Once home to 7500 people, the Aylesbury estate in Elephant and Castle is now a ghost town. The demolition plan of one of the biggest housing estates in Europe has made almost all the residents move out. However, one woman is determined to stay till the very end.
When Aysen Dennis moved to the Aylesbury Estate in 1993, things were quite different. “It was more vibrant and homely,” she says while recalling her past days. After facing several racial abuses because of her Turkish ethnicity, Dennis finally realised that the multicultural estate was somewhere she belonged. She describes the entire living arrangement as “living in a big family together” where everyone knows each other and cares like a family. “I knew all my neighbours, and so did they. Once, a mother living in my block was admitted to a hospital because of surgery. We all cooked for three days for her family until she got back home. That was the kind of culture we had together at the Aylesbury estate.”
But things look quite different now. Once home to more than 7500 residents, the Aylesbury estate looks like a haunted setting now. The open spaces that used to be full of children playing are now occupied with night crimes and drug deals. There are flies buzzing everywhere, the smell of mould and dampness in the interior, lifts on the verge of falling off the cables, and pin-drop silence. All of these are consequences of the Southwark Council’s move to knock the estate down.
Aylesbury estate was built in the 1960s in an attempt to clear out slums in the area. Ironically, it met the same fate in the early 2000s when the Southwark Council decided to take it down instead of refurbishing the flats and replace the entire estate with upscaled residences. Considering the fact that Aylesbury was a hub for council homes, Southwark Council’s plan of demolishing the estate was nothing short of an attempt at gentrification.
As a result, almost all the residents started to move out, leaving the Aylesbury estate with just a handful of people. But Aysen Dennis did not settle for it. Instead, she has been fighting against the Southwark Council for the past 25 years, and at large, against gentrification. “They cannot demolish my home, our home just like that. They have wiped out an entire colony rich in culture. I will not let them win, even if it takes my whole life,” said Dennis in a recent public protest against the Southwark Council.
Gentrification is increasingly becoming a pertinent issue in all the global cities around the globe, with London being no exception. While the regeneration of towns and cities can have positive economic outcomes, it can also create massive socio-economic and cultural blows when done at the expense of the local ethnic working class. The transformation of social housing into upscaled urban residences diminishes the availability of low-cost housing and pushes vulnerable communities out in areas with high costs of living. This displacement often breaks support networks and disrupts the social fabric of a region.
Furthermore, gentrification also causes a rise in property prices and increases the cost of living in the surrounding areas. As more affluent people start to move into these areas, their demand for goods and services goes up, increasing the prices and subsequently displacing marginalised communities who can no longer afford to stay in that area. This sequence perpetuates segregation between the rich and the poor, with the latter being pushed to the outskirts of the cities, away from all the major opportunities and central resources.
While there is no denying that infrastructural development is a crucial aspect of any global city’s success, doing so at the expense of long-standing marginalised communities can do more bad than good. In the case of the Aylesbury estate, the Southwark Council could have incorporated new housing plans while refurbishing the whole place for the existing residents, which would have prevented the displacement of the local people. Alternative solutions and protective measures, such as preserving affordable housing, developments catering to mixed-income groups, and rent freezes need to be implemented to strike a balance between development and social justice. By doing so, governing bodies can ensure London progresses towards a more inclusive path, creating true diversity and adding to the city’s rich culture and heritage.