The Grenfell fire started on June 14th, 2017 , it was one
of the worst residential fires in the United Kingdom, since World War II. It caused 72 deaths and injured another 70 people.The rising smoke hung in the air for days after the fire.
The title ” In Brutal Presence” has multiple references. The term ‘Brutal’ refers to the brutalist architecture of Trellick Tower and Grenfell Tower. Brutalist architecture harks back to Post War Britain and the socialist ideals of its’ Labor government at the time, which believed that in order for the country to function again after WWII, the work force of the working class needed to be uplifted through national healthcare and social housing.
The term ‘Presence’ refers to the now – and the resilience of these buildings that still stand. Many have been demolished and replaced by luxury flats or private housing – and the council tenants scattered through decanting to the far corners of the city or even further, to the north of the country.
The idea of ‘In Brutal Presence’ points to the witnessing of these dramatic changes by social housing tenants, who have watched their communities change almost over night – where whole neighborhoods have been redeveloped for the wealthy and generations of families in social housing are forced to move out.
The title is a reference to the decline of social housing, and the ongoing presence of the ‘unknown’ for social housing tenants in the borough of North Kensington.
The tragedy of Grenfell Tower has awakened the London community to the issues surrounding social housing in the most violent way – and in a broader context – to the negative impacts of gentrification and “regeneration” projects on social inequality in London. The fire of June 14th that consumed almost 80% of the tower block should have been a self-contained incident within that 1970s brutalist structure. Instead, the flames turned into a fireball, helped by the newly fitted cladding placed on the building to “beautify” its appearance for the luxury apartments nearby.
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. These nine residents reflect on the event, as well as the many other threats that the council imposed on the community, just months before the fire of Grenfell. Regeneration plans were set in motion for the Silchester Estate and Lancaster Estate of Latimer Road, to be torn down beginning of September 2018. It was the fire at Grenfell, which stopped those plans from happening – for now.
Many fear the threat of social cleansing is still in the cards for residents. For decades, these residents and their families have been fighting with the council, in an attempt to prevent their lives from being uprooted from the community. This is the reality of social housing in London’s richest borough. The following quotes were collected between June 14th 2017, till present. It is a resident’s insight into the complexities of housing in North Kensington. It is a story they have lived, and re-lived, for generations in the borough of North Kensington.
In Brutal Presence has been an on-going documentary project that began in 2016 and 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 growingly concerned about the impacts this will have on their future.
This documentary series seeks to highlight their thoughts and perspectives, using interviews and portraiture to narrate the story, as they reflect on living within the wealthiest borough of London. It is a chance for them to share their life experiences; their hopes and fears in this ever-changing reality that is London.
Whistable estate resident of Silchester Road mourned at the Latymer Church memorial wall for the victims of the Grenfell Fire – which is still maintained today.
Local residents of the North Kensington community gather round the Wall of Truth, located under the West Way, dedicated to families and survivors of the Grenfell Fire. (June 14th, 2018).
Two local residents watched in disbelief at the scene of the fire.
The Methodist church of Latimer Road was covered in candles and flowers, in memory of those lost during the fire of Grenfell. (June 14th, 2017)
A candle light vigil was held under the West Way, weeks after the fire of Grenfell Tower, June 14th 2017.
A local resident played on the public paino located outside The Wall of Truth, beneath the Westway.
Justice For Grenfell demonstrators walked through Kensington’s High Street, and the affluent neighborhoods bordering North Kensington, 10 months after the Grenfell fire.
A fluke snow storm in March, swarmed around the skeletal remains of Grenfell Tower in London’s North Kensington. (March, 2018)
Vasiliki of Bramley House W10, 35 years resident of North Kensington said “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.
I’ve lived in North Kensington for three decades. People worried a lot about the regeneration schemes laid out in 2015. We personally didn’t agree to them. Unfortunately, our building and the neighboring estates were marked for demolition in all three different plans. These plans were made up until a year ago, talking about demolishing and rebuilding the community [É] Many people decided to move out. Of course, their lives were very much disrupted. This meant that all of the residents had to move out from their flats and live somewhere else.”
A portrait of the young Vasiliki on the porch of her flat in Bramley House, was wrapped in the grape vines that she transplanted from her birth place in Greece.
Lynda of Silchester Road, 38 years resident of North Kensington, is concerned about gentrification of her neighborhood. “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’s wife and son Maddox in the kitchen of their home in Henry Dickens Court Estate.
Teresa Griffin of Bramley House W10, 28 years resident North Kensington. “The night of Grenfell, I really wish I’d stayed in bed and not seen anything. 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, 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.
Every working-class person would be put out of the field – people who have been here a lifetime.
It was class cleansing. A lot of people had sleepless nights because of it.”
The Whistable Estate, one of the first tower blocks built on Latimer Road in North Kensginton, reflected in a pool of water beneath the West Way. Many residents of this estate had to witness the fire throughout the morning of june 14th, 2017 – watching their friends and neighbors perish in the fire.
Singh Minder, Goodrich Court W10, has been a resident of north Kensington for 50 years.
“Ultimately the council made a mistake.
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.”
The skeletal remains of Grenfell Tower stands behind the Lancaster Estate, whose occupants still grieve over the loss of their friends and family who perished in the fire.
Joseph Alfred of Hurstway Walk Lancaster Estate W10, Resident for over 40 years stood in the halls of his housing block. The Lancaster Estate stands immediately next to Grenfell Tower, and parts of the estate were badly damaged from the fire. The residents there were one of the first to see the beginnings of the fire – trying to signal to their Grenfell neighbours to come down from the top floors. Joseph lost a close friend who lived in the highest levels of the tower block.
A flower was left between the wires of a fence beneath the Westway on Latimer Road in honor of the Grenfell victims of June 14th, 2017.
Joseph Alfred of Hurstway Walk Lancaster Estate W10, Resident for over 40 years said. “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.”
Elizabeth Stravoravdis of Kensal House W10, Resident for 26 years in North Kensington said,”Despite knowing how powerless we are, we are still carrying on for our children and our grandchildren. I like to think that even if they [the council] succeed in doing their social cleansing in this area, our children and grandchildren would’ve seen a heroism in us.
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.
Grenfell was like having a suit sewn to look pretty – but it wasn’t actually sewn properly; you wear it once and it falls apart.
And it’s not as if we’re short of talented architects or talented designers, or knowledge in structure.
We can’t build or renovate a simple building and make it stand or not burn down. How? Why? The answer is the money.”
Noreen King, Trellick Tower W10, 30 years resident North Kensington said “What ever 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.”
Noreen King sits with her two Grandchildren Franki (left) and Maicee (right) in Trellick Tower of North Kensington.
Judith Blakeman, W10, North Kensington Resident 29 years said “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.
I’ve been on and off the council since 1990. Housing was always the biggest problem. There’s never been enough affordable and social housing in this borough. I think that one of the lessons to be learned from Grenfell Tower, is that genuinely affordable housing – should be part of the infrastructure of every large city and town; because otherwise the city will go into atrophy.”
Neighboring residents from the surrounding tower blocks and estates, gathered for the Grenfell Memorial March on the one year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. (June 14th, 2018)
Grenfell Tower’s remains are completely covered by a white tarp, with a memorial heart at the top of the tower – requested by the local residents, families and survivors of the fire. (June 14th 2018)