Needing somewhere to come together, local people around Grenfell Tower have created community spaces where none were provided. Isabelle Priest goes on a walk with MP Emma Dent Coad
The first time I came to Latimer Road in west London, knowingly, was in December 2015. I was getting kicked out of the apartment I’d been renting and I’d seen this place online that seemed OK, so I went to have a look.
My first impression was of a strange area. On this winter week night it was oddly deserted and very dark. It’s in Zone 2 but it could have been Zone 5. I wasn’t convinced I’d enjoy living there, to the extent that we avoided a minimum term contract in exchange for an extra month’s notice. There was nothing around – barely any shops, pubs or any of the usual stuff you expect from London; just an assortment of housing.
Latimer Road is not on the hipster map. The area is trapped by arterial roads, over-ground railways, motorways and to the north a canal that bears no relation to its guise downstream in Camden and Hackney. I was astonished to learn I’d be paying council tax to Kensington & Chelsea. I wasn’t naïve enough to think nothing was happening here, it just had to be happening behind closed doors. There was no public side to the place, no community expression. Certainly, nowhere obvious to gather.
In the days after the fire at Grenfell Tower last June, all that changed. There was an outpouring of expression and need that flowed onto the streets in a kind of takeover. Roads couldn’t function for the numbers of people walking around, congregating, listening to impromptu speeches, laying flowers, writing tributes, pinning up missing posters, handing out information and hot food. In the seven months since, that sense of public presence has continued. The immediate crowds have dwindled, as has the press, but the community takeover is very much alive.
‘The community feels vindicated,’ explains Kensington & Chelsea MP and local resident Emma Dent Coad as we walk around the area with photographer Sarah Lee. We are doing a kind of dérive of the area to establish what has happened to public space – why, by whom and what comes next. I still live there and people seem to have gained a confidence in the street in ways that would have been unimaginable before. I’m speaking to local people as we walk around and I’m later joined on the phone by Will Hoyles, communications manager for the Westway Trust which manages the area beneath the A40.
‘There are lots of people who had been fighting lots of battles for many years who now feel vindicated,’ says Dent Coad. ‘They have a confidence to speak out publicly – they have right on their side.’
In the absence of a council response after the fire, people gravitated towards spaces that offered help – churches, mosques, community centres, the Rugby Club, but also more surprisingly to the underside of the A40 elevated dual carriageway, known as the Westway. For want of formal gathering places, the community appropriated in-between spaces. We start our walk in a place of Dent Coad’s choosing, by the fenced-off Bay 20 under that road. She wants to show me local artist Sophie Lodge’s 24hearts project. It sprung out of the Come Unity heart that she originally created for the Notting Hill Carnival 2016. After the fire she started putting up huge hearts made of tissue paper all over the place and turned it into an art project for children, making smaller hearts that are now pinned to the fence.
It’s one of the many examples in the area of art and words being used to appropriate spaces that didn’t look like much before. There are roughly 12 of these spots that now have new identities and uses – everywhere from alleyways to particular columns. They stand in stark contrast to the area immediately below the burnt-out tower which looks deliberately avoided; eerie and empty.
The largest of these appropriated spaces is the Truth Wall, a covered area under the Westway that became a kind of auditorium overlooking the tower. It focuses around a huge wall that is now brightly painted with the inscription 'The truth will not be hidden' at the top. Dent Code describes it as ‘our public square’. Characterised by small and vast political artworks on the walls and columns, the space has been developed incrementally by the community, with people adding seating, pianos, bookshelves and books. One area has been set up as a prayer space, another as a bar/altar/speaker’s lectern. People come to eat, play cards, chat or just sit. A man is playing Bach on the piano when we go through. One survivor of the fire comes at night when he can’t sleep. Used at all hours, it is also where the monthly silent marches to remember victims of the fire end and where speeches are delivered.
Another location lies to the south of Latymer Community Church. After the fire it became a place to write messages of condolence on the wall, as opposed to tying up posters as elsewhere. The church has tried to preserve it with awnings and clear film but it remains the most static of the sites.
Nevertheless acts of community are taking place in changed ways across the area. The grungy space beneath the A40 and A3220 interchange, for example, had always been a toleration zone for graffiti. Before the fire it would be repainted every night, sometimes more often. Afterwards, graffiti added in honour of the victims has remained untouched. People are appropriating inside space too. By chance, one group led by Nii Sackley had the keys to the Acklam Village food market by Portobello Road when the fire happened and ended up using it to store donations. Since then the group has taken over another indoor space under the Westway nearer the tower to put on community events.
For the most part these appropriated spaces are being used and refreshed regularly. Outside the Notting Hill Methodist Church, for example, someone has recently woven chains of yellow hearts and yellow ribbons into the street railings, trees and bushes. Only the spot across the road from the Rugby Portobello Trust on Walmer Road, which became an area for tributes and missing posters tied to the railings, has deteriorated to such an extent it is almost gone. St Clement Church, which became a relief centre from 3am on the night of 14 June, is the only place where tributes have been officially removed, which vicar Alan Everett explains as the result of a ‘background pastoral issue’.
Why has the community come together in this way? The fact that it was high summer when the fire broke out would have helped, but it also feels like an act of democracy to be seen and heard. The spaces support people who feel disenfranchised.
‘People are calling it “reparations”,’ says Dent Coad. ‘Residents are taking back the assets that many organisations had been trying to privatise.’ And knowing the place both before and after the fire, it’s obvious that the community didn’t feel able to do this before. Over the years the area had lost a Citizens Advice bureau, pony stables, a community centre and a day centre for old people – and the authorities wanted to close others.
‘There was no political will,’ continues Dent Coad. ‘There was absolutely no way the people at the top at that time would have let that happen. They thought people should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It’s reparation for years of that kind of disdain.’
Although many different types of spaces are being appropriated, not everyone in the community is happy about it. The shopkeeper beside memorials on Bramley Road, who is of Pakistani origin, says that it is ‘too much and creates too much sadness’. He is concerned that they attract too many visitors, particularly the marches. On the January march it’s clear that in the same way that some people felt excluded from the few public spaces before, some groups – notably Muslims – might still be.
So what is the potential for this public space activism long term? Many of the various points that started informally are slowly getting formalised. Beyond the Bay 20 fence, for example, 24hearts has been adopted as the symbol for the community and is used to lead the marches. Out of that project came another – a series of banners for the area around Ladbroke Grove that use the 24hearts images. It is the only public space initiative that has received public funding to date.
There are other plans on the horizon too. At St Clement’s, the parish will create a garden for peace and healing over the next few months, advised by architect Mike Stiff of Stiff + Trevillion. Meanwhile, Hoyles at Bay 20 says: ‘The fire has given the Westway Trust a kick to bring it back into use.’ The latest idea is for the BBC to use it to construct a community centre for an episode of The Big Build, giving a new home to groups displaced by the fire, including the boxing club that was based in the bottom of the tower.
As for the other plots under the Westway, the trust has commissioned artworks to make the area feel brighter, but there aren’t plans to formalise the Truth Wall, graffiti and Bramley Road memorials yet.
‘The patterns of ownership under the Westway are complicated,’ says Hoyles. ‘Some walls are managed by the Westway Trust, the columns are owned by Transport for London. For now, it’s more about checking no one is planning anything – even just maintenance that might see murals painted over out of routine, not malice.’
Whatever happens, Dent Coad and Hoyles agree: the need must come from the community. ‘We have to listen to the community,’ continues Hoyles. ‘The trust is still learning about what is required for going forward. It’s impossible to speculate, we don’t know what they will need – it’s too raw.’
‘The last thing anybody wants is for the “authorities” to come in and tell them what they need, take control and only let them get involved a bit,’ says Dent Coad. ‘The authorities will have to act on it [the spaces] if they want to keep the peace.’ As part of what happens – and she suggests things will happen whether authorised or not – she reckons it would be gracious if the council permanently handed over spaces to community groups that have been working in the area since the fire, and it should formalise that handover. What’s more, in recognition of the work the community is doing, the council should give them funding: ‘The council is talking about employing community engagement officers, but it’s not engagement people need, it’s empowerment. People have already taken over a lot of these spaces, they know what they are doing – empower them to continue.’
Even without the authorities, new public spaces are being added, beyond those that emerged after the fire. One of the several new charities formed in the aftermath, the Olive Branch Charity, is currently installing the area’s first formal built project: a sensory garden on a plot in the grounds of Kingsnorth House opposite Grenfell Tower. The garden is being laid out with an avenue of posts either side of a central tree.
In essence, it feels as though architects have stepped back from being involved here. What can they learn from the public spaces that have emerged out of the fire? First, they are in a good position to help this community move forward (as indeed Stiff is doing at St Clement’s). One hut structure that the community built at the Truth Wall, for example, had to be dismantled by the Westway Trust because it was considered unsafe. This would be a genuinely needed outlet for those pop-up projects that must prove their usefulness somehow – perhaps replacing those temporary marques.
But at a wider level, what has happened around Grenfell Tower shows an overlay of public space that was previously missing. There was an inexhaustible need for community spaces, but getting consensus among groups was slow. The good thing is that after the fire they just happened. It is grassroots and a sure demonstration of what communities instinctively need.
It has also shown that the community and people have the ability to look after themselves, which could be seen as attractive from both ends of the political spectrum – pulled up by their bootstraps and all. Out of devastating circumstances these people took their chance and acquired the confidence to make change happen – showing what community can offer at the worst of times and making it happen where it was not provided. We can learn from that, for good times and bad.