North Kensington residents look back on a disaster, and what it means for their community.
The tragedy of Grenfell Tower has awakened the London community, in the most violent way, to the negative impacts of gentrification and “regeneration” projects on social inequality. The fire of June 14 that consumed almost 80% of the social housing tower block should have been a self-contained incident within that 1970s brutalist structure. Instead, the flames turned into a fireball, thanks to the newly fitted cladding placed on the building to “beautify” its appearance for those who looked at it from luxury apartments nearby.
Regeneration plans were set in motion for the Silchester Estate and Lancaster Estate of Latimer Road, to be torn down in the beginning of September 2018. It was the fire at Grenfell that stopped those plans from happening — for now. The severity of this event has left a physical and emotional mark on the community of North Kensington — and many residents have been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and flashbacks of that terrible day.
In Brutal Presence is an ongoing documentary project I started in 2016 that focuses on certain realities surrounding social housing in London, and the impacts of gentrification and “revitalization” to urban communities through the borough of North Kensington. The neighboring council estates and tower blocks of Grenfell have all shared the same history and are all part of the same story. They have witnessed the changes to their neighborhoods over the years through the process of gentrification and are increasingly concerned about the impacts this will have on their future.
These photos and resident quotes—collected between June 14, 2017 and the present—help shed light on what’s happening in the area.
Vasiliki Stavrou of Bramley House, 35 years resident of North Kensington, W10
“Bramley House, where I have lived for 35 years, was significantly impacted during the fire of June 14. There was burning debris landing on and around the building like rain, and access to Bramley House was restricted by the police for safety reasons. Further concerns were raised about the stability of the tower, which was likely to fall directly onto us.
Some residents were taken into emergency accommodation, while the majority of us were left behind […] forgotten.
Witnessing the fire has caused emotional trauma in the community, which has had severe consequences on both our physical and mental health. We have been directly affected by the events that took place, as well as the response of central government in the days immediately following the fire. We face the future with uncertainty, and no one knows what the long-term effects might be.
There was a time when a question was raised whether it was reasonable to have social housing side-by-side with the private houses. I think most people felt that we shouldn’t live separately; otherwise we’re going to create ghettos. In North Kensington, you will find one long street where one side is social housing — and across the road are private Victorian houses. We have always had a good mixture of both.
But then the question about the future of North Kensington and its residents became a concern, once the council started trying to implement a long process of regeneration schemes to the area.
People worried a lot about these regeneration schemes. We personally didn’t agree to them, but unfortunately, in all three different plans our building — Bramley House — was included as part of the Silchester Estate. They would have used every single inch of the estate possible. […] Many people decided to move out. Of course, their lives were very much disrupted.”
Lynda of Silchester Road, 38 years resident of North Kensington
“That cladding they put on Grenfell to make it look more glamorous, that’s all they put it on for — because what good is it to anyone? It’s not good, is it? Thank God they didn’t put it on the others.
We had letters come through that said the council was going to pull down the other estates — but since Grenfell happened, it’s all backfired. That’s why they didn’t want to spend any money doing work on them.
They gave us all the plans and they put them through the letterbox, telling us what they were going to do in the area. They wanted to do it up like a little village, build little houses, make it all nice and that.
And where were we supposed to go? Out in Mongolia, I suppose! They don’t care, do they? As long as they get what they want. And now, they’ve had to put it off. They’ve got no money because of Grenfell. It’s all gotten away.
I’ve paid into the system all of my life. Unless you own it [your flat], you’ll never get anything out of it.”
Tarek Gotti of Henry Dickens Court W11, 26 years resident of North Kensington
“When I think about being offered a flat on the 24th floor of Grenfell Tower, before the fire, and how the council claimed they didn’t know I was disabled and mentally ill — I realize now what could have happened to me had I gone through with it by force. Because it was forced — they said ‘take it or leave it’ when I was looking for housing.
I lost a lot of friends in the fire. I lost a total of 13 friends, including one family member. My kids lost most of their friends from the nurseries, and from the primary and secondary schools next door.
The council was never there for us; we told them about these buildings. We saw they had lots of major work that needed to be done. We told them about this cladding, ‘What is it? Is it necessary? […]’ And we know it was done because of the rich gym and the rich school next door. You can’t put an ugly building next to two rich, fabulous buildings.
As a resident, I feel I’ve been failed. The Government has failed me in every way. They see us as third class citizens, and then ignore us.
It shouldn’t have taken Grenfell to happen for every ward, or every country, or every community to come together. It should have been happening from before Grenfell. Grenfell wouldn’t have happened if they had listened before about what the community wanted.”
Teresa Griffin of Bramley House W10, 28 years resident of North Kensington
“The night of Grenfell, I really wish I’d stayed in bed and not seen anything. I really wished and prayed to God that I hadn’t heard (my daughter Amelia), and I’d just stayed in bed.
Bramley House would’ve been in the prize line for it (Grenfell), had the building fallen. There are people living here that should’ve been evacuated. The council didn’t value our lives enough to do that.
When we got a letter from the council about three years ago, talking about refurbishments and ‘upping’ the area, and knocking down these flats in order to get the area looking ‘nice’ — I just couldn’t believe it. They wanted to knock it all down and build new homes.
We had the choice that if we wanted to come back [after the refurbishment], we could come back, but we wouldn’t be able to afford the rent and they knew that. When the council says, ‘You haven’t got an option, we’re knocking them down and that’s that,’ they can do it; it’s called a compulsory purchase.
I went to a couple of these meetings where they’d show us the plans for Notting Hill. It would knock us out in every way. Every working class person would be put out of the field — people who have been here a lifetime.
It was class cleansing. […] They were going to put us out and we had no choice in it — nothing — we didn’t have a say in it. They were doing it and that was that. A lot of people had sleepless nights because of it.”
Elizabeth Stravoravdis of Kensal House W10, 26 years resident of North Kensington
“Before the fire, you would walk down and see Grenfell — with its panels — and it looked absolutely smashing! Then you saw the gym — this massive structure — with its beautiful architecture, and the academy looking like Lego Land […] but none of it was functional; it was all done for the money. It’s like having a suit sewn to look pretty but it’s not actually sewn properly; you wear it once and it falls apart.
We aren’t short of talented architects or talented designers, or knowledge in structure. And yet, we can’t build or renovate a simple building and make it stand or not burn. How? Why? The answer is the money.
What we want is some common sense, a few more mums running the world.
Mums care about the future generations. They don’t just care about their pockets and what’s in their fridge today, or what’s in their bank account today. They’re thinking about what they’re going to leave behind.
Since the fire, I have seen survivors more than survive. I have seen them become warriors. These are the people who are still in temporary housing, who are still in hotels. I’ve seen the bereaved become conquerors. Because this is not normal to be crushed to such a point, where you turn into Hercules.
Despite knowing how powerless we are and not funded, we are still carrying on for our children and our grandchildren. I like to think that even if they succeed in doing their social cleansing in this area, our children and grandchildren would’ve seen a heroism in us. I hope we’ve given our young people and our children a good example of what a decent human being does, and what a decent human being is.”
Singh Minder of Goodrich Court W10, 50 years resident of North Kensington
“The media has always stirred things. Do you think they’re really worried about what’s happened here (at Grenfell)? They’re not going to solve anything. They’re here to discuss it. They’ll discuss about how Syria has been bombed, Russia and America…so that people can ring up and offer their opinions. It’s a ‘whisk in the water’. Nothing is produced except bubbles.
Here at Goodrich Court, we’ve heard about the Housing Trust, which runs the estate, but they’re like gods — invisible. I said to myself ‘It’s easier to say a prayer to God, but it’s very hard to contact these people.’ I don’t know where they are.”
Joseph Alfred of Hurstway Walk Lancaster Estate W10, 40 years resident of North Kensington
“The local authority and central government showed very little interest in this half of the borough. To this present day, when compared to the south, the north is at a disadvantage in all aspects — like employment, crime, investment, and education.
My concern about the future of North Kensington and its residents pre-Grenfell fire, is that the council proposed the regeneration project that would demolish the houses surrounding Grenfell tower. My fear is that it will be disastrous if that occurs; a break up of a close-knit community, relocating residents to far-away places, and then having to adapt to a new environment.
I’ve lost a friend in the fire, and there were some people living around here that I knew. They’ve moved now. Some friends moved because they were more affected than me by Grenfell. Once they move, friends are lost.”
Noreen King of Trellick Tower W10, 30 years resident of North Kensington
“Whatever effort they (the council) makes, it will never be enough.
People still need to be housed. And no, we can’t all afford what you (the council) have. We are at the bottom. But being at the bottom doesn’t mean we can’t be happy.
And no, we’re not going to Manchester, we’re not going to Nottingham — because that’s what one council officer tried to make me do. I said, ‘Get lost. Born and raised in London, and you want to send me somewhere? Why?’
My hope would be for the government and those that have the power to make decisions, to just look after those that are below your pay grade. Put enough housing out there for those who have got their children that need to move on, and can’t move on, or become independent.
Stop segregating our communities. Stop clumping people in as a majority and making others feel uncomfortable in their own skin, or in their own area. Stop spending your money in the wrong places. Fix your country.”
Judith Blakeman of W10, 29 years resident of North Kensington
“I lived in Ladbroke Grove from ’71, and then I moved here next door to Lancaster West in ’89. The area was very diverse then, but it was very rundown. It didn’t have the gentrification it’s got now. All the houses back then were falling apart. That’s when the council built the Lancaster West Estate. It was a slum clearance program.
[…] Towards the mid-1990s, they started improving the area and getting planning permission for all sorts of lavish developments of luxury flats.
Soon, council residents were told — before the Grenfell fire — that basically “this land is now very high value, and you’ve enjoyed living on it for long enough, but if you can’t afford to stay here then you’ll have to move. We (the council) will redevelop it and regenerate it, and only those of you with completely secure tenancies will get the opportunity to come back.”
It was social cleansing. The original proposal for this area was far vaster. […] That would’ve gone ahead had Grenfell Tower not happened.
I want justice for Grenfell. I mean, it’s a slogan, but I want justice for Grenfell. Really nice people just died, they were burned to death for no reason, and it couldn’t have happened anywhere else. There were too many different things that all came together, and nobody listened to them.
The very, very small children, both those who escaped and those who were evacuated — they’re going to tell their grandchildren about this. That’s going to be three generations after us.”