Now demolished, the Heygate Estate, as it was called, told the story of neglect. Walking down Walworth road in 2011, I couldn’t fully take in the colossal dimensions of the estate, one of the largest in Europe. It was only with the view from my flat in a newly built skyscraper that one could get a sense of size. There was a haunting feeling about the blocks: the estate beckoned, told a story to those who dared to really look.
I started taking photographs to understand how I felt about the monolithic structures and why. My photographs are from a few years ago, captured by a phone camera. They’re hopelessly over-edited but I felt I had to include them to really give you a sense of how I felt as an outsider, looking in: the actual ex-residents know better, but for me, this place tells a poignantly sad tale.
During the bombing of World War Two, parts of Elephant and Castle were eviscerated, but the Luftwaffe or Hitler’s machinations could not compare to the damage done to the South by its own visionaries when they built this estate. What was previously a patch of land that housed hospitals for lepers centuries ago, would become the mile of monoliths symbolising post-war urban decay. It was supposed to be utopia, but the stairwells became a haven for muggings and the tunnels a refuge for perpetrators of gang violence. Theories were proposed that this kind of a development in the form of grey, monolithic blocks could never create the environment for happy living. The tenants were increasingly alienated, their guests unwilling to travel to the estate because it was deemed unsafe.
Some residents had a different story to tell. Profit motive and exaggeration by the media all contributed to the negative perceptions of an otherwise rough but thriving and diverse community.
With the London Eye, the illustrious South Bank, and the redevelopment of the estate, the fate of this neighbourhood is changing. But in my mind, my idea of Elephant and Castle will always be the view from my window in 2011: the monolithic, blocks a bridge away from the shiny tall towers of the financial centre, symbolising the cruel axe of gentrification.
As I re-write this blog, six years later, the regeneration of the area is underway, with on-going debate on how gentrification impacts residents displaced from the estate.