Decanted From Robin Hood Gardens
Today’s story is the last of seven features by Contributing Writer Delwar Hussain and the third in a series of three related stories exploring the fate of Robin Hood Gardens housing estate in Poplar
While visiting Robin Hood Gardens, Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I found our impressions were like shifting sands. Whenever we formed a picture, someone else said something to contradict it, changing our view of the place.
Rugena Ali, whose family lived there for more than twenty years, initially corresponded with me by email. I wanted to hear her stories about growing up in Robin Hood Gardens but Rugena was reticent. Alongside other residents, she and her family had been part of the campaign to stop the demolition. I wondered if this explained her reluctance, since the campaign failed and her family had been ‘decanted.’ Yet I persisted and she sent me this -
‘Delwar, we have stories, of fires, police raids, random shootings on the fifth floor, but also of games we used to play. Memories of how our landing was used for gossip and to pass on information, and of the 10pm ladies walking club! And happy memories of weddings. And how the ladies on the estate used to come together after a death to support families. We used to live in each other’s houses and I was babysat by practically everyone at some point. The adventures in the park were endless and there were dramas including someone being attacked by a dog. Then, entire estate cricket matches (which stopped after the ball smashed our kitchen window), rounders and football! It really was incredible growing up there.
I will be visiting my family on Sunday, maybe if you are free you can come by and interview all of us siblings together? I’m also sure my mum will have a lot to say!’
And she did. They all did.
Rugena lives in Essex now and works for Girlguiding. In the sitting room of her parents’ new home in Mile End, Rugena introduced her mother Amirun and brothers – Amirul who is a science teacher, Sahedul who is an aid worker and Hasan, a student.
Robin Hood Gardens was a refuge for the family. In 1992, following a racist attack against one of Rugena’s siblings, the Council wanted to re-house the family and offered them a flat on the estate. One of Rugena’s older sisters and two family friends, Joyce and Margaret, went to look at the place. They were not impressed and wanted to wait and see what else came up but, fearful of what might happen if they stayed where they were, Rugena’s mother was keen to move out immediately. So she and her husband went to have a look at the flat at Robin Hood Gardens and rang the bell of the neighbour.
‘Shamima’s father was in and showed us around their flat,’ Rugena’s mother remembered, ‘and we decided to take it because we realised what good neighbours we’d have.’
Amirul interrupted, ‘I remember our very first meal was at Shamima’s house. When we moved in, people turned up to help us, they even helped clean our windows.’
Rugena’s mother continued, ‘Yes, we did have good neighbours. They would pick the children up from school and drop them off. There were all sorts of people living there, Bengali families, a fireman and his family, the Pakistanis, the woman with the dogs…’
‘…the druggie family…’ someone added.
‘In the mid-to-late nineties, heroin came to the estate,’ Amirul explained, ‘One night there was a loud banging at the door. My mum looked through the window and four policemen had pinned someone against our door. There was always Kitkat foil lying around everywhere and then ITV news did a story about a druggie family from the estate…’
‘Is the staircase still blue?’ Sahedul asked me, like an expatriate enquiring about the old country.
‘Yes,’ I confirm.
‘They painted it blue so people couldn’t use syringes there,’ Sahedul continued, ‘Once, a man in a suit, who obviously worked at Canary Wharf, knocked on our door asking if we had any kitchen foil he could use to smoke heroin…’
‘…we were always worried about our children,’ Rugena’s mother added.
‘As far as the Council was concerned, their behaviour was always reactive with Robin Hood Gardens,’ Sahedul informed me, ‘If anything happened, the Council would do something about it, but they were never pro-active – ‘The estate is on the news for drugs, let’s do something about it ’ – an automatic response, never about people.’
Our conversation about Robin Hood Gardens ebbed and flowed, collapsing the past and the present, the good and the hard times, and both happy and distressing events. Memories of a dead man found in a car intermingled with tales of another stabbed for £20, followed by accounts of weddings between neighbours on the landings, rumours of secret rooms in the building, a description of someone breaking limbs while jumping off balconies and neighbours running out of the building with their gold and passports to escape a fire.
When Rugena’s mother left us to tend to Sunday lunch, I asked Rugena, Amirul and Sahedul about the campaign they were involved with to stop the demolition of Robin Hood Gardens and Amirul took up that story.
‘At the beginning, we received letters informing us that architects had been employed to redesign the estate. Then we received more post saying that Swan Housing had won the bid and we thought they were going to thoroughly clean and fix Robin Hood Gardens, you know, regenerate it. We were told that we were going to get a new bathroom and a new kitchen, and we thought it was going to be fantastic.’
‘You can appreciate how top-down it was,’ Sahedul recalled, ‘People who lived there were never involved in the process. They didn’t speak to us, they just sent us letters and later they would call this ‘consultation’. Many on the estate were illiterate and unable to read what was sent. I believe it was done that way on purpose, they didn’t want any resistance to their plans and so they did the bare minimum.’
‘I remember attending cabinet meetings at Tower Hamlets Council,’ Rugena explained to me, ‘also a meeting at a fancy hotel somewhere. They told us we would get to choose our own interior on the new estate. Some people were concerned about open-plan layouts and didn’t want that. Children at the local school were asked to draw pictures of their perfect bathroom, something the architects might use in their designs. No-one expected that everyone was simply going to be moved out and the buildings demolished.’
I talked about the woman Sarah & I met the first time we visited Robin Hood Gardens. She told us she had been promised that she could move back into the new, regenerated estate once it was complete. I said I thought it sounded a bit far-fetched and maybe the woman had misunderstood.
‘No, it’s true,’ Rugena and her siblings replied in unison.
‘That woman isn’t wrong. They call it ‘double-decant’. They made so many promises like that,’ Amirul assured me, ‘and, as far as I know, many of them haven’t been kept and won’t be honoured. They promised that they would pay transportation costs and any damages incurred to belongings, they also promised a lump sum of ten or five thousand pounds to people if they were willing to move out. We know some people who took it and others who didn’t. Some who didn’t move out, including our neighbour Shamima’s family, were offered like-for-like housing and some compensation. But the value of their property was reduced and so was what they were offered.’
Rugena took up the story. ‘Once we learnt what was being planned, we drew up a petition for the building to be listed and took it around the estate. Then we took a second one around asking that tenants should have more say in the process. We attended so many meetings to try and stop them. Our family were the only ones involved who didn’t own their flat, but we did it because we believed in saving what we had.’
‘If you were against the proposals, why did you move out?’ I asked.
‘The main issue was our father,’ Rugena admitted, ‘He has dementia and uses a wheelchair. When the lift broke in the building, he would be stuck in the flat and it might be days until he could get out. We attended campaign meetings knowing that we were on the relocation list, but we did it for him.’
The current house in Mile End was the first they were offered. Amirul, his mother and his father’s occupational therapist came to view it. Amirul liked it from the start. Though it is much bigger than the flat in Robin Hood Gardens, their mother thought it too small. She thought this because the family’s life in Robin Hood Gardens was not just inside the flat, there was also the landings, the garden and other people’s homes. All those people and their intermingled lives, it was a world in itself and collectively much bigger than the new house.
‘It was not easy to leave,’ Amirul confided, ‘But once word got out that we had accepted this house, virtually everyone came to help. People were crying. Some drove our things over to Mile End and others were desperate to move in next to us. Yet some people did stop talking to us, feeling cheated that we had left, as if we had left them behind.’
Although he missed Robin Hood Gardens, Amirul confessed it feels surreal when he goes back. He said, ‘It feels like a porthole to me now, there are so many gaps which used to be full of so much life.’
Finally, we went out into the garden to take a family photo. In one corner was a plum tree that Rugena’s mother grew from seed on the landing at Robin Hood Gardens and then transplanted into the earth at her new home. It was the perfect place to take the picture.
In the garden at Mile End
Happy Days At Robin Hood Gardens
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
If you live or once lived in Robin Hood Gardens and would like to tell your story, please contact Spitalfieldslife@gmail.com
You may like to read the earlier parts of this story