NOTES FROM THE HEYGATE:
I am ensconsed in one of the many ocean-liner sized buildings that make up the Heygate Estate. Years ago, when I was squatting on one of the old brick estates north of the Old Kent Road, I used to look out at a section of the estate I’m on now and wonder ‘who the fuck would live in a place like that?
Now I know – people like me.
Out back you can see a long stretch of trees, the leaves all turning color, and rising here and there like the peaks of some slightly menacing mountain range, the other buildings of the estate – as oblong and massive as beached aircraft carriers, seamed by lines of gangways and doors with iron grilles on front and floodlights that click on at three pm like lights in a prison yard. On the other side, beyond the gangway, you can see the peaks and spires of the House of Commons, shining gold at night, spread out so it seems like many buildings instead of just the one. From the gangway, you can see St. Paul’s – in the early mornings it seems to rise up out of the city like the moon.
Last night (or afternoon – you realize how far north England is in early winter when the days effectively end at four pm), was the most magnificent sunset as the sun spread out behind Big Ben and the other buildings on the north side of the Thames and the first of the Guy Fawkes fireworks started going off. The fireworks continued all night, the explosions bouncing off the spaces between the buildings.
Yet however magnificent the view, you can never entirely shake the feeling that you are in a shitty tower block. The concrete gangways, the rickety metal lift. Even the doors inside the flat are those flimsy council issue type with the silver door handles that always seem about to fall off. A sense of lives half-swallowed by the massive building – especially since the estate is slowly being emptied, the empty flats sealed with strong, sophisticated looking metal barriers two or three generations up from the sturdy, but brutal and relatively easy to get around Sitex that were the norm in my day. On our estate it’s only perhaps one in ten but on some of the others, the scary ones further away from the train station and Pink Elephant shopping mall, it seems like whole upper stories have been blocked off – which must be great for people still living there. A couple I know who live behind the estates say drug dealers and pimps have taken over the upper stories of some of the emptier buildings. The girls come out on the New Kent Road behind the estates, the drug dealers lurk around the parks. I haven’t seen them myself, but I’m sure they are there.
Last night, after making the obligatory pub crawl around the ‘hood, I came back to find a notice by the elevator:
‘ALL THOSE ANSWERING THE GUMTREE AD FOR FLAT **** – DON’T GO! HE IS A RAPIST!’
Then, in the lift and on the floor in question:
“MAN IN FLAT **** IS A RAPIST! SHORT BLACK MAN’
Fucking intense. My flatmate says it would have been put up by the tennant’s association, who evidently run a pretty tight ship. Still – why not just call the police on the fucking guy? Or organize a vigilante group to go round to flat **** and warn him off. What evidence is the accusation based on?
Some people were talking in the lift about it this morning. An old couple and a young black woman. “I heard he was calling himself ‘****’ or somfing,” the white woman said while the black girl nodded sympathetically. It’s worth riding that shitty lift just for these experiences.
I can’t quite shake a slightly sinister feeling about the place. Partly it’s the size – walking up the main gangway at night is like walking into the bottom of a beached ocean liner, and not even being sure what is on the top levels. Maybe its’ reputation as well – I’ve heard plenty in the year I’ve been back about the muggings and so on that take place on this estate. But so far, after 24 hours, I don’t get that tense feeling that comes in a danger zone – the wary glances, the sinister types staring at you, the air of aggression that comes from everywhere and nowhere. So far, all I’ve seen are the aforementioned people in the lift – poor certainly, but far from sinister – a couple of African ladies next door, an old man playing with his over-friendly lab in the green down below, and a Latino man holding his child’s hand coming up the gangway. Typical poor south Londoners, in other words.
The pubs around here were fun last night. The Charlie Chaplin, built into the mall, where you can get a pint of middling ale for £1.60 and seems divided between traditional working class patrons and Latinos who look like they come from Central or South America somewhere. The place that used to be our regular, which was again pretty typically estate people – but again not particularly unfriendly (at the Charlie Chaplin, strangers actually talked to each other at the bar).
The pubs haven’t changed much – even the new picture window in the place that used to be our regular doesn’t lighten the layers of cigarette smoke or that very 70’s interior of wood beams and faux-finish plastering (The most entertaining part of being there was watching the movie remake of ‘Charlie’s Angel’s’ on the big screen TV). Then, past the mosque on Harper Road (the Islamic Crescent rising in the dark and across the street some Hallal shops, Bengalis in the corner grocer who seemed much better off than the poor besieged Pakistani who had the place when we lived around the corner – I’d hear the local kids calling him a ‘bloody Paki’ to his face sometimes) – the Windmill, a corner pub half-converted into a lounge with Thai food served upstairs. Then the Rising Sun, built into the corner of Bramwell House, with the same working class guys hanging around the bar. Aimiable enough, a great jukebox. Almost like the old days, except for the hot Latinas at one table, feeing coins into the jukebox and singing to the music in comically accented English.
Hi, stumbled upon your blog and have been submerged in it this evening as I read the rollercoaster ride of the Heygate and your life there… some great photo’s and your writing really describes the sight, sound, smell and colour of those on the estate. All the best.
Thanks for your comment and the compliments. Glad I could engross you for an evening. The roller coaster ride continues but fortunately or unfortunately I can no longer experience it first hand. Will the Heygate fall or will it not? I follow from afar and hopefully will see it again one day before it all comes down (if it does).
I watched the BBC short doc about the situation last night, and it’s pretty appalling what’s going on there – I wished I was suprised. It seems that years go by and nothing is still learned about how to properly manage and re-generate such areas – and the tenants welfare and consideration always seems to take a back-seat – watching that BBC clip reminded me of exactly the same issues that were highlighted in the 91/95 documentary ‘Summer on the Estate’.
Nice to hear from you. I’m curious – which BBC short doc are you talking about – the one that was made a few months ago (I have a link on my site), or is this a new one?
And when did ‘summer on the estate’ come out – I’d love to see it. I was sort of absent from the UK for those years so I’m sure I missed it.
I’m writing from a distance, like I said, but the situation does sound appalling. I don’t know that I fully understand why the council was in such a hurry to get everyone out when no deal had been signed – I guess the rush was on, like in so much of the east end, to be ready for 2012. Despite the council’s assurances, I was always sure that the regeneration would turn the Elephant into just another gentrified Zone 1 neighborhood – too much money was involved.
It is amazing how little changes in the ‘regeneration’ of these areas. I think one success story – and I don’t know a lot about it – might be the North Peckham Estate, a true dystopian nightmare when I last saw in the early 90’s, which wasn’t so much torn down as broken up. I think it functions relatively well now.
But whither the Heygate? I really wonder. A lot of tennants have been successfully resettled, but the question is really, what will remain of the community that existed there – some of which predated the estate. And I do wonder if it will be demolished – and what will happen in the area if it is.
Best to remember that the original estate – utopian, brutalist – had the same big ‘regeneration’ ideas as the present scheme.
I was referring to the BBC one from April (as per your link).
‘Summer on the Estate’ (the Kingsland Estate, Hackney) is available on youtube 🙂
Parts 1-8 filmed 1990 is available from here:
Parts 1-5 of the follow up filmed 1995 here:
There was also an interesting documentary on a few years ago called ‘The Tower: A Tale of two Cities’, which looked at the conversion of the one of the blocks on the Pepys Estate in Deptford into a plush modern set of apartments (Aragon Tower). What that ‘re-generation’ merely served to do was to force the original tenants out of the area and into equally poor social accommodation elsewhere, whilst the extensively renovated tower block was then snapped by young urban professionals and buy-to-let property dealers that came into the area.
Thanks so much for the links. I’ll have a look at them this weekend sometime.
I think I remember seeing ‘A Tale’ a few years ago – or at least part of it. I often wondered if the Heygate couldn’t have been renovated in the same way – or at least renovated enough to allow people to keep on living on it.
Last fall, during the ‘open doors’ I visited Trelllick Tower up in Ladsbroke Grove. Way back when I lived up there, in the late 80’s, Trellick was considered just another nightmare tower block – drug dealers and so on. Now it’s a listed building, on the map for ‘open doors’ viewings. I’ll give the council some credit – many of the original residents remained, but the flats that came available for rent were fantastically expensive – apparently there was a long waiting list, So it was no longer affordable housing in any real sense.
The same sort of dynamics apply in Brooklyn, where I am now. I wonder if regeneration is possible without displacing poor people and how this could be achieved . . .