Rising from the ashes: The story of a community recovering from Grenfell

It’s now over two months since the Grenfell Tower Fire, one of the most devastating disasters in modern Britain. Images of the 24 storey highrise consumed by flames, disintegrating into a smouldering, skeletal structure brought viewers and commentators to a standstill. After the flames which engulfed the tower itself were finally quelled, another blaze of sorts began. The billowing plumes of smoke were replaced by a steady stream of questions including “Why was the building lined with a flammable form of padding? Why were council officials and the Prime Minister scarcely visible in the immediate aftermath?” There were allegations of corporate manslaughter, deliberate council cover ups and accusations of social cleansing. For many these questions were temporary, with the luxury of distance they could eventually move on as the news cycle shifted back to Brexit and other issues of day. For those living in the shadow of Grenfell however, the fight for justice had only just begun. With this in mind, I decided to spend some time visiting those on the front line to collate a concerted, on the ground assessment of the recovery process the local community was undertaking to readjust to life after Grenfell.

Over the course of several days from my initial visit on 3rd July 2017 to my final visit on 14th August 2017 I had the opportunity to watch the North Kensington community slowly but surely recover; a process which I documented through interviews and observations.

Day 1: Sunday 3rd July

“If there’s a God, at least they’ll all be in heaven now, surely?”

As I tap out of Latimer Road, a small tube station tucked into a corner of South West London famous for Portobello Market, Westfield White City and hosting the Notting Hill Carnival Carnival, I’m immediately greeted by painful visual reminders of a disaster which officially left around 80 dead (though the true figure almost certainly stands over 200). There is a trail of posters plastered over walls and post boxes lining the path leading out of the station. Familiar faces like that of 12 year old Jessica Urbano Ramirez, whose family’s appeal made national news smile back at me on crumpled paper. Walking further along, I spot a cluster of people craning their necks and tilting their phones skywards. Some seem frozen in shock, while others shake their heads sorrowfully. Shuffling into the crowd to gain a clear view, I look up and there it is; the remains of Grenfell Tower hanging overhead, isolated charred and abandoned.

In the following weeks and days in which I visit, this scene is almost typecast; groups of people arriving to see for themselves the scene of one of the most horrific incidents of 2017. Some spectators gesticulate angrily, others meditate pensively and on the odd occasion some quietly weep. Beyond the range of different responses, one fact crystallises: the often neglected side of the Royal Borough has now become its focal point; a symbol of social divisions and inequality.

Sloppy is a nice word, my take is paralysis. What they did was think twice before acting because of the responsibility they had in it.

Gulping and walking away from the tower, I very quickly realise that for better or worse, this couldn’t fall into a pity based narrative. I knew there were members of the community who living in the shadow of the wreckage, were standing to hold those they considered culpable to account and that had to be my focus. After having a couple of interview requests rejected, a genial figure emerges and clutches my hand before assuring me she has already been interviewed by Channel 4’s Jon Snow (“a very nice man, so good with the people”). Samia Badani, the Chair of the Bramley House Resident Committee, a small block of flats sat a stones throw away from Grenfell Tower becomes my first interviewee.

“Look, we live so close!” she tells me solemnly, before walking me into the courtyard outside Bramley House which provides a clear view of the tower. For Badani, and many others, the fire undressed the long-running incompetencies of the local council and the tenancy firm, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO). As soon as I raise the response of her local authority, Badani lets rip: “Sloppy is a nice word, my take is paralysis. What they did was think twice before acting because of the responsibility they had in it. As far as I’m concerned if you’re paid £80,000 a year it’s because you’re decisive, and that’s not what they did. First of all the council knew that residents had been complaining about the tenant management organisation for years. They were sloppy and not doing repairs. It’s also difficult to engage with them and the council knew about all that.” She alleged KCTMO’s need to hit targets and fill metrics outstripped any real desire to treat their tenants as human beings. “They tick boxes that is what they do. They send us annual reports that say 97% customer satisfaction, when they speak to five people.” 
 
Beneath her anger and overall scepticism, Badani cracks momentarily as my line of questioning shifts from her opinions to her firsthand experience. Pausing, she explains: “My daughter had a friend in there, they haven’t been found, she’s having nightmares, the fire was burning all day, and the smoke was so heavy and I think we got used to the smoke.”

This was and still is, before all else, a very raw communal wound. Once Badani shakes my hand and leads me out of the gate, I walk back towards the station. As I make my way past the onlookers peering towards the tower, I’m once again confronted by that sense of collective scarring. I spot a tall figure in sunglasses and a red polo shirt at the tail end of a loud conversation surrounded by onlookers. Slightly drunk, he sways in the sunlight and I hear him say: “If there’s a God at least they’ll all be in heaven now, surely?” The group shake his hand and nod understandingly before walking away, leaving him to stare at the posters of the dead and missing ponderously. I approach the man and ask if he’s a local willing to be interviewed. Turning away from the fence, he looks relieved to again have company and introduces himself as Kenny Swinner. A lifelong South West London resident now living in nearby Ladbroke Grove.

Swinner a die-hard fan of the local side QPR, lost multiple friends in the fire. These were people he shared memories with, friends he’d drink with at his local pub: the Pig and Whistle, and join to watch games with down at Loftus Road. Having gently mocked me for my allegiance to Arsenal despite living miles away from the Emirates and making light of the fact his season ticket had been revoked, Swinner’s sentences begin to break down when confronted with the harsh reality. “I was born in Portobello, but shitty Kensington and Chelsea [council]…” I can’t see his eyes beyond his shades, but something tells me they’re welling up. “Stevie Power you look along, [gazing at the wall], Gary Mowlers, these people I’ve known all my life. Power my old pal, I smoked a joint up his house. Where is Gary Mowlers?” Increasingly distraught, he breaks eye contact and looks away before turning to walk towards the station to take the tube back home to Ladbroke Grove. His parting words with his voice cracking are: “I’ve gotta go now, because it’s too upsetting.”

Day 2: Tuesday 5th July:

“What have you done? Go and smell what you did over there, go and smell it.”

Much of my time in Kensington was spent underneath a dual carriageway tucked amongst the maze of high rises surrounding Latimer Road Station which is affectionately known as The Westway. Under its shadow an incredible independent community project was taking shape. What began as an discreet, unremarkable underpath was being transformed into a vibrant display of visual strength. My first glimpse of the space on the first Sunday I arrived left me in awe. The area, still very much under construction, was the perfect blend of artistry and righteous anger. On day two I decide to return and take a closer look.

Entire pillars were covered by handwritten notes, often scribbled in large letters to convey a sense of fury: “When is the trial starting?” “Where is the money going?” Even more striking than the paper lined pillars was a stirring piece of art painted across a wall on the far end of the walkway. Over the multi-coloured background in block capitals were the words: “The truth will not be hidden. The people’s public inquest. Firsthand accounts. Facts.” Though unfinished, this multi-coloured matrix was already serving as the ultimate public mood board. Sellotaped to the wall alongside more scrawled notes was a set of plastic wallets filled with documents typed out in bold typeface. These included the staff structure of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation and the names of councillors alongside detailed notes and comments. There were instructions on solicitors to call, as well as step by step guides on the action to be taken by survivors. “More preferably INSTRUCT your independent solicitor as SOON AS IS REASONABLY PRACTICAL [WHO WILL NEED TO PUT TOGETHER A WITNESS STATEMENT AND A CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS].”

The Westway project was not only just reserved for outpourings of discontent. The underpass also represented a healing zone. There were men and women looking to lighten up the gloom by lining the walkway with flowers of different shapes and sizes. At various points in the day I’m offered paintbrushes or invited to contribute to the burgeoning flower bed. I’m taken by the energy and spirit of those on hand to help. Keen to ask some more questions and looking to find the leader of the project, I’m escorted to a man who introduces himself simply as Livingstone. He begins by explaining a desire to help with the project which stemmed from his relationship with the area as a former resident. “I used to live round here, Robson House, just there back across the road. My sister’s daughter just lived up the road up here. I got friends up here, and I’ve got friends in there (Grenfell), you know just trying to go with the flow. Yeah, yeah I’ve been helping, I’ve been here from day one.”

When I ask Livingstone if he can take credit for the steady growth of the development, he very quickly defers. “I’ll send you to my boy Nii, cos he’s the man.” Nii Sackey, a Leytonstone resident and the informal leader of the project arrives on the scene later. Dressed in a pair of red shorts, and a vest, he cuts a genial, energetic figure strolling towards the scene. We meet, shake hands and very briefly chat, but I soon realise this is a man in perpetual motion, too busy to pin down, he ushers me over to follow him along. I manage to listen to Nii wrapped in conversation with two interested locals passionately laying out a long term vision. “It’s now your space, so just whatever event you wanna do you can choose it, you want power, okay cool. One of the residents from this block has donated a sound system now. We can have a seated area so people can sit out, and then this space here is for people to do functions, kids activities at the weekend, we can have anything we want.”

Clearest of all is a sense this shared community regeneration and healing process must be kept from the clutches of the authorities. When one of the locals raises the prospect of council involvement, Nii’s eyes narrow: “The council? I’m not even talking to them, I’m sorry. I’d rather do this with you and you and him, that’s one thing you can have from them. I personally feel that how long this stays is based on how long the community interacts with it.” Bringing this point to a head, Nii pauses and points towards one of the few spaces underneath The Westway not filled with art or a flowers, a blackened and damp corner. “I feel like leaving that corner and when the council come. We can say what have you done, go and smell what you did, over there, go and smell it.”

Day 3: Wednesday 9th July

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”

Gripped by the heightened sense of community and collective strength which was bringing both locals like Livingstone and those further afield like Nii together, I’d spent much of the my third and fourth visits to North Kensington sat underneath the underpass watching the transformation take shape. Along the way, I noticed a set of regular faces using their talents, skills and beliefs to hasten the healing process. Perhaps, the most extraordinary of those frequent faces I meet underneath The Westway is Sister Ruth a, 76 year old nun who lived in Whitchurch House; KCTMO housing, just a three minute walk from Grenfell. She bore a close personal connection to the blaze as her two carers Khadija Saiye and Mary Mendy were among two of the first to be confirmed dead.

On a sticky late afternoon, I find Sister Ruth in her familiar station, stood behind a table turned shrine lined with flowers, crosses and statues. The wall behind her was adorned with sharp black lettering which simply read: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Noticing my notepad, she smiles and gestures me over. I ask if she’d like to conduct an interview, to which she responds brightly: “Yes of course.” Sister Ruth quickly tells me she lent herself to the relief effort from day one: “I live in their housing opposite the tower, I heard the fire alarms, I looked across and saw the worst fire I’d ever seen. I ran out to the nearest church. I saw it and I ran here and prayed with them, I’ve been on my knees 11 hours everyday.” Her sense of piety however, is combined with a heavy distrust for the council and tenancy organisation, just like so many others. Discussing what feels like well trodden subject matter for her at this point, Sister Ruth grows more and more animated: “There has been no response because they did it on purpose. TMO and the local council saw on the video of the supply that they’re not supposed to put this cladding on buildings, it’s illegal, they knew that. They did it on purpose they knew it could go up in 15 minutes. In the cladding there was foam plastic and cyanide. They did it on purpose.They’re doing nothing at all. Nothing.” For all her frustration, though, Sister Ruth like so many others I’ve spoken to, sees a silver lining in the community cohesion which has strengthened in the face of the tragedy: “I’ve been around and seen tragedies, I have never seen such kindness and love as here, this is unique.”

In a day for long conversations with regulars, I also finally manage to introduce myself to a woman in a grey tracksuit who I’ve seen each and everyday without fail, alternating between intense conversations and intricate brushstrokes. An invested outsider like Nii, Zo Flamma gave up her job in construction to support the relief effort during the week of the fire; she’s remained in North Kensington ever since. Recalling how her involvement in the project began, she tells me: “I was just walking by, then somebody thrust a paint brush at me, at that point I probably was overwhelmed by what happened but, I was really grateful for what it meant to be able to express myself through art.” Although she’s quick to reassure me she’s “not into that artsy fartsy stuff” her striking work says otherwise. She talks me through her pieces like a master in one of the world’s greatest galleries. At the foot of one pillar she has painted a grouped set of hands, reaching heavenwards in desperate search of an escape route. Turning to me, she explains: “I painted the hands painted because of a testimony I heard about a family that waved to each other and then huddled together until they perished.” She then points me to her second, larger piece, again worked through with simple black brushstrokes; a pair of blackened, clenched fits. She used a local man as her muse and tells me she’s pleased with the end result: “The old man who was modelling, he’s going back to Trinidad and Tobago for good.”

I’ve been around and seen tragedies, I have never seen such kindness and love as here, this is unique

It isn’t just Flamma’s art which is heavy hitting, her strong opinions rooted in professional knowledge have meant she has begun a crusade of her own to put the police and the council’s fire safety procedures under the microscope. “The police don’t understand, the council don’t understand. When I questioned the police they didn’t want to answer. I said: “Well what is the fire door rating? Since you can’t tell me what the standard mean of escape time is. I then asked can you tell me what the thickness of the concrete was? Or what the fire rating around the stairwell was?” The issue is asking the police to correct and address the situation and to provide a timeline. When you start to cover things up you begin to hide the danger of what has happened.” With our conversation approaching the hour mark, Flamma seems eager to return to her next painting. Before climbing on a chair and beginning to measure out her next piece however, she raises one final point: “It doesn’t take a one man show. This should be part of a national push for justice, there is a danger that if there’s too much isolation or if it’s too fragmented we will not be able to move forward.”

Editor’s Note:

Having wrapped up interviews and made various observations over the course of two weeks, I hoped to bring this essay to an end. I couldn’t shake the feeling though, that there was something about this project that seemed incomplete. I’d heard of mass mobilisation of the community from my interviewees, but had only seen glimpses of it in the actions of small groups involved in the relief effort. This was until the 14th August, when I received an invitation to join a silent march marking the two month anniversary of the fire.

Day 4: Monday 14th August 2017:

“The legacy of Grenfell tower is not gonna be some park or some legacy building, the legacy of Grenfell Tower is the unity that we have.”

Rushing from work, I arrive late. Running past Sister Ruth’s shrine and Zo Flamma’s artwork, I spot a mass of people huddled together in the centre of The Westway. The space itself looks different from when I last visited. At a hurried glance the scene feels more homely; there’s a pair of stacked bookshelves lined with works I later learn are donations from members of the local community, whilst a wizened wooden grand piano sits nestled by a pillar. Outside of the tight main crowd, a smaller group are squatting together laying down candles to mark the fire’s two month anniversary. I shuffle towards the front of the circle midway through a speech from a survivor, whose tearful testimony draws an applause. Glancing at the faces gathered, I spot regulars, and realise the march had brought together some of the central cogs in the relief effort. There’s Niles Hailstones who turned the Bay 56 Community Area in Acklam Village near Ladbroke Grove into a storage unit supplying clothes and other essential supplies, Bhipinder Singh, who gave up his job to hand out meals on a daily basis in Latimer Community Church, and Yvette Williams one of the Campaign Co-Ordinators for the #Justice4GrenfellCampaign to name a few. The most riveting speech comes from another member of the #Justice4Grenfell collective: Ishmail Blagrove. Blagrove’s booms across the crowd, a simple but powerful rallying cry rattling across the space. “We are all here now fighting for justice, but the last point I’ll make is the same point I made from the beginning: You need unity, a vehicle has been created for you, a vehicle called #Justice4Grenfell. It has to be a unified voice, it has to be a collective, we all have to get together, we all have to put aside those differences together, but only as a collective voice will we get justice. The legacy of Grenfell Tower is not gonna be some park or some legacy building, the legacy of Grenfell Tower is the unity that we have.” With Ishmail’s ardent call to arms still ringing in the heavy night air, the march closed with a brief announcement on steps moving forward including nascent phases of a plan to make their mark at The Notting Hill Carnival. As the group dispersed, for the first time since I arrived, I felt I’d witnessed the public recovery process move into the political sphere. Before leaving the march for home I manage to speak to Yvette Williams, one of the driving forces behind the formation of #Justice4Grenfell who agrees to take part in my final interview. Now spaces had been painted and flowers potted, the emphasis would be on holding the powerful to account, steering the much awaited public enquiry and lobbying for an outcome which was best for the local community, an effort I needed to hear about firsthand in order to bring this to a close.

Day 5: Wednesday 16th August 

I wear a cape, you just can’t see it, it’s tucked in.

Before I head to North Kensington for the final time to meet Williams, I fear the interview may be cancelled as an unexpected spanner is thrown in the works. On Tuesday morning the outline of the much anticipated Public Enquiry into the fire was released without warning by Number 10. Naturally, the #Justice4Grenfell campaign were at the forefront of a number of newspieces, with a quote provided by none over than Williams herself circulated by the Press Association for national use. I held my breath in expectation of a cancellation, but it thankfully never came. Yvette confirms and she agrees to meet at the Tabernacle Arts Centre in Notting Hill alongside another #Justice4Grenfell Campaign co-ordinator Judy Bolton. What Williams and Bolton embody first and foremost, is the D.I.Y. attitude and determination which has seen a relief effort completely independent of the authorities, develop and grow. Fresh out of a community meeting with her young daughter in tow, Williams takes a deep sigh and a long drag from a cigarette before beginning to explain the genesis of the #Justice4Grenfell group’s relentless quest for justice rooted in a history of protest in the area. Turning our conversation into an impromptu history lesson for a brief moment, she talks me through the exploits of the Notting Hill based Mangrove Nine and other historical flashpoints closely connected to her decision to dedicate her life to social justice upon graduating from university and moving to London in 1992.

Her involvement in the Stephen Lawrence case earned her an MBE, which she looked back on with pride: “When the trial started I used to work two days in the evening in my teaching job, much to the disgust of the headteacher, they used to fax me all the paperwork. Once the inquiry was finished I was asked if I would be interested in taking a position in the Crown Prosecution Service, which for my sins I did take. Whist I was there, Stephen Lawrence came up again so I was their community liason.” Then straight after the Lawrence verdict I received this letter from the Queen. I thought about not going because of my political viewpoints, but then my mum said to me: “I dare you, I dare you to cost me my day at Elizabeth Yard!”

I’ve lost people in the tower too, but the sharing at the time was very raw and was very real, it was a very sensitive issue and also just prior to that we have the coroner’s report and that was harrowing

Upon leaving her role at the CPS for a well earned break, Yvette looked to ease her way back into community engagement at a grassroots level, in her own words “getting back out onto the plantation.” That return was hastened by a fateful phone call on the 14th June 2017, which she recalls with frequent pauses and deep breaths. My friend lives nearby, she called me at 2 am on my mobile, I thought “you’re having a laugh,” but luckily she had my home phone number, you know when your home phone rings in the night it’s a big deal, so I jumped up and grabbed that and then she said: “Grenfell Tower is on fire.” By the time we got there within 20 minutes, no one from the local authorities had arrived, I made a post on Facebook about 5 o’clock.” Her rallying cry on social media saw her whip up support, forming the nucleus of a group whose efforts would eventually become #Justice4Grenfell. The weeks after Grenfell consisted of various encounters with the survivors and the bereaved, including a closed meeting organised by the group. Williams tells me: “We had a closed meeting soon after the fire. I think the sharing at the time was very personal. That was really powerful, the one thing I didn’t prepare for was that some of them have the remains and some of them don’t. It was emotional you know, it was difficult and it was hard, but actually, they pulled together so well, it was amazing. Nodding, Bolton elaborates: I’ve lost people in the tower too, but the sharing at the time was very raw and was very real, it was a very sensitive issue and also just prior to that we have the coroner’s report and that was harrowing.”

In their transition into fully fledged political activists, Bolton, Williams and the others have gone from providing relevant and timely information on where to find legal advice and counselling to now holding sway at the negotiating table. They intend to remain at the forefront of proceedings, putting pressure on the local police force for key information, liaising with QC Martin Moore-Bick who is leading the enquiry and providing a consistent community input throughout the process. Bolton says “It’s also about organising getting a lot of legal advice and we want to make sure this is completely, transparent, completely legitimate, so we can get justice.”

With the sun setting on both this interview and my entire essay project, my last question harks back to a reminder, everything I’ve seen in the community, from the art to the impassioned words, the tears and the anger, have come from a place of genuine struggle originally devoid of a politics or a framework. Before their new roles as lobbyists and campaigners ready to push the “vehicle of justice” these are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends dealing with a monumental sense of bereavement. When I ask Bolton about balance on behalf of herself, Williams and the rest of the #Justice4Grenfell team, she smiles and laughs. “‘Well, lets just say my house hasn’t seen a hoover for a while, but because you have that community support people will help. I’ll say to Yvette if you have an interview in the morning it doesn’t matter what time you drop off your daughter, I’ll have her until you come back, or even neighbours, or friends. There’s three or four of us working out of a basement on our own phones- let me tell you I wear my cape everyday, it’s just tucked in.”

As I leave the gates of the Tabernacle Centre walking back towards the Grenfell Tower for one final time, I chuckle and shake my head. She wasn’t the only one with her cape tucked in. Across two months and several visits; some short, others lengthy, I’ve seen numerous superhuman efforts of kindness, talent and strength and savvy. The wounds are still healing of course, and the subsequent search for some form of justice is only beginning to take shape, but if what I’ve seen is anything to go by, Grenfell isn’t going to go away. Those who live in the shadow of the disaster will not stop until justice is served.

*The claims and issues featured in this article have been raised with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the piece will be updated with their response*