Some spontaneous thoughts after another few weeks of coverage….
(slightly modified 20.15)
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) is where the dichotomy between rich and poor is the gravest in London, perhaps in England or even Europe, with a long-entrenched history of disempowerment, discrimination, racism and political and economical cynicism and exploitation.
Whatever of the above ingredient you pick you will find twisted and dishonest ways, from the history of housing in Notting Hill to the demand for and the creation and mismanagement of the West Way Trust or the KCTMO and so on.
There is no doubt, that RBKC council felt that Notting Dale should be remoulded. In Andrew O’Hagan’s London Review of Books piece The Tower Rock Feilding-Mellen, the former person to oversee decisions and financing of housing renovations denies to want to have wanted to kick out social housing tenants, but he does admit in the same stroke that he wanted to construct space for Kensington’s left out Middle classes, especially people in professional vocations who could not afford to buy, and were not catered for.
Whilst O’Hagan cites this almost in Feilding-Mellen’s defence, it is by itself an astonishing admission. To be clear social housing homes were to be demolished so those new denser units would make a little space for left out professionals. It is not that it was wrong to want to create such housing units for professionals. The question is rather, why were social tenants and their areas to bear that burden? Why were their houses seen as the legitimate sphere where things could be demolished and rebuilt in that way?
There are historical precedents of the council wishing to demolish against the wishes of locals. Take Frestonia for example, or sold churches and emptied and community centres and spaces. The Tabernacle, a Caribbean centre of activism in the 1970s only survived, and barely so, after a struggle to save it. What O’Hagan misses, when he talks of the battle for the local library, in whose place another was offered, is, that the fight to safe spaces is one that is based upon the experience and fabric of the area, and the distrust, that promises once made, won’t be changed in some way to the detriment or continued sell-out of the area and its people.
The movie Notting Hill, in which Hugh Grant starred so famously before he infamously was caught out in the act with the African American sex worker Divine Brown in the USA also had much to answer for.
The embarrassing incident of the actor might just as well be symbolic. The film of the area, world-famous for its Caribbean style carnival, was deprived of any African Caribbean characters, in fact, any meaningful characters with a darker skin colour. Notting Hill, the film that is, was a fantasy of a European Eldorado was constructed by the film producer Duncan Kenworthy and director Roger Michell. It was certainly not innocent. Rather, it was created, like so many films, to maximise the profit value of the film in the parts of the world with lighter skinned people, who were then able to imagine themselves in Notting Hill without the risk of blackness. A vibrant area just waiting for you to move in. Notting Hill, that lie about the area, went on to win a BAFTA, a Brit Award and the British Comedy Award. Beyond being a laughing matter, it was literally, in the Grant Hugh tradition, a proper f***-over Notting Hill’s black heritage and residents. Notting Hill’s estate agents were loving it. International white families who gained their extraordinary inflated salaries in the City – the very lot, that crashed the world in 2007 – bought up, whatever they could in Notting Hill, filled the cafes and cramped up especially the areas around the state schools. Millionaires do not like to waste money when a school can be free if you want a cliche. But I know it to be true in some cases I witnessed myself. That is of course not a problem until some less fortunate kids are squeezed out of the catchment area for that school.
In 2014 the Strutt and Parker Estate Agent advertising went even further. It stated, that some in Notting Hill – depicting a person of wider African – Caribbean background, are “born to dance”, whereas others, explicitly, Jeremy Montagu-Williams, at the time property sales manager, a white English person, “are born to sell flats.” That was the 2014 way of stepping over “No Negroes, No Dogs” of the 1950s. Community protest made this ad disappear from the streets of North Kensington and had any right to highlight it. It is unbelievable how much reality can be twisted. You can see it today in the cafes of Westbourne Grove, where you will struggle to see people of African Caribbean background. I saw it in the indifference of hordes of tourists on Portobello Road on Saturdays after the Grenfell disaster.
Of course, the film Notting Hill was but a symptom of a development that had started much earlier on. Already, in the 1970s buildings in which multiple families had lived and had rented, were being converted into single ownership villas for those with money to buy – but not quite enough to afford Knightsbridge, amongst them an ex-Rhodesian / South African family, escaping the onset of Black African rule, but bringing with them their wealth, and where the lady of the house became a long-standing Conservative councillor in Kensington (she has since moved up North where she continues to serve as a Tory councillor and even gained an OBE).
The many years of attempted control over Notting Hill Carnival, cameras installed on Westway, questions over the carnival’s continuation, the constant regeneration of Portobello Road,and properties around. perhaps until all shops and cafes are global chains, the harassment of young black men with Sus Laws and Stop and Search policies, harassing anyone that did not fit the English white stereotype, all that created further antagonism towards the council, and what it allowed to happen, often enough, out of touch with residents, or so at least the feeling is. Feelings are important too, they are there to be disproven, and whilst there may be one or the other urban myth, or “narrative,” it does not need much to confirm the buying up of Notting Hill. 25 Million Pounds one property went for last year.
RBKC may have saved some social housing units, when other boroughs did not, but overall there was a deficit, not just in Kensington but all over London and England, created by national Conservative politics more than local perhaps, not much helped by Tony Blair’s new definition of affordable housing, and lack of investments under his watch.
The idea of a redevelopment for the area around Latimer Road, however, kept coming up as an ambition by RBKC. A 2009 master plan for the area of Notting Barns South, in which Grenfell Tower stands, written on behalf of RBKC by the group Urban Initiatives overtly lies to achieve its ends. It misrepresents crime statistics, talks of irrational walkways, and presents wrongly the local community as near destitute. Locals fought it, and won considerable battles. Sadly, Grenfell Tower was not one of these, though they rejected its demolition.
Any housing requires investment, repairs, modification to make it better, permanently. All over the country social housing estates were not receivers of generous repairs over the Thatcher years and beyond. That too must be remembered. A constant drop of water not fixed, can bring down a building. Funny how The Barbican, an almost entirely private high rise estate of the 1970s has no cladding, nor ever considered it.
Already in the 1980s, the local community was resolute that it wanted to have a higher hand in the management of the housing stock in RBKC so that things would get fixed when they need to. KCTMO was the answer all agreed to. But in the end, it was KCTMO that became resilient to consider the voices it was to consider, or so it appears. The inquiry will surely shed more light on that.
What we do know is that RBKC went ahead with reimagining Notting Dale. One sentence in the 2009 master plan for RBKC with surprisingly little evidence for it, judges, that “Grenfell Tower blights the view from Latimer Road.” What blights needs to be beautified. Cladding was the way to go, installed by others too. A massive high percentage of the refurbishment costs went into that.
You can picture those in decision making positions out for win win. In one go you could address heat insulation, and the shining metallic exterior, gave buildings a touch of ultra modern and contemporary, liked by all, including residents, for what did they know about grades of how flammable materials are. But ignorance in British law, especially by those who are employed or recruited to know, is no defence.
Residents had a list of other concerns, the usual stuff, really. Double glazing, leaks, functioning lifts, electric wiring, maintenance, cleanliness, fire safety, noise, better kitchen, cooking smoke extractors, hot water, and heatings, yes and some asked questions about fire safety too.
The windows installed in Grenfell were just as scandalous as the cladding, the cheapest possible plastic frames, and there were the fire doors, here low price trumped safety. DId anyone ask questions?
You would think that legally, landlords are meant to be responsible for the standards of the houses in which they place tenants. Grenfell and houses like that, resembled in Rock Feilding-Mellens words, “savings in terms of risk management of the budget” rather than building risk management for residents. That was the two Pound saving per cladding panel to cut costs that degraded fire retardant to flammable.
And whilst there are 300 equally cladded buildings similar to Grenfell across the country, the ticking time bomb eventually blew up with Grenfell Tower. The saga may be specific to Kensington and Chelsea but it is a symptomatic issue, beyond the borders of RBKC.
Not that there were no warnings. The Lakanal House Fire with its clear coroner’s recommendations being but one, and there were others. Nor that there were no guidelines on how to fit cladding, or whether to fit cladding at all to high rise buildings. All this existed too. But it remained ignored and put aside by multiple agencies, all who could have raised concerns at any stage, if only one of them had.
As a result, unsafe buildings were constructed against evidence, and against best building practice, against best safety testing, because – well, because others did so, and because you could, everybody did. The man who jumps after the crowds who jump the cliffs also perishes. There are many people who bear a shared responsibility. If it will be builder, designer, fire tester, manager or owner, or even panel maker, who carry the largest responsibility that will be decided soon. It is a long chain and Grenfell Tower in RBKC is where it all blew up in murderous flames, exposing more than but just one ill, and consuming, no killing 72 people, some of whom were highly vulnerable.
For that at least Kensington will also have to answer questions. To place people with physical movement restrictions and disabilities in some of the highest flats, in a building in which often enough the lifts failed, what sort of responsibility and care is at work here? Do people get paid for such incredible way of housing allocation indifferent to the facts in front of them?
Not just the history of Kensington, not just the history of council and social housing, not just the history of racism and marginalisation, but also complacency in the building and construction trade, amongst those who carry out safety inspections for example, or consultations with the desired outcome for those who finance it, and quite likely a fire service that was not as well prepared and equipped, as it should and could have been, given the amount of new high rise buildings in London. The fire services are being furnished and paid for by the public purse, and so that too, in the end, goes back to people who make decisions on budgets, people like the former mayor Boris Johnson in London, who closed fire stations against much uproar and opposition, which perhaps contributed to Grenfell, before he gave the country Brexit.
When campaigners shout the Tories have blood on their hands and posters are hung up in Kensington with Conservative politicians as the main culprits, it can sound like an too easy vilification. Yes, there is a political battle out there, Labour for sure wishes to score points. But such accusations are neither without any truth. At least the previous Labour ideologists demolished the Heygate Estate or sanctioned the Tottenham development. The headings are always the same, to regenerate, to help, to do good. Eleanor Kelly, Chief Executive of Southwark Council and, interestingly, designated leader of the government’s Grenfell Response Team, said, the Heygate Estate, was just not working. Many residents disagreed. The consultations and plans for Elefant Park the estate that followed Heygate, were similarly staged as in Notting Dale, and they were undersold to the developer Land Lease.
What happened in Grenfell is too serious, to allow for monotone versions of blame or excuses from any one side. Thank goodness there is a public inquiry with competent lawyers and a criminal investigation too. Here at this time, one party after the other abrogates culpability. We just did as told, they say, pointing at the next person down. Well that, frankly, is no longer good enough in the light of so many dead. Let the lawyers and prosecutors deal with that.
Any person who has been given power that affects the lives of others has a duty to ask the right questions and as many questions as possible. What are the implications of this move? Is it risky? Is it best practice? Can it be checked again, and perhaps independently? Can I rely on the independence of this body? Have I done the utmost rather than the minimum to warrant safety? What about external stairs, sprinklers, fire extinguishers, alarm systems, even drills? I
When people do not do that for a building that houses hundreds, you run into Grenfell Tower. It is possible that the problem in Britain is not just one of a political and economic divide, but a true cavalier attitude to health and safety and best practice, often called Red tape and Nanny State by critics (there are lots of nannies about in Kensington, mind you).
Such behaviour rewards with quick gains without hard and solid labour, and without care or responsibility of the possible consequences.
That is also not exactly a condition fit for a country about to try to convince the world how good it is in doing things, as an independent nation outside the EU. Standards alone do not warrant themselves. They need to be safeguarded and tested.
When it comes to safety and best practice there can really only be but one standard. The standard that is safe for the most vulnerable person housed in a building. That standard exists in RBKC in many of the private flats, where pop and rock stars fight over the installation of underground swimming pools, when in the tower block a stone throw away the dry rise hydrants failed to carry water up to the flames.
The change that must follow Grenfell is therefore beyond the culpability of but a Conservative figurehead. It is neither just about Labour or Tories. It must be a fundamental shift in how things are done regardless of who leads the country. It is about law too, like the Human Rights (Article 25) that guarantee a standard of living adequate for housing and it is about robust and infallible safety standard bodies.
But of course, everybody knew how things have to be done, like former RBKC leader Nick Paget-Brown, the former head, from whom the sentence escaped, that in North Kensington the locals do not know how things are done. Evidently, for if they had 72 people would still be alive today – but some at least tried to do something, if only it was, in the end, but a bit of noise upsetting some know-it-all heads in the KCTMO!
Grenfell Tower. Memorial Site towards Human Dignity
Dies ist eine längere Version des Orginals “Zwischen den Welten”, welches am Freitag 25.8.2017 in der taz erschien.
Text and pictures Daniel Zylbersztajn
All Rights Reserved 2017
Text appeared originally in a shortened version in the German newspaper taz
on 25th of August 2017
This is a longer version of the original which was published in taz on 25th August 2017.The re-translation into English was written by the author.
Why write an English version?
Already, when conducting research, those people who were interviewed, asked, if the text would be kindly be made available in English language.
It was felt that it would be important to do so, as the text tried to look beyond the immediate tragedy.
Many people only spoke to me, because taz is a unique newspaper. Its total independence and structure that makes it owned by communal shareholders and not by the state or private funds was very important to some, who made it clear, that had I come with a camera and suit from any one of the main channels, they would have told me where to go.
Sadly, within the UK media environment, there are few papers that operate like taz. Another reason why this article should appear in English translation. Last but not least taz, due to length restrictions, could not publish the full length of the submitted draft. This meant some parts were left out. They are included here.
Coming up is a translation of the full original draft, giving full background, and that was already a shortened version of itself.
Many of the people spoken to were seen in one-to-one interviews, sometimes lasting up to two hours. The bits that are included within are the bare bones of those interviews, brought together in a unique way. Still, the shorter German version in taz keeps the key findings and thread, whilst not going to some of the specifics. These elaborations possibly also mean more to those who are familiar with the social politics of Great Britain and London anyway and not your average German reader.
I would like to thank all those who gave me their time so freely and generously. I envied in a way your community spirit and humanity to the point I could not help myself but return over and over again. In total, I spent many days and hours over a span of four weeks in North Kensington, and locals began to recognise me and greeted me. Most of that time was unpaid and carried out due to a sense of moral duty and obligation, something that is not an essential attribute amongst some journalists I encountered, some of whom were rather pushy in their ways with survivors.
Traumatised people should only be pushed to be asked to answer questions and retell their trauma when we can be sure that that is what they want and feel safe with. In some meetings, I took however precise notes of what survivors told the council. Others treated the survivors like athlete stars at the Olympics queuing up for their own individual media statements. But these were neither athletes nor stars, who can be savvy and experienced with the media lot.
GERMAN INTRODUCTORY REMARKS
The English version of the text begins after these short remarks in German. Just scroll down.
Dies ist eine längere Version des Orginals, welches am Freitag 25.8.2017 in der taz erschien. Übersetzung auf Englisch Daniel Zylbersztajn Wieso auf Englisch? Bereits als die Recherchen begannen, fragten Leute, ob es den Text am Ende bitte auch auf Englisch geben könnte. Sie verstanden, dass der Bericht über das Inferno des Grenfell Towers hinausgehen würde, mit einem Blick in die Vergangenheit. Dabei kam es zu sehr vielen Gesprächen im Laufe von vier Wochen, viel davon in mehrstündigen Interviews. Was hier in der längeren Version steht, sind die Meinungen einiger der Menschen, die am meisten repräsentativ waren, auf die Essenz dessen was sie sagten reduziert. In der taz Druck und online konnte davon leider weniger untergebracht werden als hier. Die Längen sind dort nun mal vorgegeben und eine ganze Seite ist im Grunde schon ein Zeichen des ultimativen und stärkst möglichsten Akzents. Der Grundsinn des Textes blieb der Version in der taz erhalten, doch in dieser Übersetzung des Originals gibt es weitere Ausführungen. Sie mögen unter Umständen mehr denjenigen sagen, die mit der Sozialpolitik Großbritanniens vertraut sind, auch deshalb also auf Englisch. Jene mit denen ich sprach, war die Unabhängigkeit der taz, im Sinne dass sie einer Kooperative gehört, Grundbedingung ihrer Aussagen. Eine Tageszeitung, wie die taz gibt es in Großbritannien nicht im gleichen Umfang. Auch deshalb also eine englische Version. Ich möchte mich bei allen, die mir ihre Zeit gaben, und mir vertrauten bedanken. Ich habe die vielen Stunden über vier Wochen nahezu unbezahlt in recherchiert, Grund war die Tatsache, dass ich als Journalist das Handwerk besitze, mich für meine Mitmenschen einzusetzen und glaube, dass ich dieses in Fällen wie diesen tun muss, gleich wie groß der EInsatz. Bei den den Recherchen stieß ich auch auf Journalist*Innen denen es wohl mehr um die große Story ging, die dann ihren Namen trug. Einmal bei einem Treffen zwischen der Stadtbehörde und den Überlebenden verschwieg mir eine Kollegin so lange einen Namen einer Überlebenden, den ich nicht richtig hörte, bis ich ihr sagte, dass ich für Deutschland schreibe, und sie keine Angst haben brauche, dass ich ihr was wegschreibe. Bei einem anderen Treffen warfen sich Journalisten unmittelbar danach auf die Überlebenden mit Mikrofonen und Kameras. Es glich irgendwie dem Drang an Athleten bei der Olympiade in London 2012, wo jeder Journalist auch ein Wort mit dem Star wollte. Doch dies waren weder Stars noch Athleten, sondern traumatisierte Menschen, deren Treffen wir als Journalisten observierten. Ich war bei meinen Recherchen dennoch im Kontakt mit Überlebenden, saß sogar unter ihnen, sprach und lachte mit einigen, und hatte mit einer Überlebenden, die außerdem Familienmitglieder im Feuer verloren hatte, Abendessen, gemeinsam mit Yvette Williams, und mit einem anderen war ich direkt auf Whatsapp verbunden. Interviewt habe ich aber trotz der Nähe absichtlich niemanden, obwohl ich die Möglichkeit einigen anbat. Stattdessen gab ich menschliches Mitgefühl, drückte Hände und gab Ermutigung. Ihre Aussagen bei Treffen mit der Stadtbehörde schrieb ich jedoch im Detail auf. Hier wollten Überlebende ja sprechen und gehört werden. Ich sah es also als meine Aufgabe diese Menschen nur dann zu interviewen, wenn sie das ausdrücklich auch wollten, und wenn es ihnen keinen weiteren Schmerz gibt und auch nur dann wenn es SInn macht. Als Sohn eines shoaüberlebenden Vaters war dies etwas, was ich von meiner Familie lernte. Journalisten haben zwar eine Berichtspflicht, aber sie müssen dennoch taktil und ethisch arbeiten. Es ist etwas, dass in der Welt des oft unterbezahlten Journalismus mit vielen überambitionierten Talenten nicht selbstverständlich ist. Interviews müssen hier im Namen der Betroffenen durchgeführt werden und nicht als “Schmankerl” eines Textes. Ich hoffte, dass ich dennoch beweisen kann, wie man auch ohne dem einen umfangreichen Bericht auf die Beine stellen kann. Ob das geklappt hat, können nur die Leser*Innen beurteilen.
ENGLISH VERSION START
That shocking charcoal black concrete block, reaching up almost 70 meters high, dominating the district of North Kensington, appears in its most detailed view besides the Latimer Road underground stop. Standing here, the tower is located not more than a few dozen meters away. In fact, it is so close to the station, that a significant regeneration plan of the Royal City Council of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC, in 2009) stated, “Grenfell Tower blights the sight to the East” and that it could therefore become part of an area-wide demolishing and regeneration effort. At the time, Grenfell was but a 24-storey building, erected in 1974. Today the building resembles a gigantic tombstone in the centre of London, a reminder of the violent deaths of at least 80 people on that tragic morning of the 14th of June 2017, in fact, many claim that the fire took far more victims.
Anyone who disembarks the train here and leaves the station, discovers immediate and omnipresent signs of collective mourning and open shared sympathy. You can see it from the station all the way down the entire street, 300 meters away under the motorway flyover Westway, or in on many of the surrounding streets: Notes, pictures, yellow loops, flowers and toys, and even now, over two months after the disaster, burning candles. Often photographs or drawings show perished children and senior citizen: Jessica, Moses, Kadija, Zainab and her son Jeremiah, even entire families. In addition, there is information about the makings of the local and national government, there are newspaper cuts, and updates from a variety of lobby groups, information about meetings for survivors and residents, or about current therapy and care options, such as those offered free of charge by volunteers in the nearby Portobello Park.
In another park nearby, a mixed group of young men smoke joints and talk about life. An elderly woman bundles together flowers on a special table every evening near the local Ethiopian cafe, and yet some go to the pub Pig & Whistle in the shadow of the darkened tower. The father of a child who died in the fire is also sitting here, whilst football and horse-racing are flickering on the TV-screens. Locals report recent suicide attempts in the area.
Since the inferno, there were several meetings between the representatives of the municipal authority and those affected.
The first took place in Kensington town hall, the others in the local Methodist church in the immediate vicinity of the fire ruin. All those with a variety of responsibilities, be they care workers, recovery workers or representatives of housing or policing use these meetings in order to declare what they are doing for the community. So far, those affected by the fire complain about lack of services or inadequate support each and every time.
If the council lacked competence for the initial provision of emergency support, or before the fire, or during the renovation of Grenfell Tower, they failed also with the support effort after the fire. The injured and beaten community had to help and support itself, in the middle of one of the richest boroughs in the UK, in fact, Europe.
RBKC, which includes North Kensington, also harbours the wealthy parts Chelsea, South Kensington and Knightsbridge. Victims make it clear in speeches that go along this kind of speech:, “We are not people who seek charity. Most of us work! We want only what is due to us like to all so that we can continue our lives with a guarantee to safe housing, qualitative education and life, and above all the right to dignified treatment,”
North Kensington is not your average residential area. It seems much more as the essence of the potential that London can give. In her 1998 book on the history of the Notting Dale district, the area around Latimer Road and where Grenfell Tower stands, the author Shaaron Whetlor wrote in her introduction that “this district is less represented through its buildings, but mostly from the memories and stories of its cosmopolitan population,”
From Pig Farming to Carnival
Originally the entire area covering contemporary Notting Dale and North Kensington was once marked by abyssal levels of poverty, subject to much debate by reformers of the 19th and 20th centuries. It was here, where bricks that built London were formed out of the local soil. It was here, where once stinking pig farms stood, and where traveller communities stopped, or washer women cleansed and pressed clothes for the wealthier communities of South Kensington. It was and is also here where people of all origins later grew together. From the start there were conflicts between the poor inhabitants of the area and the aristocracy. For example, when in 1837, the entrepreneur John Whyte constructed a horse racing course across the area, the community resisted, causing the race course to close four years later. But the sale of Whyte’s land led to the construction of the very first solid houses in the area. However, due to the stench of the pig farms and the hygienic conditions, no better standing families desired to move here. Over many years, English, Irish and Irish travellers, Germans, Jews from Poland, refugees from Spain and Portugal, Italians, immigrants from the Caribbean, Moroccans, Eritreans, Ethiopians, West Africans, Sudanese, Somalis and Eastern Europeans became residents here instead.
Whilst this kind of migration is by no means exceptional in London, it occurred probably much earlier here, for no other reason, but due to the poverty of the neighbourhood. It meant that here desperate migrants often found the only affordable accommodation in small, tiny residential often substandard apartments.
Again, all this happened not without its conflicts. In 1914 German immigrants were harassed. Later, in the 1950s, immigrants from the Caribbean were regarded as making the already pitifully poor residential districts more crowded. It culminated to street fights and rioting in 1958. There would be riots and street fights and the appearance of the British fascist Oswald Mosley. The horror of the murder of the 32-year-old Antiguan Kelcho Cochrane by a white mob eventually led to the ending of such useless hostilities between the older local and the newer migrated inhabitants of a partially decayed and impoverished area.
Photo: Snapshot of Francis Pepe in workshop
Soon Notting Hill Carnival, now Europe’s largest street festival, came to be. In the words of some, such as Francis Pepe, the current chairman of the Notting Hill Carnival, as “a cultural affirmation,” in the words of others, like Leslie “Teacher” Palmer ( who is credited with the expansion of the street festival) rather as a “political and proud manifestation “.
Photo: Leslie Teacher Palmer on the left
Never give up your dignity!
Shirvin Best, born in 1954 in Barbados, who moved to London in 1964, lives not far from Grenfell in another tower. He says. that in his youth North Kensington was the place where he and other people of African-Caribbean background could hang out in relative safety. Best remembers that the police would often follow young men like him without real reason. But it was his grandmother who had admonished him back in Barbados, to “never give up his dignity and not allow white racists to get the upper hand.” “Look them in the eye and let them see you as an equal”, she said. Shirvin did not fail to do that, also encouraged by his father, including to racists like one of his former employers, of whom he later learned, that his daughter had married a man with same skin colour as himself, and who shed off all racism due to his grandchild and later his illness in old age, when only his daughter and his Caribbean son in law looked after him.
“We heard what happened in the USA and South Africa. It meant that I became shortly a member of the Black Power Movement here”. Later he would get a position in the London council for equality, as well as become an official community liaison person when the police would arrest young black men in Kensington, a task he proudly continues to this day.
From destruction to radical communal space. Westway
Soon enough, the once split communities had a new common focus. The Greater London Council (GLC) intended to build a flyover motorway straight over the area. In order to do so many parts of the area would have to be demolished. It led to a massive chaos and transformed considerable parts of the area into a wasteland. Higher than average air pollution continues to be an issue until this present day, due to this. That the spaces below the Westway did not become car parks is due to sustained pressure from the community at the time. The 23 acres granted for community use were a real victory. The communal usage of the spaces are guarded until this present day by locals, and most recently through a dedicated lobby group Westway23. There, in front of the Maxilla Club under the arcades of the flyover, and protected from all weathers and the dark, many locals meet for a chat, to play chess or to relax. It is here, where the community met after the Grenfell disaster. The permanent arty space became a place with wall paintings that demand social housing or that remember the dead, or which accuse the state, the council or the system in general. Most recently it was also the location for some of the funerals.
Photo: Community Space under the Westway
A left over and vacated area at the edge of the new traffic artery was taken up by people looking for cheap housing and became squatted. When the GLC and the council wanted to clear the area in 1977 the squatters declared the area as the “Independent Republic of Frestonia”. After the struggle, a compromise emerged, in form of the setting up of a housing cooperative, which exists to some degree up until this present day. Former resident Lizzie Spring remembers how experimental and radical the area used to be.
It enabled her to explore a variety of concepts, for her personally particularly pertinent at the time was the idea of militant feminism. At the time, she lived very close to Grenfell Tower which was erected alongside other social housing estates in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She reports constant battles with the local council, for example in order to save a public bath on the spot that on which now the recently rebuilt academy school stands. Her radicalism continues up until this day, even though she has now reached her 60s, Now it are suggestions addressed to the Mayor of London. She intents to change social housing to a model where tenants possess more self-determination and responsibility, rather than the current state, “where social housing tenants are seen as brainless persons who need to be managed, perhaps in the way and manner the local authority viewed the occupants of Grenfell Tower.”
Local Council & Local Rebels
Photo: Snapshot of Mag Mc Donald taken in Tabernacle
Mag McDonald, 75, had moved in 1967 from Nottingham into North Kensington. She is also of the opinion, that since her arrival the community has never stopped to hold the local council to account. And she is not the only one who talks of a distanced council that fails to understand this area. “I remember, once we succeeded to have a building, which the council wanted to demolish, grade listed. RBKC had the building torn down regardless in the very night before the registration would have become valid.” Similarly, the popular Holland Park Comprehensive School was closed against protests, and reopened as a solely academic school, as this was closer to the values of the Conservative local authority. It came to no one’s surprise thus, when it became known that Elizabeth Campbell – she is the new Leader of the Council, elected after the inferno by the elected mostly Conservative representatives of the council, after the former leader Nicholas Paget-Brown had resigned – had to admit, in spite of years as a councillor and cabinet member, that she had never been inside a high rise social estate flat of as they would have existed at Grenfell Tower.
But the community managed to at least save one building from the fangs of the council and gentrification efforts, situated just West of Portobello Road. Up until this day, it remains one the most important centres of communal, cultural and local political grassroots work, the so called Tabernacle.
Photo: Elizabeth Campbell at a meeting with survivors and the local community
In 2009 RBKC declared that Notting Dale should be completely knocked down and rebuilt. All sorts of reasons were named, amongst others, that the area would not be economically diverse enough. Michael Jardine, a successful architect, who lives in an estate nearby, and who was amongst others involved in the construction of the London Olympics site, noticed, that the plans the council had, would double the number of persons in the area, but not in favour of socially disadvantaged groups in whose interest the regeneration was advertised as. Other reasons the council listed for the regeneration were, that “Grenfell Tower blights the view to the East from Latimer Road Station”, and that the roads of the social housing estate would be irrational and repairs expensive.
Photo: “Grenfell Tower blights the vision to the East from Latimer Station”, the council claimed in 2009. It certainly does now!
Not short of that, they also listed crime rates, in spite of the fact that crime was about average here unlike in the wealthy parts of the borough Knightsbridge and South Kensington, who have much higher rates of crime. The council was however so incompetent that they mistakenly suggested to demolish and regenerate the areas around the Westway against all local agreements and prior defeats against the will of the community, they even forgot to notify the Westway Trust, who administers the space. „As a matter of fact, RBKC made so many mistakes, that we were relatively optimistic that the regenerations efforts would lead to nothing,” argues Jardine. Again and again the community spoke out against aspects of the plans, and RBKC was forced accordingly to change its details or format.
Piers Thompson is an Oxford graduate and DJ. Thompson lives in a semidetached house of a 1970s estate opposite Grenfell which he and his wife bought because he admires for its 1970s architecture. ”I was always a rebel who had grown out of punk, ” he describes himself. He explains, that he and others had caused so much havoc against the regeneration plans, that they had regained 22 percent of the area the council had previously intended for a complete demolishment and regeneration. Amongst those 22 percents were especially those places, where obstructive people like himself live. By now, end of August, and after the fire, he has assurances that the rest of the estate will also not be touched.
Photo: Piers Thompson
There were people like Thompson who lived in Grenfell Tower too. It is by now a well-known fact, that the Grenfell Action Group continuously warned about the safety of the tower block in the event of a fire. Alongside, it is known that the group was threatened with legal action should they continue to raise awareness. According to Thompson the council attempted to display such people as gone by, mentally unstable, losers who would cause unnecessary problems. Michael Jardine adds here, that some member of the Grenfell Action Group would now feel shattered since the inferno. If they had been listened to, people would not have lost their lives. They are not the only ones whose lives are not like before now, however. Not only survivors of the inferno or family members of victims are affected. Piers Thompson also talks about his teenage daughter, who, together with a friend, followed the death of one of their friends on snap chat. Thompson knows, that when the renovation of Grenfell Tower was first discussed with residents, “they listed things like working elevators, better lighting, stuff like that. Nobody said a word about the external area. The outer appearance with its cladding was more something that related to the needs of others, precisely as it is listed in 2009 in the regeneration plans of the council. And whats more, besides the outer area of the tower, the school in front of the tower was rebuilt, some argue it wasnät necessary either. Unfortunately, it was expanded in such a way that the new Academy made it immensely difficult for the fire brigade to access the tower in the night of the inferno.
Picture: New Model Housing with golden art!
Whilst Grenfell was being renovated, RBKC ordered a small industrial area on the other side of the underground station Latimer Road to be taken down and rebuilt with a model social and private housing mix. Looking from the platform of Latimer Road Station, one spots a modern looking brick building. On its roof facing the station stretches an enormous and unnecessary appearing art piece made out of golden balls that extend themselves in different directions like a flower bouquet. Again, and again, the council’s regeneration papers raised the point of the potential of the area, in accordance with the general rise of the value of properties in the area. Too bad, that this was an area inhabited by poorer people when the areas South from here transformed into millionaires strips. Buildings once occupied by several families on different floors were converted into single occupier mansions, into which the spill off of Londons establishment moved. The council may have wished for more change in that direction hence their attempt on Notting Dale.
Conservative & Labour
When Emma Dent-Coad won the parliamentary seat of Kensington on the 9th of June for Labour, with a majority of 20 votes, and just before the inferno, many assumed it to be a surprising victory. But the truth is that Nord Kensington had always been a Labour area. The privilege of the Conservatives to dominate the area was a matter of changes to the electoral borders of the area. In those years when the area included more of the wealthy South, the Conservatives won, in those years in which more Northern regions were part of it, Labour won. The current borders exist since 2010. They include tiny parts of Notting Hill and Holland Park, but not Chelsea and South Kensington.
But when it comes to the council, there is a problem, because here South Kensington, and Chelsea are part of the same authority alongside North Kensington. It is the council, not the MP, that makes decisions in questions of planning, and it is dominated by the Conservative Party for a long time, Elizabeth Campbell was a member of the same cabinet, which was responsible for the regeneration of Notting Dale.
Many locals state, that their vote for “Emma” was not even a vote for Labour, but above all a vote for her as a person. Dent Coad, who was a councillor prior to becoming an MP, and had attended many local campaigns. She was active not only against the regeneration plans of Notting Dale, but also in the campaign to save the public library of North Kensington, which the council had promised a private college, as well as the failed campaign of a community pub, or the campaign to save a further education college, which is fundamental for the teaching of English as a foreign language to new migrants. The council conceded on this only after the inferno. With 80 or more dead, Elizabeth Campbell perhaps felt she ought to assure the end of all regeneration plans and the saving of the library. Victories of this kind only come now with a bitter-sweet taste.
The organisation with the direct responsibility for the decisions and administration on social housing was a communal TMO. It was founded on the basis of intense community pressure in the 1980s. When RBKC finally agreed to it, it was set up or soon evolved in such a way that it appeared to the outside to be a democratic construct, whilst all important decisions could in fact only be taken by councillors who were members of the cabinet. Accordingly, the decision about the cost saving cladding of Grenfell was made by the Conservative councillor Rock Feilding-Mellen alone. He has resigned from his post since the fire and also left the area.
When Grenfell was burning and in its aftermath and the community was in need of urgent help. RBKC intended to manage and control the situation on its own. This is a point brought up by Yvette Williams. Williams is the daughter of immigrants from Antigua, precisely the country, out of which once the murdered Kelcho Cochrane came. „My family was very politically engaged and met leaders of the independence movement in the Caribbean. Dad was a policeman in Antigua and well-respected”.
Williams herself was actively involved in the campaign of a more contemporary black murder victim, the campaign for Justice for Stephen Lawrence who was murdered by racist thugs in 1993, whilst waiting for a bus in Elton, South-East London, and whose prosecution was hindered by an institutionally racist police force. She also worked on other projects in North Kensington, amongst others, to save The Tabernacle and the no longer existing location of local black politics and culture, The Mangrove, which fell under the axe of gentrification but had seen figures like Bob Marley, CLR James, and Nina Simone.
One other local campaign she was involved in, she mentions directly. A local estate agent in North Kensington put up racist advertising some three years ago, namely that black people are born to dance, and whites to buy property.” „We gave the estate agent 24 hours to remove the ad and they followed suit.” That this attitude goes deeper also on other levels is perhaps illustrated by the fact that the new person with the responsibility for social estates, and with the brief of finding accommodation for the victims of Grenfell Tower, the Conservative councillor Kim Taylor-Smith, is also a person at home with property investment.
Still, according to the research of The Guardian newspaper, there are a total of 1652 empty houses and flats in Kensington, amongst others empty investments of New York former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a block with 26 empty units owned by Christian Candy. When the council claims, that the relocation of units to survivors of the fire may last up to 12 months, that fact alone is shameful. Atop, Taylor-Smith used the wrong language at one of the meetings with locals and survivors, labelling any potential new units as “the best memorial to the inferno.” Community members angered by this remark made him apologise instantly.
Photo: Kim Taylor-Smith (c) Daniel Zylbersztajn
Or take the fact that the government had nominated Eleanor Kelly, the CEO of the London Southwark borough as an advisor for questions of social housing in Kensington. But it was Southwark in particular, notably a Labour council at that, that received a damaged reputation on the grounds of the regeneration of the 1970s Heygate Estate (see mz article https://dzx2.net/2015/05/05/eine-weltstadt-fur-reiche-world-capital-for-the-rich/) , an estate that was totally demolished and a discount price and for favours by the developer Land Lease at that. In fact, the similarities to Notting Dale are in part striking. Many observers understand Heygate Estate’s demise as nothing but social cleansing.
Picture: Aid given out on day of the fire by volunteers.
So when after the fire it became apparent that the community needed help, and the council would not be able to provide it, Yvette Williams set up Justice for Grenfell together with others. Posters of the group, that demand the resignation of the elected council are plastered throughout the area. Not once was it Williams job to face international TV cameras since and yet there was more to do than anyone imagined. Due to the patchy help from the council, Justice for Grenfell began to organise help itself, cover the social and mental needs just as much as the management of donations, demands for compensation, the questions and consultations of the forthcoming independent inquiry and the criminal investigation alongside political and media representation, a mammoth task.
Meanwhile, the council was able to improve its help arrangements, but it still has gaps. With help finally emerging as it should be, there is a help centre, there are key workers, social workers and so on in coordination with professional organisations, it almost appears as if the council would now try to compensate for its mistakes. Niles Hailstones, the chair of Westway23 and well-known community activist made it very clear in one meeting, when he complained about the brute force and suspicion by the police on the ground, who had thrown him and his son to the floor and attempted to put on handcuffs, under suspicion of carrying illegal drugs:
Photo: Niles Hailstones speaking out against Elizabeth Campbell
“Let me be clear,” he addressed Elizabeth Campbell directly:. „Charity is no Justice!” As man of Rastafarian belief, he added, that all that happened in Grenfell and after that, reminded him of the system, that exists since 500 Jahren years. Whilst he uttered these words, it looked as if Campbell rolled her eyes, and according to observers from the community, it was not for the first time.
Whilst some believe, that all people with more wealth in this area would be part of the problem, others hoped, that finally, all people would get it, and see how incredible and incompetent the leadership of the conservative Council of RBKC was since decades. So far, the prime minister Theresa May had admitted that the council was precisely this after the inferno when it did not act appropriately and fast enough. One observer, who did not want to be named, put it however in these words: The new ones, that arrive with much wealth would not buy property here, if it was not for the proud history of the area and with its immigrants, Portuguese cafes, Moroccan bazaars, Caribbean history and presence, Spanish school, the artists, the market and the Notting Hill Carnival. I mean if it was not like this they could move to other areas. At best I hope that Grenfell opens people’s eyes that the plans of the council could destroy precisely that, which is important to many.” How much people will understand will become evident in the 2018 local elections.
One symbol of the unification of the community post-Grenfell was an art piece by local artist and community activist Sophie Lodge. During Carnival 2016 she created a massive heart in whose middle the name Community stood. On the day after the inferno, she asked the community to make art contributions with such hearts, Every day up until the beginning of the carnival this year she occupied Portobello Park and made these hearts with whoever wanted. Some will be carried also by the dance bands during the carnival,” she explained.
The community decided early on, that Carnival should take part in spite of the sorrow. It shows that we are still here”, declared Francis Pepe. and added that there will be a minute of silence during the carnival as well as religious ceremonies before the carnival, and possibly quiet marches when the bands pass by near the Grenfell Tower. In some ways, music is not necessary there. The black shameful form of the tower demands respect itself and tells the story of an impoverished neighbourhood, of lost human lives now and then, and the fight for dignity against an arrogant and ignorant council. A community in which people of all backgrounds grew together, and who have any reason to be celebrated by others in one of the biggest parties of the world, actually. Never lesser so than now.