:: Article

The Road to Grenfell Tower

By Linda Mannheim.

The Road to Grenfell Tower

Photo by ChiralJon

All news these days arrives by phone. Images of the burning building appear on a screen in the palm of my hand. Flames are sweeping around the 24-storey tower block, enveloping it as if it is a torch. On the top floors, people are flicking their lights on and off so that the firefighters will know they are there. Children are screaming for help. Mothers are dropping babies out of the windows for those on the ground to catch.

Accounts of this appear in 140 characters or less. I flip down the stream of messages, almost uncomprehending. It is 5:30 in the morning where I am; 4:30 in the morning in London, the city where I have lived for almost the past 15 years. I know the neighbourhood where this is happening, worked there, visited friends there. And I, like others, am wondering how this can be real.

*

My childhood terror was fire – fire entering the apartment where we lived, filling the hallways with black smoke, bursting out of the windows to swallow more oxygen. Would the fire escapes be reachable? Would we get out?

This was New York in the 1970s. Fire ripped across the South Bronx, our nearby neighbours. In Washington Heights, where we lived, the fires came too, but not with the ferocity of the fires in the Bronx. There, they devoured entire neighbourhoods, art deco buildings that were falling into ruin; some neighbourhoods lost 97 per cent of their housing to fire and abandonment. City streets were reduced to rubble. It was what Bronx film-maker Vivian Vasquez would refer to as the Decade of Fire.

I have a childhood memory of my mother in our humid, never clean kitchen cooking dinner, explaining to me that the buildings in the Bronx were burning because the landlords hired people to set fire to them; they wanted to the insurance money. That was the conventional wisdom for a long time: “arson for profit.”

But in 2010, journalist Joe Flood reached a different conclusion: there was arson, but not the massive scale people thought. Lack of maintenance in the ageing buildings raised the risk of accidental fire – from faulty wiring, leaking furnaces, and space heaters used when the building’s central heating had broken down. Gas stoves sometimes provided the only heat in apartments, were where you heated pots of water for your bath.

We heated water that way. We had no heat. Our oven sometimes lit with a poof of flame and we joked about having our eyebrows singed off.

It seemed there were always fire engines outside; there was always the smell of smoke. And when I wanted a guitar, we went to a shop in the Bronx where some of the instruments were warped from water and others singed. We bought the guitar in a fire sale.

“What all these fires shared was location,” Flood wrote, “some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city –Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Washington heights, Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Bushwick… the South Bronx.”

And during this time, as the risk of fires increased, fire fighting services for these neighbourhoods were cut: 13 fire stations in the city’s most fire-prone areas were shut in order to save money and help the city fill a funding deficit. The policy was known as “planned shrinkage” — the deliberate withdrawal of government services to areas with low tax revenues.

*

In 1995, I moved back to New York after more than 15 years in rural New England: mountains, woods, and individual houses. 1990s New York wasn’t the brutal, beat up place I left. I was also miles away, literally, from my childhood home, in a gentrifying and leafy Brooklyn neighbourhood that still had vestiges of the working class Puerto Rican communities that had lived there before the suburbanites settled in. But the place and time I was obsessed with was the place where I’d grown up: How had the neighbourhoods in Flood’s list – the very poorest places in the city – broken down so spectacularly? I read about the rubble-strewn ghost-scape of Charlotte Street, the once busy blocks now lined with vacant burnt out hulks in Jill Jonnes’ book about the South Bronx. I became obsessed with the story of Bruce Bailey, a community activist who had organised tenants in some of New York’s neglected buildings. He’d gone missing one day in 1989. Days after his wife reported him missing, his dismembered body was found in plastic bags outside a Bronx building.

Then, in March of 1995, a building collapsed in Harlem. The six story apartment house crumbled early in the morning; three people were killed. The building had 337 outstanding citations of the Housing Maintenance Code when it collapsed, including 56 for conditions considered immediately hazardous. Tenants noted that “the wall that collapsed had a sizable vertical crack, from the ground much of the way up the building, and that steam could sometimes be seen leaking from the crack.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about that building, about what the tenants saw, about the officials who noted the violations, and how there was no meaningful response to those violations. The building stayed as it was. The tenants were still in their apartments when the building breathed its final breath . And then the building imploded – the bricks tumbling, the ceilings falling in, a cloud of dust rising. The tenants fled down the stairs, running for their lives. No one could believe what had happened, even though all along the tenants had seen signs of impending disaster.

Burnt Out by Copie Rodriguez

Photo by Copie Rodriguez

*

When I arrived in London in 2004, it was easy to find work in fundraising and development, and for the most part, I worked with housing and homelessness organisations. For someone like me, who’d grown up in the US, the ethos of UK organisations and their funders (including government funders) in the earliest years of the twenty-first century was a revelation.

The Supporting People programme, launched in 2003, went beyond acknowledging governmental responsibility to house the homeless; it also acknowledged responsibility to provide “housing related support services include enabling individuals to access their correct benefit entitlement, ensuring they have the correct skills to maintain a tenancy, advising on home improvements and accessing a community service alarm.”

So there was government funding for this. So my job was usually to find supplemental grants from private funders to try new things. Having grown up in a country where the poor are usually accused of having caused their own poverty – by not working hard enough, not making the right choices, not being morally upright – it took me a little while to get my head around the structure of civil society in my adopted home. Before developing a project and asking for funding, we had to talk to the people who were going to benefit from the funding and find out what they thought. “Have you consulted the beneficiaries?” many of the funding applications asked.

There was — to be sure — still inadequate housing, plenty of people excluded, and programmes that missed the mark. But every time I went back to the US to visit, and I saw how many people slept on the streets, I was struck by the difference between Britain and America. One place was aiming to do better; the other had agreed to leave people out, leave them to suffer, leave them behind.

*

By 2017, the UK has come to feel like a very different place. It’s seven years since the Conservative-led government (propped up by the Lib Dems for a time), has come in and cut local government spending by 20 percent. Child protective services can’t keep up. Older people who need help bathing or dressing don’t get the help. The Financial Times notes that “Local environmental regulation, food inspections and workplace health and safety checks [have] also been scaled back by sharp cuts, as government directions to reduce “red tape” have been given further impetus by the need to save money and reduce staff.”

Meanwhile, Theresa May, first as Home Secretary and then as Prime Minister, repeated a slogan that seemed to evoke magical thinking. The public sector, she said, “needed to do more with less.”

I could tell you about the day I started to notice more rough sleepers on the streets of London, the ravaged looking man and his sleeping bag who one day appeared outside my local tube station stop. I could tell you about turning on the radio to hear that a new assessment process for disability benefit meant that thousands of disabled people had died shortly after being declared “fit for work” by the assessors. I could tell you, too, about the government minister who spoke of his admiration for America’s social housing system – that is, one in which you are allowed to live in public housing only while you have problems that keep you from staying afloat in the private sector – a system that in America has isolated and ghettoised people having difficulties.

The Grenfell Tower fire partly came about because of the government’s cuts. More than a week after the fire, there is a list of potential causes: Flammable materials used in a renovation, no central fire alarms, no sprinkler system because it was deemed too costly, exposed gas pipes, only one staircase out of the building. And, finally, poor oversight of the renovation itself because there was no central authority responsible for managing it. The tenants at Grenfell Tower saw the danger, noted it when they walked into their building at night, and reported it – just like the tenants in the building that collapsed in Harlem more than 20 years before. And, just like the tenants in Harlem, they understood that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

When does the brutality become obvious enough? When children are screaming for help in a burning building?

It feels full circle to me, like a return to the brutal society of my childhood where people without money are meant to live in ghettos, older people are left to fend for themselves, and the price of protecting children is considered too high.

And I see now that our destination, Britain’s destination in the second decade of the twenty-first century could only have been the place we are now — with its instructions to do more with less, austerity policies that shape the lives of some and not others, and public service cuts that are in effect “planned shrinkage.” For the past seven years, we have been on the road to Grenfell Tower.

 

Linda Mannheim

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Linda Mannheim‘s most recent book is Above Sugar Hill (Influx Press).  Eimear McBride said: “Mannheim’s restive tales of her desiccated stretch of New York provoke and abide like a slap.”  ‘Ghosts: Managua 1986,’ a new Kindle Single, is out now.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 24th, 2017.