The story of the Heygate Estate in south London is a modern parable of the effect of gentrification in the U.K. capital. Originally built in 1974, the neo-brutalist block was home to 3,000 people (and 450 trees, making it an urban forest). Its apartments were designed to provide light, airy spaces amid the chaos of the city, and the concrete walkways and soaring tower blocks made it a popular shoot location for movies like World War Z and Attack the Block. But the largely working class and BAME inhabitants of the council housing were demonized by the British press, who labeled the Heygate a hotbed of crime and anti-social behavior. (Local investigative journalism told a different story.)
In 2010, the local council announced plans for the “regeneration” of the area, leading to the eviction of all Heygate residents. A small group stayed put in their homes, contesting the council’s legal right to evict them, which meant that the buildings were not actually demolished until 2014. In the meantime, its apartments remained mostly empty, while thousands of the people who had called it home were displaced.
It was during this time, between 2011 and 2013, that local resident Jill Newman became fascinated by it. Newman — a homeopath, charity worker, and artist — lived just behind the Heygate, and she and her son both had close friends who were evicted from its apartments. Curious about what was becoming of the empty blocks, Newman took her dog and walked around the estate one day in 2011. Though she wasn’t a professional photographer at the time, what she saw inspired her to come back with her camera several times a week for the following three years. As the remaining residents of the Heygate clung to their apartments, the council was unable to seal the property, and so members of the public freely entered the space, planting allotments, creating artworks, holding picnics, and shooting videos in the grounds. In a local phone conversation, Newman described the heartwarming experience of seeing “what people do out of their own choice in an empty space. It was so creative. I didn’t see it trashed; I saw it flourish as an art space, without any rules. It was really life-affirming.”
The eviction of the residents of the Heygate Estate was a form of social cleansing. None of those turfed out could afford to buy their way back into the same area: in the space where the Heygate once was, there now stand apartments that have been valued at a minimum of £310,000 and entirely sold to foreign investors. There’s also a pop-up retail space named Artworks Elephant, which is made out of easily transferable shipping containers, and which the director described as “an innovative project that will...establish a real sense of place.”
But the Heygate Estate that Newman photographed between 2011 and 2013 clearly already had a powerful sense of place. Her images show that the space was beautiful, and the surrounding community keen to nurture it, and to foster creativity. “I don’t think people want a corporate thinktank to tell them what they want, and what they should have,” Newman reflects. “Any progressive-minded council or government would be thinking about clean energy, how to clean up the place, how to reduce carbon footprints, how to get more permaculture into everyone’s lives. That’s real regeneration.” See a selection of Newman’s photos below.