Here's the thing that surprised me the most about living in Notting Hill: you had the richest people and poorest living right next door to each other. The first time I moved into the area, was only because I was able to get a rental place in a council block (or housing commission as we call it here in Australia).
The owner of the council flat renovated it and put the place up for rent. I shared the flat with four other people and one day on my way to work I saw a certain well-known personality walking her dog in the small park next to my building, while her chauffeur waited for her in a limo.
This became one of the things I loved about London — that the poor and rich lived side by side. But over the years it also highlighted to me how an area with traditionally working class roots and a proud multicultural heritage was becoming increasingly gentrified, its former inhabitants becoming marginalised and pushed out to the edges.
When the Grenfell Tower fire occurred, it laid bare the growing frustrations and unease that many poorer people in the area have been feeling for generations. Notting Hill, and its surrounding suburbs such as North Kensington and Ladbroke Grove, have been home to the Afro-Caribbean community since World War II. In 1958 this area was where Britain's first race riots occurred.
The Notting Hill Carnival, which still happens every year in August, began as a response to those riots. The carnival is now one of the biggest street festivals outside of Rio — although even this is now under threat with growing calls for it to be scaled down or even moved out of the area altogether.
When I went back to visit London earlier this year, I naturally stayed in the area I had called home for close to a decade. I rented an Airbnb that was in a council building, because that's where I was most comfortable, and again because I couldn't afford to stay in the area otherwise.
By that time, along with the Afro-Carribbean community there were increasing numbers of immigrants from many different cultures. My neighbours were Somalian, and several families from Syria were staying in the same council block. When we went for walks around the neighbourhood the familiar Grenfell building would stand tall and proud in the distance — albeit slightly less conspicuous than I remember it with its new cladding designed to let it 'blend into and be sympathetic to the local area'.
The wealthy of the area are of course omnipresent, powerful and now in increasing numbers. Houses in these streets were now easily clearing £5m, and a number of celebrities and well known political figures were calling the area home.
"With the incident slowly starting to drop off the front pages, those not directly impacted by it are already moving on with their lives, getting used to and starting to ignore the burnt-out building at the end of their street in much the same way they were able to ignore the people now burnt alive within it."
All this should put a glaring spotlight on the poverty in which people in the council blocks live. Until the Grenfell Tower fire happened, however, everyone was happy to live in a state of ignorance. The rich ignored that some of the most deprived people in the whole country lived next door to them — invisible in many respects to the point where even though they would share the same borough there was almost an unspoken apartheid in place. They created posh cafes and bars where most of the residents of the council blocks would never visit. Not because they didn't want to, but mostly because they wouldn't be made to feel welcome. The police would actively ensure that the kids from the council estates, many from families who had lived in the area for generations, would stick to their side of the street and not be seen to loiter too close to the 'rich people's flats' across the road.
The Lancaster West Estate, which contains Grenfell Tower, is among the top ten per cent of the most deprived areas in England, whereas the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where the estate is located, is the wealthiest local authority in all of England, whose residents include some of the wealthiest sheikhs, oligarchs, princes and princesses. This wealth disparity, further exacerbated by seven years of austerity and deep cuts in housing, welfare and health and safety regulations created a tinderbox — both figuratively and literally — which exploded on a fateful night where at least 79 of the poorest residents of the borough paid the ultimate price. The fire unleashed a pent-up anger that has taken many not familiar with the local conditions by surprise — not least the British PM, Teresa May, who has faced much criticism for her mishandling and misreading of the situation.
While this tragedy has exposed some glaring inequalities and rightly ignited a lot of anger, one has to wonder where all of this is leading and if there will be any lasting consequences. With the incident slowly starting to drop off the front pages, those not directly impacted by it are already moving on with their lives, getting used to and starting to ignore the burnt-out building at the end of their street in much the same way they were able to ignore the people now burnt alive within it. Attempts by the council to rehouse the victims into some of the 'rich people's flats' have been met with some resistance and lack of compassion from residents worried about their property's value.
Whatever the long-term impact of this tragedy, for me as a former resident of the area it has validated what I knew all along — that events such as these bring out both the best and the worst in people, and that this little corner of West London is a microcosm for greater society and an increasingly unequal world where the poor suffer while the rich increasingly prosper.
Saman Shad is a writer for a number of publications. She is also a storyteller and makes radio programs.