Squatting action under the motorway, Political Requests, Self-help: The Survivors and Residents of the London high-rise fire demand not to be any longer victims.
This article was originally published in taz, die Tageszeitung (online taz.de), Germany’s independent left of centre daily and national broadsheet newspaper on 14/12/2017. See here http://taz.de/Nach-dem-Hochhausbrand-in-London/!5467719/ All rights are strictly reserved with taz. For syndicates contact firstname.lastname@example.org This translation into English was made by the author. It is just a quick unpolished translation made on the day of the publication and the six-month memorial service, so that English only readers can get the facts of the feature. Taz has always been carried by a co-operative of shareholders who support taz for the sake of an independent free German press.
DANIEL ZYLBERSZTAJN REPORTING FROM LONDON
Niles Hailstones is resting in a small café in the world-famous Portobello Road. His head cover, beard and clothing, amongst it also a scarf in pan-African colours, are giving already, at first sight, an impression of his life philosophy. The musician and campaigner describes the spirit of his community with the Bob Marley’s song “Natural Mystic“, citing its entire lyrics, including the words “Things are not the way they used to be, I won’t tell no lies,, One and All will have to face reality.”
Just a stone throw from here are the concrete arcades of the West Way, the motorway which connects the West of London with Central London. It is a road that stretches over several kilometres through North Kensington, from Gospel Oak to Latimer Road, where Grenfell Tower stands. Grenfell is that building which is even more (in)famous, due to the fact that it burned down precisely six months ago in one of the worst fire catastrophes in British history. Now, half a year later, a scaffolding structure with a white cover hides about a quarter of the charcoaled tower, and will soon wrap around the entirety of the tower.
Hailstone reports a wind of change. Not only did 71 people perish In the inferno, it also marks, at least the hope for an end of a decades-long process of marginalisation, regeneration and exclusion, and the dominance of power interests, in fact, the end of “social and ethnic cleansing of the area”, as he puts it.
About the many promises which the council Kensington and Chelsea made, he states: “To tell you the truth, I didn’t expect any changes, either before or after the fire.” In the first month after the disaster, there was total chaos. Left to our own devices, the spirit of self-reliance escaped the bottle, and it is out now”.
The campaigner of African-Caribbean background uncovers a fact that was deliberately kept off the awareness of most observers of the area. When donations, packages and blankets for the community flooded the area, Hailstones happened to have a key to one of the larger spaces under the arcades of the city motorway due to an event he had been planning for a while in honour of the anniversary of Marley’s Exodus Album. Facing necessity, Hailstones asked the community coordination of the trust, for permission to to use the room as a storage room. She agreed and the trust eventually supplied a three-month licence whilst aid stocked up to the high ceiling. .The area was soon simply called by all as the “the village” (in line with the name of this trading area – Acklam Village). It became a sort of private and improvised community centre for survivors of the Grenfell Tower.
Six months on, the space appears emptier. There are numerous sofas in communal formation, paintings and pictures give away an Africa inspired atmosphere, a drum set and a piano stand there too. The three-month licence has run out for quite a while now, but Hailstones hopes to be able to stay regardless for longer.
In this most valuable part of Portobello Road, part of what has become one of West Londons most distinguished and expensive zones, Notting Hill, world-famous for its carnival, West Way Trust has huge regeneration plans. “It looked to me like a sort of Westfields on Portobello Road. As long as we are here, we are stopping these plans“, claims the campaigner. Since the inferno, Hailstones was part of all discussions with the council. The community coordinator who passed on the key to him, was on the other hand fired. When she and another sacked employee began to speak out against that dismissal the CEO of the trust suddenly stepped down from office.
Lost Free Space
The Westway Trust, initially running under the name of North Kensington Amenity Trust, was the hard fought for result of a sustained campaign against car park spaces under the motorway by the residents of North Kensington. Instead, they demanded communal spaces. Hailstones claims that the trust became soon however but a cover „At the beginning as many as six members of the board were councillors, of whom many lived far away.”
From his perspective, the trust’s actions over many years can be understood as racist. There was increasingly less space for cultural and social activities and lesser so for African-Caribbean activities. Commercially viable use became the key concern. It was in Notting Hill where in the 1950s some of the first Caribbean work migrants settled – now they could not even have free spaces under a concrete bridge. A communal steel-drum workshop „Bay 20“, was cleared in the 1990s for a metal fence, in part with barbed wire, and an obscure art installation with blue stones, useless and empty. Other spaces were lost too, including for example for the famous steel band ebony. It looked as if the Westway Trust did care little for the annual Notting Hill Karneval, grown out of the resistance against racism of the 1950s as an expressive form that demanded respect for African-Caribbean people and culture. Even the Maxilla nursery had to close three years ago, with council and trust blaming each other, and yet being so inter-twined, whilst a big shopping mall was in the planning for the arcades areas next to Portobello Road, so the story which Hailstones describes.
For about three years Hailstones carries the position of chair of Westway23 a community group, which attempts to hold the West Way trust to account. Even after Grenfell, the troubles continue, however. The latest twist appears to be the intent by the BBC, now supported by the trust, to finance a new room for a boxing club, that used to have training sessions in the now burned down tower. And where is this space to be erected? No other area was targeted but „Bay 20“. The astonishment is huge, and particularly so amongst the African-Caribbean residents.
“The history of the West Way and community through which it cuts, a community which was pushed aside by the decision makers, has many parallels to the way that social housing blocks like Grenfell were managed”, says local campaigner Eve Wedderburn. Shortly after the inferno she won another long local battle: the rescue of the only library in Ladbroke Grove.
Similar to the establishment of the Westway Trust, the foundation of the “independent” body that administered social housing KCTMO (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation) was the result of demands for communal self-governance. But the reality of that management appeared rather distorted. When residents of Grenfell Tower began to express concerns over the fire safety KCTMO threatened them with judicial steps rather than to examine and respond to the concerns. WIth its credibility, after the fire destroyed, KCMTOs administrative role has only now ended.
Since about three weeks residents from the entire area around Grenfell Tower – an action supported also by Niles Hailstones and Eve Wedderburn – have occupied a huge zone under the arcades, but not without historical presidents. 40 years ago the Free Republic of Frestonia was declared in a street very close to here, when it was facing plans of complete demolishment. Occupation is not the word which Hailstones is using, however. „We have reclaimed this space“, he says and speaks of the revolution of the people. On his mobile, he shows images on which one can see renovated sparkling rooms, studios, therapy rooms, kitchens in fine design, all created by the community with generous donations. The space has already a name, “The City” with direct relation to The Village, its predecessor, which came into existence after the fire. The city is to open its doors to the public on Thursday – following the service in St. Paul’s Cathedral in the morning and the monthly Grenfell silent march in the evening, which always ends in an open space, the “Wall of Truth” under the arcades near Grenfell Tower, full of street art and murals, mostly expressions regarding the inferno.
Hailstones says that he has invited the councillor of Kensington and Chelsea with responsibility for rehousing Kim Taylor-Smith for a tour of The City. „He came and was taken aback,” recalls Hailstones. Taylor-Smith had stopped the eviction order for now. For the community, it is a prestigious and symbolic display project. It wants to shows that such rooms are not just necessary, but that the community is able to create and implement such spaces into existence.
There are also a few counter voices to the City project. An artist known as Livingstone, who looks after the Wall of Truth and has painted much of it, states that he feels excluded by Hailstones. „I should have moved in there because I was here from the beginning“, he states angered over the question what his opinion is regarding the city.
Sophie Lodge, the artist who reacted to the inferno, which was hard to grasp for survivors, with the expressive communal art 24 heart campaign and the slogan Comeunity – a play between come and unity – says the disagreement symbolises nothing more but the articulation of two strong voices, with, in the end, similar intentions. Lodge herself has spent the last two months working with all schools in the area. She stands at Ladbroke Grove and watches the attachment of a large panel onto the underground bridge on which is the sentence of a young boy. We are special because we are the future of Ladbroke Grove.“
Right to Speak and Human Dignity
The public inquiry regarding Grenfell has only just started to run properly this week, after months of collecting data and documents. There are exchanges on its methods and process. The main issues is the current lack of access to the process by those affected by the disaster.
The legal representatives of the victims, survivors and affected request They demand respect for diversity, dignity, increased access and right to shape the kind of questions the inquiry asks. Instead of a single judge, they ask for a panel to lead the inquiry, in which the affected should then also be represented, and it is also the opinion of Chris Imafidon, one of the survivors of the inferno. „What happens when the judge is ill, or when he dies? Then it does not continue!!“ Regarding such matters, there was a surprise declaration over the weekend by the British equality and human rights Commission, who announced the opening of their own inquiry.
At least there are things happening in the building and housing sector according to the expert in building regulation, safety and building forensics Gerard McLean the UK building regulations were clarified as soon as one week after the inferno „Buildings higher than 18 Meter may now only have external material that are of limited combustibility,” he explains. “That is a quite high standard, although not the highest because it is possible to build with totally non-combustible materials.” All public housing owners, such as local authorities have since removed exterior materials such as cladding, even those in private ownership quietly removed questionable cladding.”
Many of the concerns of the survivors and Grenfell surrounding residents remain however still unsolved. Especially because six months after the inferno only one-fifth of the victim families and affected people have found a new home, says Judy Bolton of the Campaign Justice4Grenfell, who has lost friends and relatives in the tower and does not live far from Grenfell in Ladbroke Grove.
Asked how he is these days, Professor Chris Imafidon, who used to live on the 14th floor in the tower and survived to tell his story, falls into cynical laughter. “I still live in a small hotel room,” he says „I don’t need any collective service in St. Paul’s Cathedral but a set of keys to a home. It is all a joke. Enough with the talking! We do not need a service for those who are dead and who already had their funerals, we need service for the living!”
Elizabeth Campbell, the leader Kensington and Chelsea, assured that her team would work hard to “house all until Christmas”, and that the council purchased on average two flats a day in the area. The delay was due in part to changing circumstances. For example, there would now be a need for almost twice the figure of units than initially assumed. More than 300 are needed now. This was because some families lived in overcrowded conditions with several generations, whilst others wanted to move in together with family members and friends due to inferno.
But apparently, there exist over 1000 empty social housing flats in Kensington. “Nobody understands why they are not being offered,” states Judy Bolton of Justice4Grenfell. “Amongst the around 1000 homeless due to the inferno, there are also 40 children. According to UK law, it is illegal to keep them longer than six weeks in temporary accommodation like hotels. Those responsible are for many months breaching the law!” On the other hand, due to rehousing hierarchies can single persons, who have the lowest priority not move into available empty flats, even if families with higher priorities cannot move into one bedroom apartments, due to their small size.
In November the UK government made at least 28 Million Pound available in order to help the affected, in addition to the 5 Million which the government had promised immediately after the inferno. Finally and slowly there are essential services available, such as therapy for the affected. Judy Bolton has taken on the offer for counselling, as the last six months have affected her, she admits. In spite of that, there is still a lack of services for children. Not just those directly affected, but also for those children who lost their friends in the fire are left vulnerable. Another problem that existed until recently, when the issue was raised in the scrutiny meetings, was that help was only available in a special centre, without outreach to possibly traumatised people, who sometimes would bury themselves indoors in the hotels in which they are housed.
Chris Imafidon says he feels tired and stretched in energy as well. His GP advised him to rest, but he is unable to do so fully, “because of the government, local and national alike, claim that I say too much and they push people like myself to the side. He said that he intends to boycott the service in St. Paul’s Cathedral and will instead posture in front to express himself. „First and foremost I need a roof over my head, that I can call my home. After that one can look into the question of therapy, if one still requires it then.”
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.