A series of short tributes to the condemned Heygate Estate, Walworth, SE1
The first things to go are the trees, (contractually specied to remain when the deeds to the land changed hands), keeling over at the first prod of the prongs of the JLG diggers. Builders smash out the windows of a ve-storey block with the top ends of broomsticks – a makeshift activity that gives the appearance of action, as if these buildings aren’t, at heart, devoid of life. Every derelict block bears witness to the same small disasters. Empty bottles of cough medicine and used needles beside half- finished tubs of aqueous cream, speak of recent, and not so recent, visitors.
It is still easy to see the utopian ideas that led to the construction of these neo-brutalist fortresses. A messy oasis at the bottom right of the urban sprawl, still mourned by architect Tim Tinker, who dreamt them up in the ’60s and saw his dreams made concrete in the first half of the following decade. It’s a backward glimpse to a time when social housing meant humble abodes with built-in storage and nice views, before click-in floorboards and frosted windows were the order of the day.
The built-in church nestled in the middle of the estate has the same sign in every window: “Please leave us alone. This church + community is still operating. Thanks + blessing.”
It must have been good in the beginning, when the newsagent stocked fresh milk and all the mourning news, instead of the tins of Tennent’s Super and the overpriced local rag, and now, nothing at all. A police siren, or even a dead body would, at this stage, be a good sign. ere is nothing to speak of an accident or exodus… movement of jah people. The roads in the estate are like motion- sensitive conveyor belts slowed to a halt, with no signs of life approaching.
The park below is like the Day of the Triffids, without the shrubbery; the long outdoor corridors like a half-arsed Truman Show, where they couldn’t afford actors, so just paid everyone to clear off– instead using heavy investment in smoke and mirrors for that classic moralistic nightmare effect. Teach folly of ways, check.
Do we only survive because society, in its vague way, chooses to house, clothe, feed and fuck us?
Imagine a sweatshop in Taiwan as empty as this. Imagine lying in bed, looking out the window of a third-storey council at. Imagine you’ve been here for 13 years. Remembering your mates who’d painted the walls with you, and the girlfriends who had put up the shelves.
“Constant noise”, “crime” and “threats of violence” were reported by people who took the wrong turn off L’Infanta de Castilla roundabout and found themselves bound to multi-level walkways, suspended in the sky. Jutting off third floors, these overpasses are now long blocked-up with debris and are impassable. The shops in a row on the first floor are empty and the garages have had their doors ripped off. The playground, once shades by the tree, is stark; swings have been thrown off their chains and lie in crumbled heaps on the spongy tarmac made especially for them.
As much as hearing the emptiness, you can feel it – the cold. The central heating, which worked on one huge communal system that was either on or off , is now turned off for good. Old trapped air circles the rusted vents, picking up odours from bins in the basement. You don’t expect the residual heat off of other people’s heaters to have any overall effect, but evidently they do. Plus, the builders have already been round this block, smashing out the windows and breaking up the baths.
Not one of 3000 noisy neighbours remain; no late-night party peoples, no early-to-rise DIY dons, only the faint whirring of a traffic jam from below. Nothing to jump out of bed and start banging on the ceiling about. Silence is big and continuous. There’s nothing profound about it. Worse than that, it amplifies your own meagre shuffling, so that every sound you make sounds like an interruption.
Some front doors are blocked up; others have been kicked in. Cupboards are empty and the floorboards are bare. At the end of each stubby corridor is a living room, electric heater at one end, kitchen at the other. No passing conversation oats in from the outside corridor. Only panicked pigeons, shitting on remnants of cheap carpeting, terri ed at the approach of the first person they’ve seen in days, disturbing their luxury nests – the only sign of life, unless, somewhere, there are a few surviving bedbugs, holding out for the end.
From the roof, you can see Crystal Palace and the Shard. Even as residents watched it and other ’scrapers going up, they must’ve felt their own fates slipping through their fingers; marking their days as SE1ers floor by floor; wondering what Margate, Hastings, and Broadstairs are like – not to visit, but to be relocated to.
The few clouds in the sky get lower and converge; spindly branches swaying in the wind pick up tempo and whip from side to side. In the distance you can see something moving, bright orange, like the fire of a welder’s iron. Down below, the dog unit is on patrol.
The heyday of Heygate, RIP.
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