Stop Fetishising My Block!

Words + Photography: R. Johnson

I love my block. You probably love my block too, and you just don’t know it. It’s a sprawling, concrete kingdom, built in a crescent moon shape by the side of a railway track in NW London, stretching over a kilometer long. Futuristic grey roof terraces cascade towards each other, blue metal railings line the walls, and lush green ivy climbs up and along the walkways. The older red brick buildings follow along the same soft curve, each one with its own small patch of green, with mighty trees that reach high above the rooftops, and in the summer, the private pavements running between the buildings make it feel like a Mediterranean village—the type where you look out of your window and peer directly onto your neighbours sunbathing on a balcony. Home to over 1,600 people and built on a site the size of 12 football pitches, it’s magnificent. Lots of people think my block’s magnificent—fashion mags, TV dramas, music artists, really anyone looking to add a bit of “gritty urban realism” to their shoot. I don’t blame them for loving the look of my block, but would they love to live here? Sadly, it took me years to feel proud of where I come from in the face of ridicule and oppression. And the very same people who made me ashamed to live here are the ones now exploiting it for clicks and views.

I moved onto the Alexandra & Ainsworth estate (commonly known as Rowley Way & Ainsworth Way) when I was 8 years old, with my father and younger brother. Before that, we’d lived in a block of council flats in Mornington Crescent for a couple of years, then a few years sharing a one-bedroom flat on the 11th floor of a Kilburn tower block. I’m your standard council estate kid, from a fiercely ambitious Ghanaian family. The way the world saw me and my future potential was at odds with how my dad saw me; he wanted something different for me than the humble surroundings we’d been allocated in the postcode lottery. So when it was time for me to go to secondary school, knowing he could never dream of affording it himself, he pushed as hard as possible for me to get some kind of free private school education. And due to his determination (and an intense home tutoring schedule), I managed to not only get accepted into a prestigious private school in Hampstead, but was offered a fully paid scholarship too.

I remember the excitement I felt about going to such a fancy institution, the likes of which I’d never experienced before. I had no idea what to expect, but my first year in that school was the first year I remember feeling ashamed of where I lived; I don’t think I had even realised I had anything to be ashamed of before. I had previously been to the local primary school and everyone there either lived on my estate or in one of the estates nearby. But in my new school, I didn’t live in the same type of place as the other kids—they lived in six-bedroom detached houses in Finchley, or in five-storey mansions in Highgate, or in penthouse apartments on Hampstead High Street with their own ensuite bathrooms and nannies who did their homework and made their beds. The other kids at school let me know that my home was less than their homes, and that meant I was less than them. The first time I brought a group of school friends round my house on a lunch break was also the last.

“Eww, d’you really live here? What, all of you?!”

“Aren’t you scared you’ll get robbed?”

“This lift stinks of piss!”

“What, this is where you actually live? Seriously?”

“Can we go back to school now? I don’t want to get raped on my lunch break.”

I crumbled. And when we got back to school after lunch break, I watched from a quiet corner as they told the other kids in great detail about all the horrors they’d seen on their first visit to a council estate. The next few years of secondary school, I played down my background—I’d say I didn’t live on this estate, I just lived near it. Or I’d flat-out lie and say I actually lived in an exclusive apartment building with very strict security, so they couldn’t come and visit. All the while I begged and pleaded with my dad to move us out of here. I would show him property ads for big, expensive houses in the newspaper and ask why we couldn’t just live there instead! I ignored all the jokes about drug dealers and single mums on benefits (not just from students, but also from teachers and parents) and I went into survival mode; some of the time I fought back with a witty insult, some of the time I was just exhausted and embarrassed. Then as soon as possible, I got out of that school and never looked back.

But a curious thing started happening in my early twenties: all of a sudden, the same type of people who made my life hell for living here were living here too. Their rich parents were buying up cheap council flats from ex-residents and their “trendy” offspring started moving in. A wealthy white couple bought the flat directly underneath us from our original neighbours, a Nigerian family with a single father, just like mine. One day, the wife of the couple came and knocked at my door with a petition for me to sign. The neighbours on a lower floor—a Somalian family with a single mother and a daughter just a few years younger than me—were being too loud for their liking. The wealthy new residents were trying to get the older residents to sign a petition so they could take it to the council and have the other family evicted.

“I don’t know how you can sleep at night with all the noise in this block, to be honest, and I’m not going to stand for it!” she said, pushing the note in my face. “I’ve been here my whole life; I like the noise and I sleep just fine,” I replied, and I refused to sign her petition and closed the door.

When I spoke to other neighbours, they told me they had all refused to sign as well. But I later found out the wealthy couple had taken further action with the council and the Somalian family had to fight them in court, almost losing their home as a result. It wasn’t enough that they had managed to buy a bargain home at below market value—they wanted it cleansed of all its former life and soul, until it suited their ideals. After a while, the wealthy couple couldn’t stand living on such a noisy estate any longer, so they moved out and they now rent their flat to a revolving door of students and young professionals. They get to rake in the profits of my block without having to put up with the people who actually live here.

The Alexandra & Ainsworth estate was built in 1978, designed by brutalist architect Neave Brown. It was his mission to revolutionise social housing by moving away from the high-rise tower block model and focusing more on community design. The project took too long to build, ended up over budget, and the stigma attached to the perceived failure of the project meant that Brown struggled to find architecture work ever again (he moved into the world of fine art instead). Although the construction was ill-fated, it’s been world-famous for its scale and design ever since. And as a result, it’s been a popular feature in UK media since day one, first featuring on TV in The Sweeney, 1976 (while still being built), and has been all over our screens ever since.

If you live here, you quickly grow accustomed to your environment being explored and gawked at by everyone from architecture geeks to film producers to second year fashion students looking for an edgy backdrop to spice up their feeble derelict projects. It’s an almost daily occurrence that I bump into some sort of film crew or photographer, blocking the pathways and pinching their noses so they don’t have to smell the overflowing bins. I wasn’t always so acutely aware of just how much my (often derided) home was being used to add a pinch of seasoning to the media I was consuming—but now it feels like something I can’t escape. Featured in everything from Silent Witness to a music video by The Foals, it seems I am almost constantly bombarded with images of my community being exploited by people who would’ve laughed at the idea of living here 10 years ago. The same location scouts who breeze through here in the daytime, taking a thousand pictures to impress their TV bosses, hold their backpacks tight to their chests when they walk through my estate after dark.

So what does it mean for the people who actually live here? Surely one of the UK’s most documented housing estates should be seeing some financial benefit from having to endure such overwhelming media interest? But that just isn’t how it works for communities like mine. We’re blessed to have active and dedicated residents who put their time and hard work into running a plethora of events and activities for the community, but without them—where would we be? How many fashion photographers have launched careers off the strength of my blocks visuals? How many record industry execs got a promotion for finding such a gritty urban location for their artist’s music video? It’s a gross kind of working-class appropriation; I’d even argue that it’s a form of poverty porn. My estate’s never chosen as the location to represent a united loving family, or as the backdrop to happy children playing and laughing in an aspirational advert. It’s chosen to represent the homes of criminals and murderers, of families in despair. And I notice that whenever a film crew arrives, they’re forced to decorate it with extra rubbish and dirt, to make sure the estate matches the destitute dream they’re trying to sell. Ironically, they choose places like this to represent squalor but in reality, it just never seems to be quite squalid enough for them.

My problem isn’t with everyone filming here—I don’t see a problem with someone with a real life connection to social housing coming to my estate to replicate an aesthetic they can personally relate to. My problem is with outsiders coming and taking what they need, using that to make profit and giving nothing back to the residents. In my eyes, there’s a big difference between someone from a council background filming on my block and someone with no experience of living in a place like this fetishising it for their own gain.

My estate is a thing of beauty, and its beauty is rooted in the fact that it’s a living, breathing entity—constantly growing, evolving, and providing a home and community to so many families. It’s far from perfect, though. There’s cracked paving stones, garage doors hang off the hinges, and I haven’t seen the old youth club functional for years. And when I order a pizza, they make me walk to the main road because they’re scared of getting their delivery bikes stolen. But we also have our own private park, thriving plant and wildlife; we have an estate beehive producing our own local honey, and there’s a coop run by residents selling fresh local fruit & veg. It’s an impressive maze full of nooks and crannies for kids to play and hide in, and there’s a stunning red brick path winding all the way down Rowley Way that glows in the sunshine. It’s a heavenly place to live, something I wish I’d known when I was younger—but now I consider myself so blessed to be a resident of this concrete kingdom.

I’m flattered that it has such a sought-after aesthetic, and I hope to see it represented more and more in the media by people who live here—or who live somewhere similar. I don’t want less media representation, I want more authentic media representation. And if you can’t be authentic, at the very least give something substantial back to the community you’re benefiting from. And if you can’t do that, then please just get the fuck off my block.

Posted on March 16, 2018