The Grenfell tower fire: a symbol of poverty and desperation in Britain

Survivors and their families not only have to deal with an intrusive press and official investigators, but also with tourists taking selfies in front of the tower. Luckily, a group of dedicated volunteers is protecting it.

Lydia Morrish
Lydia Morrish NewsMavens, United Kingdom
The Grenfell tower fire: a symbol of poverty and desperation in Britain - NewsMavens
Grenfell Tower fire. Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

On a back street close to the burned-out shell of Grenfell Tower, a damp, handmade poster is fastened to a metal fence with cable ties.

“Please act with respect and hold our loss in your mind. Please no photos,” it reads.

Next to it, an elderly man in a wheelchair takes a picture of the blackened tower.

The same poster is tacked onto boards and walls around the west London neighborhood on the edges of Notting Hill. It’s symptomatic of a community that has felt under siege while dealing with the emotional fallout of the “worst loss of life in a fire since World War II in London”, according to the London Fire Brigade. 

A suspected 71 people died and an official inquiry into the causes of the fire started last week, six months after the event.

News of the fire in the public housing high rise reached newsrooms across the world, as passionate debates on social housing and the poverty gap swelled in the UK. Grenfell has now become a symbol of poverty and desperation in Britain.

Survivors and their friends and families say that, as well as dealing with an intrusive press and official investigators, they have also had to discourage tourists taking selfies in front of the tower.

But as locals try to deal with the overwhelming attention, volunteers on the ground are trying to keep the grieving community in one piece.

Since the 24-story housing block caught fire on June 14, volunteers have been putting together a community support project for traumatized locals. It began informally in the corner of a car park under a busy main road a short distance from the tower -- now universally known as simply “Grenfell”.

A remarkable memorial space, about the size of a tennis court, is occupied by a small group of Grenfell residents, friends, family, and volunteers. It has become a place of safety and security, of reflection and also grief.

Homely furniture is carefully arranged into cosy spaces. An electric generator powers a kettle, tea bags overflow from a plastic pot, and donated books are piled up before they’re slotted into a bookcase. A mother plays on an old piano with her toddler. Multi-coloured murals and detailed stories written by survivors cover the walls.

Four months after the blaze and one of the memorial space’s main volunteers, who goes by the name ‘Livingstone’, says the atmosphere is still emotionally raw. The community is still in shock.

“I’m trying to put it back together,” he says. “We’re just Grenfell, Grenfell the men on the ground. That’s it. Simple.”

Livingstone is from Kilburn, 20 minutes away across London, but has friends and family who live near the tower. In between jobs as a bodyguard and self-employed gardener, Livingstone, in his 50s, visits the memorial space every day. He provides a second eye for artists painting motivational murals on the stone walls. He liaises with the volunteers who come and go, on rotating shifts throughout the day and night. And he offers support.

Meanwhile, other industrious volunteers have been distributing clothes, toys and furniture from charity shops, the streets and their own homes. There are several hundred books. Duvets, blankets and sleeping bags have been handed out. Pot plants have been gifted.

Read my full report on the Grenfell volunteers and their memorial space on WikiTribune.

Details from the story:

  • 71 people died in the Grenfell Tower blaze, the worst loss of life in a fire in London since World War II.
  • A public inquiry into the causes of the fire started last week.
  • The community has felt under siege while dealing with the emotional fallout of the fire, as the media and passersby flocked to the area in West London.
  • Ever since the fire in June, volunteers have been putting together a community support project for traumatized locals. The result is a remarkable DIY communal space near the burnt remains of the tower.

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