I heard gunfire the other night. One loud pop, ricocheting all about the estate then a police siren, the car wailing up Heygate Road and coming to a sudden stop somewhere below our building. Two more pops in close succession, as loud as depth charges with the echo off the neighboring buildings, then another police siren then another.
Then nothing. A lot of noises bother me, but gunfire isn’t one of them. It says a lot about how long I lived in Brooklyn, where the sound of gunfire was such a regular occurrence it became part of the background noise of the city, that I couldn’t even rouse myself out of bed to have a look. I fell asleep moments later.
I’d heard a lot of stories about the Heygate before I moved in. A guy I met who used to take his karate class up on the roof of one of the larger estates (no, I don’t know why either), told me crack houses dotted the council flats on the upper stories. Friends who lived behind the estate near the Old Kent Road talked about the drug addicts and the hookers appearing in the little park in front of their house – about pimps so brazen they hustled women with babies in strollers in hopes of turning them out. Like most ‘failed’ estates, the Heygate is seen by a lot of people as a nest of hooded teens lurking around dark corners with killer dogs, drug gangs, the aforementioned crack houses – a nightmare of mayhem, deprivation and crime that needs to be eviscerated as soon as possible.
The first thing I noticed after I moved in was the quiet. Except for the background traffic noise and the odd car stereo booming for a few minutes from the parking lot – and of course the gunfire the other night which is the only time I've ever heard anything like that - the estate is by and large a quiet place. With the concrete walls, you hardly hear the neighbors – and if you do it’s usually just their kids playing (or crying). Families, by and large, seem to dominate the estate and people seem respectful of that. The odd time a sound system goes off for a party it’s turned down at a reasonable hour. Many Hispanics, many Africans. On the terraces or the rickety metal lift, people are civil, if somewhat distant. Council workers come by a couple of times a week to sweep out the terraces, drop off Southwark Council recycling bags, collect the trash.
The only two hoodies I’ve encountered have been two Latin kids at the foot of the gangway which leads to the estate – pleasant looking kids who were quick to make room for me and even apologized for being in the way. In the parking lot you see Smart Cars, sedans. Plenty of people in Gore-tex biking to work in the morning. At six am, when I usually get up, the first commuters are already starting down the gangways to tube, bus, car.
People live here for the same reason I do: this is one of the last affordable places in central London, especially for a newcomer to the city.
Still, you could be forgiven for not realizing this at first. Paint peels from the gangways, the terrace balconies, all around the flats themselves. Even in my building overlooking the train tracks, every fourth or fifth is blocked off by sheet metal barriers – on the estate behind Heygate, entire terraces, three city blocks long, look like one seam of metal. The council patrols, keeps out the squatters, but you can tell that in one year, two, these buildings will be reduced to rubble.
If I was a kid, maybe I’d love living in a place like this – after all, kids have an innate fascination for abandoned buildings. Just as long as it wasn’t dangerous. As it is, I wonder what the kids here think about what is going on around them . . .