Last week I was in London for work, and stayed for a night in a new hostel that has opened in Elephant & Castle and occupies the former headquarters of the Labour Party. Indeed, in the reception area – all shiny surfaces and plush carpets – the foundation stone as laid by James Callaghan occupies pride of place. The date too is symbolic, as the building work was begun in the summer of 1979, just after Margaret Thatcher’s election victory and the start of eighteen years of Conservative rule. I was born three days after that election, and would watch Labour’s victory in 1997 five days shy of being able to vote for them myself.
Across the street from the hostel is the southern edge of the Heygate Estate, once home to around three thousand people, and now empty as it awaits demolition and redevelopment as part of a regeneration strategy for the neighbourhood. Hmmm. As we walked the next morning down the road to find something for breakfast, there was a corner shop front filled with images of how the Heygate would look once the development was finished. The artists impressions painted a picture of sunny days and green spaces, of large balconies and evening strolls, but it made me wonder; how many of these shiny new flats and apartments would be occupied by former residents of the estate, and also, where have the three thousand that once called it home gone?
As I returned to Berlin and started to look into the topic, reading some interesting blogs here and here, I realised that the Heygate – much maligned it is true – has become a symbol for the debate around regeneration and gentrification that is a feature of city centre planning policy and politics not only in London, but here in Berlin, New York and many other wealthy cities. It is a massive and complicated topic, but this short documentary about the Heygate gives you a flavor of the issues and concerns around so-called regeneration projects, and what it means for local communities and not least the residents of estates such as this who find themselves subject to eviction or compulsory purchase orders in the name of such “regeneration”:
On the evening we stayed in Elephant & Castle we took a walk up to the Heygate, much of it locked away behind high green fences, although the odd light in the windows suggested there was some life still being lived in the otherwise abandoned estate. It was of course spooky in the dusk, and not a little scary, but reading the blogs and website and watching the documentary it was clear that the community had been trying to make something of their estate, even in its final months, from community gardens and open-air cinemas to go-kart races along the concrete walkways and flyovers and appeals to protect the urban forest in which those looming tower blocks stand and which is actually threatened by the development proposals.
I would not wish to proclaim too much about the Heygate, as I saw it briefly and at a distance, and I am sure that the problems of the estate were real and not imagined, but what I got from reading the blogs and articles about the topic is that it is not that the local community imagined their home to be perfect, but that they wanted a say in how it would be developed in the future. Which does not seem too much to ask.
Here are some more pictures from our brief poke around the edges of the Heygate, where demolition work is due to be completed by 2015:
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton