It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in Ladbroke Grove, West London. The Grenfell community has been preparing to welcome over a million people to the Notting Hill Carnival on August 25-26. I am sitting with Grenfell community leader and musician Niles Hailstones in a cafe across the street from Acklam Village where he opened Bay 56. It’s an occupied space that became a community refuge for emotional and physical support in the immediate aftermath of the nearby Grenfell Tower fire in North Kensington that took the lives of 72 people on June 14, 2017.
Niles is donning his trademark, wide-brimmed, pointy straw hat. A tall, quietly spoken man, he seems like a different character to the angry community orator who has confronted local council decision-makers at public meetings over their dealings with a traumatized community post-Grenfell.
On numerous occasions, he has spoken out on the behalf of bereaved Grenfell community members either waiting for justice to prevail or to be rehoused, or both. No arrests, no convictions, no punishment, he tells me, until the pending conclusions of an excruciatingly slow-running public inquiry have been made.
But, allegedly, blunders by the local council continue to be made even in the aftermath of the fire. According to a report by Inside Housing, a block of apartments chosen by the authority to rehouse Grenfell survivors was found to have “high fire risks.”
“Grenfell is never going away,” Niles tells me. He pauses mid-conversation at various intervals to say hello or talk to people who stop to ask about the progress of carnival preparations. At Bay 56, locals have been busy making Grenfell-themed banners, artwork, flyers and posters, positioning them in prime locations across the area for carnival crowds to see.
Over the last 26 months, this occupied space, born from the foundations of a catastrophic tragedy that devastated a community, has metamorphosed into a vibrant “healing” hub of cultural activities for a community spanning toddlers to 80-year-old pensioners.
Niles says the community aims to keep hold of Bay 56 as a space for people to bring their children and elders. “It represents healing and reparations of the people. It represents the phoenix rising from the ashes.”
A Symbol of Community
Hundreds of people, it seems, have been regularly coming here for support and healing since the Grenfell Tower fire. This includes 15-year-old model and artist Malachi Baptise who teaches creative writing at Bay 56, runs art classes and practices Capoeira. “It’s been positive and healing for people of all ages,” he tells me.
Bay 56 is a “powerful symbol of community,” a man mentions. Malachi’s mother Karen adds: “The support network is simply incredible. Teenagers get good grounding and mentoring. I’ve seen them practice their creative skills and go out and get jobs. There’s a shoulder to cry on if you’re feeling down. What Niles has provided, you can’t put a price on it.”
Niles tells me the space is symbolic during carnival for various reasons. “Historically, it will always be connected to Grenfell because of the energy that came out of that initial period of direct community response in the face of state and local authority failure to deal with the situation.
“We weren’t waiting for them to respond. And those of us who knew it and felt it had to get to work straight away and do whatever we could do that was within our power.”
A spokesperson for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) said: “It isn’t factual to say the council was not there — 340 members of staff were mobilized and supported on rehousing, booking hotels for people and taking donations at the town hall.
“We have already said that elements of our response were not good enough, and we have reviewed this so that we can provide better support in an emergency situation.”
Bay 56 is also symbolic of the community’s ongoing battle with the Westway Trust, an organization seen to “operate like a property developer” after it took control of administering 23 acres of land allocated for community use after a dual carriage was driven through the heart of the area in 1971, demolishing homes, destroying streets and creating high-level noise and pollution.
Niles says Bay 56 is a tiny part of that land which the community has managed to reclaim. He adds that it was thanks to “community strength” in 2015 that Westway Trust plans to convert part of the area into a shopping center were also shelved after getting “blocked” by campaigners.
“Apart from where we are now, we have managed to reclaim zero land. It’s because we occupied it after Grenfell. That’s the only reason Bay 56 exists.”
72 Seconds for Grenfell
Despite the air of excitement surrounding carnival in the area, one thing is certain: Things will never be the same again for this community. While there’s a friendly atmosphere outside the coffee shop, people are on high alert and unsurprisingly sensitive, particularly to news about another fire on Saturday morning at a high-rise block right next to Grenfell Tower.
Carnival is a poignant time to project the “message of injustice” felt by the community since the fire, Niles tells me. “This is the one time of year when the highest volume of people come into the area, so we have to keep the tragedy of Grenfell in the collective conscience.
“We’ll be making sure we all observe the 72 seconds of silence for the people of Grenfell. Obviously, it’s a very difficult thing in the midst of the mayhem. It doesn’t work at every spot, but it works enough for it to be significant, noticed and recognized.
“The main thing is to keep it on the table. So yes, people come to rave and party at carnival, but there are also real issues going on in this area they need to be aware of when they’re here.”
Thousands observed the silence on Sunday afternoon after sound systems were switched off and were preparing to do so at 3 pm on Monday as well.
Niles says that the carnival itself is born from the “protest movement against institutional racism and police brutality,” but that the “colonialist mindset” of authorities during that time continues to exist even today within the parameters of the RBKC council.
“They called our area “little Africa” after the fire, he adds, “this is what we’re up against, so when people come to carnival, Grenfell is something that no one here can really ever get away from. We’ve got a history of struggle in this area and it’s important that people who come here understand this.”
We take a walk back over to Acklam Village where I had wandered in to look for Niles an hour or so earlier. We climb through the unofficial side entrance into the Bay 56 where local artists are busy spraying graffiti art over the front doors of the space.
Large, vibrant murals adorn the walls and several paintings with emblems of the green Grenfell heart and messages of community are rolled up, ready to be rigged to the space. Several young people hang around bantering with the adults as Niles and other locals residents continue organizing the space for the carnival crowds. He plans on creating a “peaceful” environment at Bay 56 during carnival by allowing entrance to a limited number of people.
Optix Hamilton, a filmmaker and founder of a housing and social action group, Access to Basic Provisions, says the space “brings everyone together and will do even more so during carnival.”
He adds: “Carnival is an important time for the local community. We’ve got a history of fighting injustice. We’ve experienced the extreme brunt of those issues. So when people come here, it’s crucial to convey that understanding because what’s happened here represents a microcosm of the issues currently facing this country.”
Later on Saturday night, a high-rise block neighboring Grenfell Tower was illuminated bright green by community action group Green for Grenfell. It’s an iconic grade II listed building that also experienced a fire in April 2017 after its 27th floor went up in flames and 200 people were evacuated. It was lit up again on Sunday night and will be again on Monday too.
Things will never be the same here. But there’s a powerful spirit of community in North Kensington and there’s no doubt that carnival crowds will feel it, maybe even before they see the signs reminding them about the Grenfell Tower fire.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.