There is such a richness to be uncovered here in Brick Lane, and I fail to uncover it in this post. I just collected a few quotes I particularly liked about life in London…that’s what you get, reading for enjoyment. I did enjoy this exploration of immigration and grappling with culture as they intertwine with character and expectations, and of course, the city itself. I loved its focus on women’s experience, enjoyed Nazneen’s attainment of strength and freedom, how it compares to her sister’s, how it connects to politics and race and self and place.
I remember first coming to the city from the desert — nothing like a village full of verdant green, but still this critical view of the East End strikes a chord. Of course, I moved to L.A. first, the bits with far fewer parks and green spaces, so it’s harder to be so critical of London in face of that sprawling concrete disaster (much as I love so much of it).
There was a patch of green surrounded by black railings, and in the middle two wooden benches. In this city, a bit of grass was something to be guarded, fenced about, as if there were a sprinkling of emeralds sown in among the blades. Nazneen found the gate and sat alone on the bench. A maharanee in her enclosure. The sun came out from behind a black cloud and shone briefly in her eyes before plunging back under cover, disappointed with what it had seen. (58)
This is an East End without all the lovely and curious things in it I have come to love, an East End restricted to estates and concrete — all the problems of social housing without much to redeem them:
She turned into the Berner Estate. Here, every type of cheap hope for cheap housing lived side by side in a monument to false economy. The low rises crouched like wounded monsters along concrete banks. In the gullies, beach-hut fabrications clung anxiously to the hard terrain, weathered and beaten by unknown storms. A desolate building, gouged-out eyes in place of windows, announced the Tenant’s Association: Hall for Hire. (468)
That said, I have seen a number of these Tenant Association halls, and they really are entirely dire. I always wondered about that. They, more than anything else, show that estates weren’t always built with the most respect for the people they were to house. Many were, of course, but not these perhaps.
The meeting was in a low building at the edge of the estate. It had been built without concession to beauty and with the expectation of defilement. (236)
Even so they contain so much life, friendships that matter, families and tragedies and love and plans for the future and organising for better or for worse.
The Pussy Cat Mansions were built around a large compound. Adah called the open space a compound, remembering Africa. the Family Advisor, whom she met later, used the word courtyard for the open space. It was an open space into which all the front doors opened out. In the centre of the compound were some ill-looking buildings. Adah’s African friends called these little houses ‘Juju man’s house’. When the vicar’s wife visited, she said to Adah, ‘Those houses look like a monastery,’ but the Deaconness said they looked more like a mortuary. Originally the architect had meant them to be used as pram and bicycle sheds…(16)
The stairs are steep in the mansions, and the trash chutes are almost always overflowing. Small windows and doors. Small impersonal tiles like hospitals and prisons. Thin walls that allow you to hear everything. The smell of urine. Children everywhere.
Ah, yes, the Mansions were a unique place, a separate place individualised for ‘problem families’. Problem families with real problems were placed in a problem place. So even if one lived at the Mansions and had no problems the set-up would create problems – in plenty. (17)
I love this story exploring life and a council estate and the welfare state intertwined. The deep ambivalence of needed help and its provision with strings and dependency. But it starts with what council housing could be — a way for someone to escape an untenable rental situation, somewhere stable and safe and welcoming to make of their life what they wish. For Adah in her first night in her new flat:
There were three important things she knew she had acquired that night, her independence, her freedom, and peace of mind. (15)
Those things that are so hard to find in private rentals, in shared flats, in uncertain tenancies where you never know what will happen next, when you will be out, what your crazy flatmate might do. Where it is hard to find space of your own.
The terrible thing is that many council flats did not bring such things in the end; this one didn’t. Everyone who knew anything warned her to wait for a flat in a better building. You watch this living situation move Adah further and further from each of these three objectives she prizes so greatly, above all stealing away her independence and drive through the demands and requirements placed on her by the Family Advisor.
God, you want to hit that woman sometimes. Carol, you think, and shake your head. The tenants know as well as the readers that she lives off of ‘helping’ them, and she’s not one to help herself out of a job. The remote possibility remains that she does at bottom have people’s best interests at heart, but she still kills just as dead each possible future but the one in which you just get by through a begrudged kindness from the State, with her help of course.
Despite all of that, the Mansions has its own community, its own support. There is a warmth there, a camaraderie. There is something to miss after everyone is moved along and it is demolished. We always leave a piece of ourselves behind in the places we have lived and the people we have shared our lives with.
While writing this I was comparing the Mansions with Haggerston Estate in my mind, also considered a problem estate for problem people from the very beginning. I was wondering what might have grown in the Mansions if people had been allowed to come together, to do for themselves, to take ownership of the space, to dream and plan and paint.
You see sparks of resistance here and there, of course, it is curious the different extents to which Adah’s fellow tenants have internalised both the rules and the disrespectful attitudes behind them. Curious where they make their stands. But make their stands they do.
We need social housing that does not through its patronising control of the poor create such conditions, that provides the infrastructure instead to support and nurture the human lives within it. That ensures the Carols of the world are employed in jobs they are actually good at where they can do no damage. Estate: A Reverie has some of the answers. Of course, we also have to build more, and better social housing. And stop destroying what we have. Emecheta is showing here both what housing could mean to a mother trying to achieve a better life, and the gap between that wonderful possibility and a controlling reality of rules and requirements that denies that achievement.
It doesn’t seem impossible.
Estate, Fugitive Images (Myrdle Court Press, London: 2010)
The pursuit of public Housing provision was one of the 20th century’s redeeming contributions. Yet, in the first decade of the 21st century, public housing as an ideal is a contradictory territory resulting from policies that value entrepreneurial charities or a subsidised private sector over state funded and administered housing.
Estate is a timely contribution to the debates entangling millions of individuals and countless neighbourhoods. The starting point is a visual essay on the Haggerston West & Kingsland estates in Hackney, east London, in the process of demolition and re-building. The 56 photographs document the spaces left behind when people were moved out. Despite residents living in limbo for over 30 years as refurbishment plans were continuously proposed, shelved and re-proposed, the images highlight their innovative solutions to the difficulties of continuing to live while an idea and a set of buildings were being abandoned around them.
This is an incredible book that will move you deeply, even if the true meaning of home and the trauma of losing it hasn’t been burnt into you by life itself. As someone who has experienced eviction and poverty and loss, I confess I have strong feelings about how people write about it, document it, photograph it. But here it is done with a beauty, love, and respect that comes closer to capturing the many shades of what it means and how it is experienced than almost anything I have read. There is no sentimentalization here, no glorification of the working class or a home that after years of landlord neglect has become much less than anyone would wish. Instead it is a deeply felt exploration of meaning from many angles, a teasing out across perspectives, a contextualization of loss and change through words and images and theory.
My favourite section is the first one by Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Lasse Johannson, the experience of living on Hackney’s Haggerston West Estate and watching it slowly emptying of people, introducing the incredible series of photographs from Haggerston and Kingsland Estates, with captions that add another level of depth to what the images make so vivid. I took the photo that heads this review in 2011, wandering down the Regent’s Canal and finding it beautiful and extraordinary long before I met Andrea and Lasse or heard about their work.
Followed by a more literary piece by Paul Hallam, exploring estates in the plural and the singular, winding around the meaning and making of place and poverty, extracting quotes from residents that I confess made me shed a tear or two on the tube. There is much to ponder in Victor Buchli’s Archeology of the Recent Past, and a clear contextualization of the particular within the broader history of Britain’s social housing by Cristina Cerulli.
They come together in a thought-provoking, moving whole. No one can ever have the last, the final, the entire say of what estates mean to those who live in them, what it is like to live in them, what it is like to lose them. That is the point. Estate is simply a gift to those who read it, the gift of a view, a taste, an experience that will make you think and feel deeply.
You can buy it here, from the wonderful Myrdle Court Press. This is an old review, brought forward in anticipation of seeing the film from Fugitive Images, Estate, a reverie, that I have seen some powerful clips from and long been waiting to watch as a whole:
an artist’s film, song cycle and installation to be created and performed by the disappearing community of the Haggerston Estate. It is the final and most ambitious project in a trilogy of collaborative works on the estate led by artist resident Andrea Luka Zimmerman, working closely with architectural researcher and writer David Roberts, following the public art/photo-installation i am here (with Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fenell) and the artists’ book Estate (Myrdle Court Press, with Lasse Johansson, Paul Hallam, Cristina Cerully, Victor Buchli), both of which have gained international acclaim.