London fire: ‘The working class aren’t being listened to’

Maria Vigo
Image caption Maria Vigo says north Kensington’s working class are being pushed out by affluent outsiders

Maria Vigo has lived opposite Grenfell Tower for 11 years, and she’s upset.

Not just with the fire that claimed so many lives in the block she can see from her kitchen window.

She’s also upset with how expensive her local playgroup has become, and how the people of north Kensington can’t afford the properties in the area.

But – most of all – she’s upset that she’s not being listened to.

“There was a lot of anger on the school run this morning,” she says.

“There’s a lot of separation between classes and people are telling me that it’s down to social cleansing.”

Maria says people are angry that things didn’t work in the tower, and that there weren’t any sprinklers.

“They need to train us how to get out of buildings safely, not just put up a fire notice,” she says.

The mother of two, whose children both have special needs, talks of how, years ago, the affluence of Knightsbridge spilled into parts of Kensington, then Notting Hill, then Holland Park.

She puts her hands into a circle. “We feel like we’re being surrounded.”

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Maria was born in the area, and talks about how local playgroups have been privatised.

“If they were £2 and now they’re £7.50, then no-one can afford to take their kids there.”

She speaks without drawing breath, frustration spilling out.

“This area’s always been working class. It’s starting to become a bit less so now, and the working class are feeling that they’re being left without a voice.

“The council isn’t listening to us. We don’t want a pretty building. They should ask us ‘What do we need? or ‘What would we like?'”

Maria also says a desire for profits is encroaching on the lives of working-class locals.

“Properties are being built in this area that aren’t being bought by people in the local community.”

Image caption Some north Kensington locals say they are being priced out of their own area

The area around Grenfell Tower is busy, especially near Latimer Road tube, but voices are low and sombre.

People stand huddled in groups, looking downcast. Some don’t want to talk to the press.

Others take photographs of the blackened block; a scar in the sky that dominates everyone’s thoughts.

Young men in sports gear and oversized caps, old men in shirts and trousers, and women in hijabs, all pull out their phones to take photographs of the soot-stained tower, bits of which float onto the street.

People’s faces screw up as they look up. No-one can believe what they’re seeing.

Snatches of conversation can be heard in the streets.

“Can you imagine how desperate…” says one man to a woman as they walk.

People drive to various churches and buildings that are now refuge centres, trying to hand over bundles of clothes, but they’re politely turned away.

One man pulls up to Latymer Community Church in a van, with two big bags of clothes. He’s turned away as there are too many clothes being donated now.

He sticks them into his white van, explaining that he’s from Essex but was passing and wanted to help. He grins, helplessly.

In the streets, it looks like a mass house move is under way – cars are stuffed with bin liners. Their drivers call out to pedestrians and police officers for directions to drop-off centres.

They too are told their kindness can’t be accepted, that so much has been donated, but that nappies are still needed.

Father Bisrat Berhanu, 55, is an Orthodox priest and lives in Lancaster Way. He’s been around here for 19 years.

He would visit people in Grenfell Tower, knew families there, and is shocked at what’s happened.

“The community is dynamic, it’s close,” he says.

“The people in the tower blocks knew each other, they were like a family. I’ve met people who lived there. We’ve cried together.

“We’re feeling shock and shock. Everyone’s been ringing me, even people from overseas, asking just what has happened.”

He too says that locals feel like they’re being pushed out by affluence, that numbers mean more than people do.

“There are conspiracy theories but I don’t get into that. We need love and kindness, to try and cure the wound, and cure people’s hearts.”

Image caption Christina Simmons says she hopes the community will come closer together now

Christina Simmons, 56, lives in a street close to the tower and has been a local for 27 years. She’s disabled and has difficulty walking.

“People are coming together and rallying together,” she says.

“I didn’t realise we had so many Eritreans and Somalians, they’ve all come out to offer support.”

She too believes that “they aren’t listening to us,” a phrase she repeats several times.

“Roads were closed recently because of gas works apparently. Well, I didn’t see any works. It creates chaos and I can’t walk very far. No-one told us they were closing the roads.

“They don’t listen to us. We’re being neglected and ignored. I’m bloody angry.”

But she does soften her tone, after expressing sympathy for the horrors for those caught up in the fire.

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“I’d like to see some community meetings,” she says. “Maybe this’ll all bring us closer together.”

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