Finding Myself on the Heygate Estate

Heygate Estate, Elephant and Castle, in Sunshine

Heygate Estate, Elephant and Castle, in Sunshine

I moved onto the Heygate Estate in the fall of 2007, after answering an ad in Loot. Twenty years before, when I’d lived in a squat in one of the warren-like brick estates across the New Kent Road, I’d look up at the prison-like terraces of the Heygate, and wonder, “who the hell would live in a place like that?”
Now, I was about to find out: people like me.

I went round on a Saturday afternoon. The flat was high up in the monolith next to the Elephant and Castle train station, one of the half-dozen monoliths that make up the outer wall of the estate, and I walked up the curving gangway that led up off the Walworth Road with some trepidation. I’d talked to my flatmate/ landlord to be on the phone just the day before and he seemed reasonable enough. He’d had a pleasant, regional accent, and seemed pleased that I was North American, that I’d lived in New York before coming back to London since he’d been to New York the year before – we’d even seen the same Basquiat exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Part of it was the estate’s sheer size: the terraces loomed overhead like the riggings of a battleship, and all summer the papers had broadcast a steady stream of accounts of murder and teenage mayhem taking place on estates like this one. I’d heard stories of crack houses on the upper floors, hookers hanging out on the streets at night. Even if I’d spent a good part of the intervening years not far from nightmare 60’s estates like the Heygate, or even more marginal – and dangerous – areas of Brooklyn, I wondered if I wasn’t going to be assaulted or robbed on my way to the viewing. Yet I was curious as well. I’d never been up the estate before, and had always wondered what it was like inside. If nothing else, I’d get a first hand view.

No one was waiting for the rickety tin can lift that bore me up to the building’s upper reaches, and no one was on the terrace. Barry met me at his doorway, standing behind the metal gate the protected the door proper. (MISSING PAGE – LOOK IN PREVIOUS COPY.