘upping’ the area, they wanted to knock it all down and build new homes. We had the choice that if we wanted to come back [after the refurbishment], we could come back, but we wouldn’t be able to afford the rent – and they knew that. When the council says, ‘You haven’t got an option, we’re knocking them down and that’s that.’ They can do it; it’s called a compulsory purchase. Every working-class person would be put out of the field – people who have been here a lifetime. It was class cleansing. A lot of people had sleepless nights because of it.
Tarek Gotti, Henry Dickens Court W11, Resident of North Kensington for 26 years.
I lost a lot of friends in the fire. I lost a total of thirteen friends, including one family member. My kids lost most of their friends from the nurseries, and from the primary and secondary schools next door. The council was never there for us; we told them about these buildings. We saw they had lots of major works that needed to be done. We told them about this cladding, ‘What is it? Is it necessary?[…]” And we know it was done because of the rich gym and the rich school next door. You can’t put an ugly building next to two rich, fabulous buildings. As a resident, I feel I’ve been failed. I don’t trust them. They see us as third class citizens, and then ignore us.
Tarek Gotti’s Wife and Child, Mason.
Vasiliki of Bramley House W10, 35 years resident of North Kensington.
Witnessing the fire has caused emotional trauma in the community, which has had severe consequences on both our physical and mental health. We have been directly affected by the events that took place, as well as the response of central government in the days immediately following the fire. We face the future with uncertainty, and no one knows what the long-term effects might be. I’ve lived in North Kensington for three decades. People worried a lot about the regeneration schemes laid out in 2015. We personally didn’t agree to them. Unfortunately, our building and the neighbouring estates were marked for demolition in all three different plans. These plans were made up until a year ago, talking about demolishing and rebuilding the community […] Many people decided to move out. Of course, their lives were very much disrupted. This meant that all of the residents had to move out from their flats and live somewhere else.
Lynda of Silchester Road, 38 years resident of North Kensington.
We had letters come through that said the council was going to pull down the other estates – but since Grenfell happened, it’s all backfired. That’s why they didn’t want to spend any money doing work on them. They gave us all the plans and they put them through the letterbox, telling us what they were going to do in the area. They wanted to do it up like a little village, build little houses, make it all nice and that. And where were we supposed to go? Out in Mongolia, I suppose! They don’t care, do they? As long as they get what they want. And now, they’ve had to put it off. They’ve got no money because of Grenfell. It’s all gotten away. I’ve paid into the system all of my life. Unless you own it [your flat], you’ll never get anything out of it.