Under The Westway

Last night I found a reclaimed community space under a motorway flyover near Grenfell. under_ww_IMG_1154

Photo from Friction Films CC BY-NC-ND

[Friday 8th December 2017]


A friend had invited me to a community film screening near the site of the Grenfell Tower fire. The venue was just a short walk from Ladbroke Grove tube station, but in that short distance, memories from my youth flooded over me. I could see my younger self in that café having a deep and meaningful with a best mate, buying a red jacket with a beloved friend at that market stall under the flyover, waiting in steamy line at that fish and chip shop, rummaging in that bric a brac shop for xmas presents, falling into that romantic encounter during Carnival on that street… my teenage self being stretched and pulled by everything around me. Growing up. After the film, there was a community discussion. People talked about their own history in the neighbourhood, and a sense that we are re-living past events, and that those lessons and knowledges from decades ago are needed again now. Memories, histories and collective self-recognition raced through me, galvinising an unexpectedly strong sense of belonging. With a jolt I realised that if ever we needed proof that London had not (yet) been extinguished by property madness, I was right in the middle of that proof right now.

The flyover was the Westway. The space was a community centre reclaimed as a meeting point and healing zone after Grenfell. The film was Dispossession, which shared some vital facts about property madness in the UK (there are more empty homes than homeless people!), as well as much needed encouraging stories of communities defending their homes. The group of people in the room were diverse. From parents+kids (like me), white haired, middle aged, regular folks alongside others who were wearing jumpers and attitude that oozed expensive. However, by the signs of the clapping that followed key points in the discussion after the film, everyone was united in a serious commitment to defending this community. A woman in a particularly expensive looking fluffy mustard jumper defied expectations and talked determinedly about experiences of squatting and resisting eviction back in the day. I was in the middle of layers of community organising, historical evolution and social change. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. As someone said, if they are going to take over this area, they are going to have to build right on top of us, and that is not going to happen.

Someone shared a story from 40 years ago, when Bob Marley recorded the album Exodus just around the corner on Basing Street in 1977. Reminding me that these fabled Londen stories are not cliches on tourists’ t-shirts. They really happened. And they really happened here. Speaking to our times today, when MP Jo Cox was recently so cruelly assassinated by a far-right fanatic and our society is in turmoil, the album Exodus was recorded during Marley’s exile in London following an assassination attempt in Jamaica. Then-empty properties all around us were being turned into homes by the Frestonia community in Notting Hill. The new arrival of punk jostled alongside reggae and rock. The Notting Hill riots had taken place the year before. Margaret Thatcher’s political experiment was about to begin in 1979. Exodus has been described as a kind of “a strategic, spiritual self-help manual on outlasting conflict and betrayal” and in a time when regular politics seems so starved of real meaning, thank god we can turn to alternative sources of guidance when times get tough. As a story in two parts, Exodus starts with side one, a revolutionary call to action, speaking to the social unrest of the day, denouncing injustice with lyrical expertise and boldly laying claim to the fact that “we know where we’re going, we know where we’re from”. Side two is a celebration of love, music, harmony and solidarity, with the release of “Jamming” as a single with “Punky Reggae Party” on the B side concretely building social bridges by forging an unlikely but enduring alliance between UK punk and reggae.

I digress.

As I listened to the stories being told that night, and the facts and figures of social breakdown being discussed and strategised, I found myself looking up at the ceiling reflecting on everything being shared. As my eyes followed the paintings on the ceiling, imagining what ladders or scaffolding structure they must have built to have painted up so high, my mind changed tack as I realised something. I realised that maybe I was looking at the raw concrete underbelly of the flyover itself, so thick and so massive that we could only hear the very faintest rumblings of traffic overhead. Checking on both sides of the room, I realised the painted walls did in fact look like the “legs and feet” of the flyover and I saw myself sat under a giant dinosaur-like urban beast wending its way through the city. Although it must be said, feeling more protected like a chick under a mother hen, than a flea about to be squashed by a lumbering mass.

As if by magic, just then one of the panelists in the discussion after the film explained that the area under the Westway had been donated to the public and there was a decades-long campaign to activate that land for public use. It was only the tragedy of Grenfell that had catalysed access to the area we were sat in now, allowing this amazing community space to be set up. There are 23 acres of land under the Westway in total that should be in public use. Imagine that. How an apparently mundane piece of the urban landscape could actually become such a vital community resource, and space for expression, growth and healing.

peoples wall IMG_1097Photo from Friction Films CC BY-NC-ND

Earlier this year, I had become aware of the space under the Westway for the first time. Going on the Grenfell Silent Walks, you are guided to a special place further down the flyover at the end of walk. I’m not sure if words can do justice to the space so bear with me. The height of the flyover gives cathedral-like dimensions to a distinctly raw urban space, where three sides (/“walls”) are lined with concrete surfaces but the potential for bleak abandonment has been completely transformed by a vast brightly coloured “People’s Public Inquiry” painted wall, where anyone can add statements and questions regarding Grenfell and wider related issues. Smaller scale and tiny drawings, messages and paintings cover other surfaces. From a heartfelt mourning message to a best friend lost in the fire. To a poignant contemplation space where a midnight sky with stars has been painted as if seen through an arched doorway framed by beautifully scripted words, with a sofa and chairs sat in front of the midnight sky for those moments when you need to be still. Where the floor meets the walls, the edges are lined with candles, flowers and sometimes heartbreaking personal momentos for those lost. The fourth side of the space is an expanse of sky punctuated by the buildings to the south of the Westway, with the burnt shell of Grenfell framed at middle distance.

The scale of the issues inscribed into the space are completely offset by the busy warm burble of people talking and connecting with each other in the “pop-up community centre” set up under the flyover, complete with sofas, library, kids play area, pianos, and multiple food and drink points where amazingly tasty food and thirst quenching cups of tea are shared with everybody for free. There is a place for any mood you may be feeling. From time on your own, to talking with new people, reading the messages on the walls, to sharing food with old friends, to playing the piano, to speaking on the open mike, to discussing next organising steps, to chasing your kids racing around the big open space. We are honouring those lost, and we are celebrating and securing our present and our future.

– RIP + Live On –

At the end of the Dispossession film evening, we thanked the organisers, especially for making an event so kid friendly as it’s hard to go out to events (let alone a film screening!) with small kids in London. My little one raced around the space as people chatted. He banged the drums in the corner of the room and happily clutched a little toy elephant he had found in a dusty corner which one of the organisers had allowed him to keep. We went home on the tube smiling, and little one had a great time trying out different seats on the train and spinning around the vertical poles for holding onto.

Later that night, in the middle of the darkness, I woke up with my mind thinking intently about the events of that evening. I realised I hadn’t really spent any time in Ladbroke Grove and that part of town for ages as it felt a bit “lost” to me knowing I could never afford to live there and feeling so disconnected from whoever it was that could afford to pay millions for a home. I’d been trying to ignore those feeling of dispossession as they are not nice feelings to have, hence not going to that part of town anymore. In a flash, reconnecting with that emotional sense of dispossession, I realised I could tap into those feelings that drove/are driving so many people to “take back control” and vote for the politics of Trump and UKIP. How sad it is that legitimate feelings of dispossession are being manipulated by those who stand to gain from making the dispossessed even further dispossessed. How can we find the evidence and the way to show that the answer does not lie in deceitful slogans such as “take back control”, “make us great again” and the “will of the people”? How show that the answer does not lie in the mouths of those who lie to us directly from our screens? How get over the problem that facts seem to be losing their power?

Far from feeling overwhelmed by these questions, I felt calm and watched pale grey clouds move over the night’s sky through the open chink of the window blinds, listening to little ones’ soft regular sleeping breathing. The evening’s events had reassured me that the building blocks are there and we are on the way to working it out. The memories and histories which had come back to me that evening also reminded me that me, myself, ourselves, we are all written into the very fabric of the city. Maybe, in one sense we have to “Take Back The City”. But in another sense, we don’t have to, because We already Are The City. As the old saying goes: Existence is itself Resistence. We have a rich history and experience from previous challenges. We can do it. We are doing it.


Nova (co-organiser of film screening)
FB: facebook.com/novanew
Web: http://www.novanew.org.uk
Twitter: @nova_newopps

Film links

Other references

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