Return To Robin Hood Gardens
Today’s story is the sixth of seven features by Contributing Writer Delwar Hussain and the second in a series of three related stories exploring the fate of Robin Hood Gardens housing estate in Poplar
When Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I returned to Robin Hood Gardens, it was a beautiful day. The blue sky made the estate look different, not as dystopian or disorientating as it had seemed when we first visited. In fact, with the light embracing the grey concrete, Robin Hood Gardens appeared an optimistic place, hopeful even.
We walked around the garden and explored the mound between the two buildings. The trees were aged and the bushes overgrown, Robin Hood’s ‘Sherwood Forest,’ if you will. It was peaceful there, in spite of the seamless gush of the traffic reminding us of where we were and the occasional thunderous roar of planes at the nearby London City Airport.
Sarah & I wanted to talk to people in Building Two, which is still occupied, to discover what it is like to live there. Currently, the majority are classified as temporary tenants and have been installed after the permanent residents, many of whom lived there for over twenty years, had been ‘decanted.’ Temporary tenants do not have the legal rights that permanent residents possess and it is unlikely that they will be among the lucky five hundred and sixty to get a home in the new Blackwall Reach Regeneration Project. Also resident in Building Two are some long-term residents who own their flats and refuse to leave.
On the landing outside flat number 131, a lady chewed betel nut, her mouth red with its juices. Beside the door, pumpkin vines grew in a tub, along with beans, spinach and some leafy Bengali vegetables. Placed next to them was an exercise bike.
‘You won’t make me get rid of the plants will you?’ she asked, concerned after I asked her what she was growing.
‘No, we’re not here for that,’ I assured her, ‘We are writing about the demolition of the building. What do you think about it?’
‘I’ve lived here for three years,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where we will be re-housed when the building is knocked down. We’re just temporary and they don’t tell us anything. We’ll be moved on, but we’re hoping it won’t be too far.’
‘How is it living here?’ I enquired.
‘I like it. I know everyone on this floor, we recognise each other and have a chat. I’m waiting for my neighbour now so that we can go and buy fish.’
The neighbour arrived and, as they walked away, the first lady asked if we could do something about the plumbing in her flat. ‘It’s broken again and no one has come to fix it, or they have come, but haven’t been able to fix it. The entire flat was flooded recently, the water ended up on the landing. Mine wasn’t the only affected house. It happened to my neighbour too.’
‘Have you contacted your Housing Officer?’ I queried.
No sooner had they left than three kids appeared on a ‘Hello Kitty’ bike. It was the start of the school holidays. I recalled the notice in the playground warning children to be wary of strangers.
‘What are you doing?’ the boy asked with bravado.
‘Interviewing people,’ I replied. ‘I’m going to interview you now – Why do you play here on the landing and not in the playground? It looks like a good place to play.’
‘We’re not allowed because dangerous people do dangerous things there. My sister saw someone light a firework once and throw it.’
Sarah asked whether the children liked living there and the elder of the two sisters interjected -‘This building used to be a white building but it’s now black, no one cleans it, and people throw rubbish out of the balcony, even glass bottles.’
Just as she said this, and as if to illustrate her point, we saw a bin bag hurled from the floor above and spew its entrails on the ground below. I had never seen flying bin bag before and I could not help but laugh at the coincidence, but the kids did not think it was funny. I noticed then that we have been standing next to one of the communal bins and there was a shopping trolley, a washing machine and a television dumped there. The kids bade us goodbye to continue happily going up and down the landing on their bike.
We were lucky to find Harun Miah at home. He is forty years old and works as a waiter in an Indian restaurant in Gravesend. It was Harun’s only day off in the week and he was sleeping when we rang the doorbell but he let us in, informing us that his wife and children were away, before excusing himself and returning to bed, letting Sarah and I wander around his flat.
Bright light drenched the landing at the entrance to the flat where there was a jam of prams, children’s bikes and unopened letters. Next to it was the kitchen where repetitive patterns on net curtains intermingled with the view outside. The sitting room, two bedrooms, bathroom and toilet were all downstairs on the floor below. It was obvious that the flat had not been cared for long-term, as indicated by a pervasive smell of damp, with mould growing upon walls of peeling wallpapers and a general build-up of grime.
Later, Harun told me that he and his family had been living in the flat for just under a year but the physical condition of the place was the result of many years of neglect. It appeared that the Council had given up maintaining the building a long time before Harun moved in and at some indeterminate time, like flotsam and jetsam, his family will be moved on again.
I followed the red carpet downstairs to the sitting room. Despite the net curtains, here too, sunlight streamed into the room. Outside, a Docklands Light Railway train rumbled past. On top of a baby’s cot sat a rucksack with the school motto ‘Let’s Work Together’ emblazoned upon it. I pored through a pile of children’s books, hoping to find a copy of Robin Hood.
Before we left, I woke Harun so he could unlock his front door for us. He works in the restaurant until 4am each morning and, in between long yawns, he explained that his wife had taken their three children away for the holidays, visiting grandparents in Bangladesh they had not met before. Despite the poor condition of housing, Harun told me he likes living in Robin Hood Gardens.
‘I like the views from the windows, I like the light. It is close to the shops and the DLR station. The flat is good, it just needs fixing up,’ he said.
Back on the landing, we bumped into Matilda, an outreach worker for Linkage Poplar, visiting some of the older people residents, who told us about John Murray & his wife. Both in their seventies, they had recently been in hospital -
‘A few weeks ago he had a fall and his wife managed to get downstairs to call for help, but, as she opened the door, she herself fell onto the landing. Eventually, an ambulance came and took them both to A&E, from where they were transferred to Mile End Hospital. The doctors said she broke her hip. It was very sweet, seeing them in beds next to each another. John & his wife love living here and won’t move out. Then there’s Joyce too, she’s in a wheelchair, the same age as John. She’s been in her flat since the building was built and she doesn’t want to move out either.’
Sarah & I knocked on John Murray’s door and he came downstairs on our third knock. Handsome and youthful in appearance yet frail and slight, John’s movements were slow and deliberate. His clothes were too big for him and dishevelled. He was not expecting visitors other than a Carer that afternoon.
John was born in Dublin and came to London in the fifties, briefly working for the Royal Air Force, while his wife was in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force at Northolt. John told me that he cannot remember how long he has been living in Robin Hood Gardens but that ‘her upstairs’ – meaning his wife – would know.
I asked whether he minded moving to a new place. ‘I don’t know. Maybe it will be fine?” he said, ‘as long as it’s on the ground floor. She can’t do stairs any more, you see. She will know how long we’ve been here. Are you sure you don’t want to come up and meet her?’
‘No,’ we say, ‘we’ll come back when she’s feeling better.’
Sarah & I said ‘Goodbye’ to John, and took the staircase down. I recalled what the man who let us in to the building the first time we visited had said about people taking heroin on the staircases. They are endless, claustrophobic spaces, where only one person can go up or down at a time. Painted blue, there is graffiti with ‘Sheima loves her mum,’ on one wall and, ‘I need people,’ on another.
(This feature concludes tomorrow)
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
You might like to read the first part of this story