Grenfell Story - Grenfell Tower

'We’re just Grenfell': volunteers deal with legacy of London tower fire


On a back street close to the burned-out shell of Grenfell Tower, a damp, handmade poster is fastened to a metal fence with cable ties. “Please act with respect and hold our loss in your mind. Please no photos,” it reads. Next to it, an elderly man in a wheelchair takes a picture of the blackened tower.

The same poster is tacked onto boards and walls around the west London neighborhood on the edges of Notting Hill. It’s symptomatic of a community that has felt under siege while dealing with the emotional fallout of the “worst loss of life in a fire since World War II in London”, according to the London Fire Brigade. A suspected 71 people died and an official inquiry into the causes of the fire started this week, six months after the event.

Grenfell Tower during the blaze on June 14 (Natalie Oxford)

Survivors and their friends and families say that, as well as dealing with an intrusive press and official investigators, they have also had to discourage tourists taking selfies in front of the tower. But as locals try to deal with the overwhelming attention, volunteers on the ground are trying to keep the grieving community in one piece.

A private place to talk

Since the 24-story housing block caught fire on June 14, volunteers have been putting together a community support project for traumatized locals. It began informally in the corner of a car park under a busy main road a short distance from the tower — now universally known as simply “Grenfell”.

Grenfell Tower, built in 1974 by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council. The west London building housed some of Britain’s poorest people until the fire that killed 71 people on June 14. Photo by: WikiTribune/Francis Augusto. Used under Creative Commons license 4.0

A memorial space, about the size of a tennis court, is occupied by a small group of Grenfell residents, friends, family, and volunteers. It has become a place of safety and security, of reflection and also grief.

A community memorial space set up shortly after the Grenfell Tower fire. Volunteers working night and day offer advice and support to survivors and those affected. The space is “here to stay”, according to one volunteer. Photo by: WikiTribune/Francis Augusto. Used under Creative Commons license 4.0

Homely furniture is carefully arranged into cosy spaces. An electric generator powers a kettle, tea bags overflow from a plastic pot, and donated books are piled up before they’re slotted into a bookcase. A mother plays on an old piano with her toddler. Multi-coloured murals and detailed stories written by survivors cover the walls.

Four months after the blaze and one of the memorial space’s main volunteers, who goes by the name ‘Livingstone’, says the atmosphere is still emotionally raw. The community is still in shock.

“I’m trying to put it back together,” he says. “We’re just Grenfell, Grenfell the men on the ground. That’s it. Simple.”

Livingstone is from Kilburn, 20 minutes away across London, but has friends and family who live near the tower. In between jobs as a bodyguard and self-employed gardener, Livingstone, in his 50s, visits the memorial space every day. He provides a second eye for artists painting motivational murals on the stone walls. He liaises with the volunteers who come and go, on rotating shifts throughout the day and night. And he offers support.

“I’m trying to put it back together.” Head volunteer Livingstone works at the memorial space every day, offering support and organizing community events. Photo by: WikiTribune/Francis Augusto. Used under Creative Commons license 4.0

“So many young people come down here with mental health issues,” Livingstone says.

He takes people to a private place to talk, he says, including one young man he thought was “in trouble” and needed help. Hospitals they contacted to ask for help with mental health problems “never got back to us”, he claims. One local support group estimates there have been 20 suicide attempts since the disaster.

Livingstone tries to support those who are suffering, he says.

“[The space] is a place of release. I see no fretting. It’s more calm, and that’s what I need. Because when a family come, I will need them to be calm. I don’t want them to be really upset.”

More than 10,000 people have signed up to volunteer at community centers in the area since the fire, according to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

The memorial space is just one project that relies on volunteer time and donations from locals as well as people from across London. Volunteers have been industrious, distributing clothes, toys and furniture from charity shops, the streets and their own homes. There are several hundred books. Duvets, blankets and sleeping bags have been handed out. Pot plants have been gifted.

A pillar under the flyover is turned into a memorial with messages of grief, love and loss. Posters ask for information about missing people, even four months after the fire. The memorial is protected by the council, which has now put a fence around it to prevent vandalism. Photo by: WikiTribune/Francis Augusto. Used under Creative Commons license 4.0

During the day volunteers tidy up and sort through donations. After school, parents drink tea with volunteers while their children play. In the evenings, the space shows films, holds poetry readings, music and workshops – even a documentary about Grenfell. After dark, the space becomes busier – food donations are eaten, beers are cracked open and emotions come to the surface.

‘The council don’t do shit’

In the months since the disaster, tensions have grown between the volunteers and the media, and between locals and Kensington and Chelsea council.

Residents have heavily criticized the council for its management of Grenfell both before and after the tragedy — including overlooking residents’ safety worries and failing to give most of the fire’s survivors permanent homes.

“The council don’t do shit,” Livingstone says, explaining why the volunteers at the memorial space decided to operate independently. “We bypass the council because the council don’t help. They’re not doing nothing positive.”

Livingstone says the community needs answers, and wants justice for the lives that were lost. Some answers may come with the results of the UK government’s public inquiry, though its interim report is not due until April 2018. In September, the council voted to terminate its contract with KCTMO, the firm that managed the Lancaster West estate, home to Grenfell Tower. The council said KCTMO “no longer has the trust of residents in the borough.”

That decision has been small consolation for many locals, who have long felt sidelined by the council. One volunteer, who asked not to be named, said she was priced out of the area as a child and blames gentrification for the area’s problems.

“It’s the same old shit, different day,” she says of the council’s handling of Grenfell Tower.

A local church allows the public to leave messages along its railings. Hundreds of messages have been left, from local residents to those visiting to pay respect. Photo by: WikiTribune/Francis Augusto. Used under Creative Commons license 4.0

Media attention has also caused upset for locals and survivors. At least three journalists camped out in cars outside the memorial space, according to two volunteers who felt the press was not sensitive enough towards residents. Another two volunteers for local charity ClementJames said residents had made them promise not to forward any more requests from reporters, including from WikiTribune. Many locals we spoke to did not want to be interviewed. One woman said that reporters should instead put questions to politicians and the powerful “up there.”

Media attention has moved on after the initial flurry of news reports.

The blackened shell

Kensington and Chelsea is one of London’s wealthiest neighborhoods. It is home to fashion designer Stella McCartney, the musician Sir Elton John, former Prime Minister David Cameron and the upscale department store Harrods. But as well as celebrities, politicians and the wealthy, it is also an area where neighborhoods, such as the Lancaster West estate exist. They are among the most deprived areas in England, according to the English Indices of Deprivation 2015.

The fire brought international attention to the disparity. The horrific images from that night, combined with the revelations about the council’s historic attitudes to its residents, caused widespread anger about the state of social housing in London. The name ‘Grenfell’ now represents a social justice movement that demands safe, affordable housing for all those who need it.

Glued to a wall panel surrounding the tower, the heart logo has become a symbol of solidarity and support for Grenfell survivors. Photo by: WikiTribune/Francis Augusto. Used under Creative Commons license 4.0

Looming over this west London community, the blackened shell of Grenfell Tower has become a monument to those failures. But for residents it also represents their loss and grief. Many locals say they no longer want to see the building in which so many of their friends died.

The structure will soon be hidden behind temporary plastic netting. It is not clear what will happen to the structure longer term, but Livingstone is one of several who say they want the building demolished and a Ground Zero-style memorial put in its place.

“If they get rid of it, let’s put a mural down there, straight like they done to America.”

One of many signs near Grenfell Tower pleading visitors not to take photos. The overwhelming media attention on the area has taken its toll on the local residents and survivors.

See also: WikiTribune asked questions of the Royal Borough on behalf of Grenfell supporters. Here’s the response from the council.

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