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Stairway to an (almost) empty estate

Stairway to an (almost) empty estate

 

View from the 6th floor of Claydon House

View from the 6th floor of Claydon House

 

You can read more about the Heygate Estate here: livefromtheheygate.blogspot.com

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   Yesterday when I came home the welders were working in on three or four flats all over the building. The reverb from their generators shook through the walls like they were working right next door. When I went out, I watched them from platform four of the train station – the arc welders working three at a time putting up the big plates of iron, the blue welder’s flame flashing like sparkles from the gangways, a trio of council officals wandering in and out of the flats that had already been blocked off by the grey iron doors.

   Soon, these iron bands will block off a third, then a half of Claydon House, just like they block off a third of that huge estate I see out the window. How will it be when the whole estate is empty but for one or two holdouts? How would it be occupy a single flat in a building this vast, to feel the emptiness spreading out through the building at night, to walk down gangways past sealed off flats, knowing no one else’s steps will tread the concrete stairwells – to know the building will soon be rubble?

   For now, people are coming out again to enjoy the light evenings. Kids on the gangways, the Africans and Latinos who seem to make up most of the Heygate’s residents feeding on and off the rampways. Two young English girls, hair back in those ponytails young English girls seem to favour, one of them pushing a baby carriage with that stolid efficiency of young English single moms, as if having a baby has fulfilled their duty in life . . .the friend chattering and breaking into random dance moves – hip-hop hand gestures, a more obvious 80’s style sway of her hips and legs; the robot – moving as if to music only she can hear, describing to her friend through motion what is playing in her head. 

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   Got home around five to find a lot of kids in the proverbial hoodies hanging around the estate. A teenage girl walking her well-muscled bull terrier on the walkway, barely able to hold it back as it strains on its’ leash. Some kids hanging a terrace halfway up thebuilding, and some more kids, mostly black, edging up the stairs to join them. Briefly, I considered catching the lift to avoid them, but when the lift didn’t come and went up the stairs – and as it turned out one of the black kids ducked his head around the stairwell when he heard me coming up then they all ducked to the lift before I got to the top of the stairs.

   When I got to my floor, I looked down to see what all the fuss was about. Two bike cops in yellow vests had stopped someone on the street below and some black people – men and women, council workers or possibly detectives – were conferring with them and suddenly four regular patrolman rushed out of a stairwell. When the melee cleared, I made out two skinny black kids in full hoodie gear being interrogated by the cops, edging them back into the stairwell then out again.

   The kids came out again onto the terrace below me to watch what was going on. They were mixed between black, Hispanic and white and spoke mostly in Spanish and even their English was tinged with an American accent. Two guys came up the walkway below eathing chips and greasy fried chicken from Styrofoam containers. They wore derivative gang-banger gear with their heads pulled down and after glancing at the cops made some sort of hand gesture and went away. But the kids on the terraces seemed to be enjoying themselves. Way up near the top, some girls had come out and were shouting out to the boys – “Come up! Come up!” And one girl laned out so far her long hair fell straight down – and I was worried for a moment she would slip and come tumbling out of the fencing and down past me and the boys and down to the rampway with it’s peeling paint – but she slipped back in and the boys waved up and shouted something I couldn’t make out, and then everyone went back to watching the show down below – where nothing much was happening except the two black kids in hoodies were still being interrogated by the police . .. 

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    One night I found a film crew below Claydon House. When I asked the guy on camera why he was shooting on the estate, he was defensive: “The estate is quite impressive at night, all lit up like that.” He was right: there is something mesmerizing about looking up at those long gangways all studded with floodlights like points in the night sky.

   Films are always been shot on or around the estate. I talked to a friend who lives down New Kent Road, behind the last of the buildings that make up the Heygate. He said one nigh he saw a beautiful white horse cantering back and forth in the green in front of Claydon House. He stopped to watch it, fascinated by the image of the horse and the great building behind it, and only realized after a moment that a film crew had set up around the edge of the green and the cantering horse.

   His girlfriend had told me about the crackheads who inhabited the little park in front of their house, how two muggers had robbed their neighbor right on his doorstep. The pimp who tried to chat up her friend – a nice middle class woman – right in the park with a view, they both realized later, to turning her out. But my friend says most of that is gone now, that the pimps and the crackheads didn’t so much originate on the estate as revolve around a pub down the street which was recently not just torn down, but reduced to rubble.

   A film-maker himself, he knows a number of people who have made film shorts about the Heygate, including Martin Lewis, a researcher/ lecturer at College St. Martin’s, who shot that iconic segment of the Aylesbury that appears as a program intro on Channel 4. So I’m not the only one fascinated by these brutalist structures that will soon be no more . . . 

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   The flatmate showed me pictures of the Aylesbury. He lived there for five years, back in the 80’s. He said his flatmates would take sulphate all weekend, starting on Thursday night and continuing through until Monday, dropping acid when they were at the absolute low from taking sulphate. “They said it was better then, you felt the effect more. One of my mates ended up going into therapy and counseling for four years after one acid binge too many – he just didn’t come back.”

    He showed me a picture of the guy in question, taken on a beach when they went on a trip to Israel. Good-looking guy with a sort of New Wave 80’s look with the shades, the brushed up blonde hair and the chain around one of his boots. Like a fan of Human League or Duran Duran or any of those 80’s bands.

   The Aylesbury is full up now. No room for any overflow from the Heygate or anywhere else. Yet it’s still heavy. Just before Christmas a dozen or so kids set upon some poor pizza delivery man, beat him, robbed him. And stabbed him in the neck.

   He told me that the ramps which inter-connect the Heygate used to run right through all the estates, right down to Burgess Park, a distance of about a mile. “You could go right from the shopping mall to the Park without once touching the ground. The police made them blow up the ramps between the estates. The kids would commit some crime then have a couple of miles of gangways to escape into one of hundreds of flats. The police couldn’t catch anyone.”

   He lived in a squat on the Aylesbury for five years. The working class tenants had been suspicious of him and his mates at first, “but they calmed down a bit when they saw we weren’t some thieving junkies. Me mate – – – had a posh sort of accent – he was public school – and I moved around so much when I was a kid I didn’t have any accent at all. They were more like ‘don’t make too much noise breaking in,” after that. But one night six big geezers came round, thinking we’d knicked something from one of the flats. They didn’t know it was us, but we were squatters and to some of the tenants all squatters were scum ‘taking homes from decent people’. So they tried to kick the door in to get at us for four straight hours. Luckily, we had bolts in from the back – the door was a lot stronger than we had thought because they would have had to take out the doorframe and a whole section of the wall. But there we were, six skinny potheads waiting inside for these geezers to come bursting in until they finally gave up and went away.”

   “Why on earth did you stay five years on the Aylesbury?”

   “I loved it! It was close to everything, all my mates were there. It was a laugh.”

    I’ll bet. I can’t remember the details now, but a lot of his friends from that period ended up pretty fucked up. Some public school guy who ended up in a hardcase psychiatric prison in his teens for slitting a cow’s throat then, after he was released, he moved in with a friend – and the friend jumped out of a window two weeks, a month later high on acid – and all the dead man’s friends thought the first guy had killed him because he was jealous of his good looks, his success with women.

   So that was the other face of squatting. I didn’t experience it too much. My ex did, but I didn’t.

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90454936_6f785c7eba1.jpg   I’ve never known what to say about this mall. I’ve tried to describe it years past and failed because it’s such an odd little corner.

   Right now, I am sitting in the Café Nova Interchange (‘making connections!’) off the entrance to the brutalist concrete railway station, one of the Colombian places open on the upper level. Muzak overpowering everything else, the little wooden tables mostly empty, good espresso coffee served in little Styrofoam cups. Down the mezzazine is another Columbian café with outside tables and a combination café/ store where you can buy fresh coffee beans, Colombian cokes, cold empanadas. Latin music, all syncopated bass and wailing voices has just erupted from the stall or the Bodequita Restaurant with the big glass windows and the great, if pricy, food at the end of the mall, competing with the Muzak.

   Even though most of the shopfronts are full, this level never quite loses the abandoned air that it had twenty years ago – you feel like you are on the top level of a not very busy airport (those 60’s spaces seem to work better without people anyway). When I first came here in the 1980’s, the mall seemed both strangely familiar and totally alien. A North American style mall but with all these ugly shops – the totally depressing diner with the big glass windows and hard plastic chairs and old men having chips and eggs and beans at three in the afternoon. The massive roundabout outside, interconnected by dark concrete tunnels with that inexplicable cube in the middle, surrounded by yellowing grass and marooned amidst the traffic like the remnant of some lost civilization. The concrete – concrete tunnels, concrete rampway connecting the mall to the even more alien world of the estate. The lobby of the Hannibal House office tower which rises from the top of the shopping centre like some misshapen grey head, looked musty and decrepit, as if the offices above had already been abandoned. It was hard to imagine that any work actually took place up there.

   By the time I’d come back in 91, they’d painted the outside of the mall pink in hopes of cheering everyone up. I took my new Canadian girlfriend round to see it once and she said she’d never seen anywhere more depressing.

   The Latinos have cheered things up considerably, as has the market in the concrete hollows runs in a big L around the ground floor. No mean feat, since that concrete space, inevitably dingy and dark, overwhelmed by the traffic noise just above and only one step removed from the black holes that mark the tunnel entrances, is even grimmer than the mall. But in the evenings it is full of people coming home, buoyed the forcefield intensity of some sort of dub. The vegetable guys by the front entrance, south Asians of some sort, say ‘what you want tonight buddy’ and chat a bit when you stop by, and in the cold and the yellow light you feel a sort of camaraderie with all these disparate folk crossing paths in this strange place before disappearing into the tunnels or onto one of the dozens of busses that swirl round the roundabout, or out into the back where the big estate is all lit up like a freighter behind the mall.

   I wonder how much longer this mall will last. You can’t do much to change it’s basic dinginess (Muzak, fluorescent lights that make your eyes ache if you stay under them for too long), pink and neon green pillars and the diner with the plastic seats and 1973 menu), but it has, if not charm, then a uniqueness. Two good used bookstores downstairs – the kind of stores that can no longer survive in central London. The aforementioned Latinos. The Chinese herbalist advertising cures for ‘man problems’. Maybe if they got rid of the Muzak, it wouldn’t be a bad place. I’ve heard that the Bingo Palace upstairs has recently renovated – but the mall looks like it’s on the way out. The white siding over the pink is peeling in long strips outside, exposing the tired silver paneling, and the concrete ramps are cracked and dirty. Like the estate, it looks tired, as if it is just waiting for the wrecking ball to move in. 

For more (and continuous) updates on the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, please visit my other blog: livefromtheheygate

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