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From Grenfell to the Bronx: How Public Housing Suffers Under Global Capitalism

by in Culture on 13th June, 2023

In the words of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” For a long time, I interpreted this powerful quote as a poignant depiction of the refugee experience, one that explores the fractured relationship between a displaced person and the places they call “home”. Shire’s words have resonated with generations of people, including our parents, who were forced to flee their countries due to the destructive legacy of imperialism and colonialism, even as ‘[they] carried the anthem under [their] breath’. 

Today, Shire’s poem ‘Home’ can be reinterpreted to explain the current wave of gentrification of public housing, and the insidious cycle of displacement that denies migrants and others the right to belong. 

The Architectural History of High Rises

The issue of public housing hits home for many of us, young Muslims, who were raised in high-density living and have witnessed its transformation from a basic human necessity to a commodity that is part of an increasingly expensive housing market. Social housing came during a time when rapid industrialisation met mass production and modern architects, committed to a ‘form follows function’ doctrine, began to treat housing like products made in factories. They designed what they thought of as the most efficient and best functioning housing, and reproduced it en masse. This is why most high-rise buildings — from Paris to Melbourne — look strikingly similar. 

Spearheaded by modern architects, the architectural and spatial qualities of social housing produce identical, bleak rows of high-rise towers with dark, narrow hallways that seek to separate neighbours rather than bring them together. The units were historically built to fit the White nuclear family; a family structure that consists of two parents and two children. 

So, when newer and bigger family types began to resettle in the Global North, ethnic families often bear the brunt of living in overcrowded homes. Up until my first year of university, I lived in a three bedroom house with eight family members, and although I cherish them dearly, this living arrangement undoubtedly had a formative influence on both myself, and the 42% of Muslim children who live in similar conditions. Without peaceful and private spaces to study, we are more likely to achieve lower educational outcomes, as well as an increased risk of developing psychological stress, sleep disturbance, and infectious diseases.

Melbourne-based youth worker Idil Ali speaks about overcrowding in relation to the March 2020 COVID-19 tower lockdowns, where nine high-rise buildings in North Melbourne and Flemington placed residents under an immediate lockdown for five days. Idil, raised in the Carlton flats and now working alongside the youth living in the estates, recounts the community’s calls for preemptive action against the pandemic. 

“From February [of 2020], people noticed we have a lot of overcrowding… so if COVID reaches the buildings, it’s actually concerning for our community members. And [the Victorian government] is not doing anything. Not a thing.”

When COVID-19 numbers began to rise, an Ombudsman report revealed that the decision to detain people with no warning was driven by politics, not public health. In fact, the Deputy Chief Health Officer had less than fifteen minutes to approve the directive before the press conference was held and five hundred police officers were deployed to enforce the lockdown on every single floor of every high-rise building. This was particularly traumatic for the overly-criminalised youth, who have a fraught relationship with the police, and the tower residents, some of whom survived dictatorships or civil wars and were overwhelmed by the heavy police presence.

Melbourne, the Bronx and Grenfell: Where does it connect?

If we engage in a meaningful comparison between London’s Grenfell tragedy, New York’s Bronx fire, and Melbourne’s COVID-19 high-rise tower lockdowns — we can see how the public housing crisis transcends national borders into a problem far more pervasive than we initially assume.

In January 2022, when news spread of the tragic Bronx fires that claimed the lives of seventeen mostly Gambian Muslims residents from a tight-knit estate, grievers across the US and UK drew parallels between the fire and the Grenfell inferno that occurred nearly five years prior. Both incidents undoubtedly symbolise the elimination of the racialised working class through the violent process of social cleansing and gentrification. 

Grenfell was the first to highlight the economic and political realities of London’s housing estates and catalysed a global conversation about social housing under a Thatcher-inspired laissez-faire economic system.

Using post-Grenfell frameworks, the public  were able to identify the inextricable link between the Bronx space heater fire and a failure to uphold proper building regulations and conduct. Neither of the buildings had a fire sprinkler system, functioning fire extinguishers, or an alarm system; in Grenfell, this was compounded by flammable, non-compliant material, faulty wiring, and a lack of fire safety procedures. 

In Melbourne, where the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) act as a landlord to housing estates, there are similarities to be drawn in relation to its history of building negligence and lack of maintenance. Just like the long list of complaints issued by the Bronx residents, tenants and community workers in Melbourne alerted the DHHS about the risk of COVID-19 spreading in disinvested, unmaintained high-density towers, which was left unacknowledged until it was too late. 

These incidents demonstrate a callous disregard for the safety of immigrants and Muslims tenants, outlining the ways in which political establishments, in their respective countries, view their lives as disposable and unimportant. As a response, Idil Ali speaks on the importance of community resistance in spaces that are adamant to push us out, and the ways in which our Islamic faith can guide us in the pursuit of housing justice. 

“I think the biggest lesson I learnt from it was.. if you don’t stand up for yourself, if you don’t stand up communally, the amount of harm we’d experience if we depended on the fairness or kindness of people in power is ridiculous,” states Idil. 

She expresses that, “Being a Muslim gives you many answers in terms of what it means to not be in despair. It teaches [us] hopefulness. As Muslimeen, we have a responsibility to fight for justice in this life. To not be forces of oppression, and to not support oppression.” 

Allah tells us,“O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both.” (Qur’an 4:135)

Idil’s words are an important reminder to uphold key tenets of the Islamic faith and place our trust in Allah (S.W.T), no matter how widespread and complex the problems we face grow. She tells us that the frameworks of justice already exist within our religion, and it must inform how we respond to the tests of this Dunya. 

A Media Analysis: The Gentrification of Public Housing

Gentrification and “redevelopments” were strong themes in the last two seasons of Netflix’s Top Boy. Committed to a cycle of disinvestment, demolition and privatisation, estate redevelopments are one of most common ways residents are forced out of their homes to live in far-away suburbs that diminish their social networks and sense of  belonging.

In season one, the issue is not explicitly spoken about, but rather it’s alluded to by the camera focus and non-verbal acting. A notable scene is when Dushane comes back to the Summerhouse estates after a few years and notices the early signs of gentrification, such as newcomers who are White and seemingly wealthy, an increased cost of living, new shops that have replaced the old ones, and of course, hipster cafes (Ep 1, S1). We also hear a bit of talk of a potential redevelopment from the rich, white characters in casual conversation. 

Morality in TOP BOY – The Blurred Line Between Right and Wrong | Netflix 

However, in season 2, it escalates into a central issue that the Summerhouse residents, including Dushane’s mum, are trying to resist. It shows how subtle, slow, and seemingly harmless gentrification is in its early stages, but how quickly it can become violent during the final run. It also opens an intriguing conversation about the inner workings of Black capitalism as we watch Dushane’s transformation from a young man raised in the Summerhouse estate, to now an investor in the redevelopment who is willing to demolish and gentrify an estate that gave him so much.  

This discussion also extends to grime artist Stormzy and his politically charged rap performance at the 2018 Brit Award. An ode to the victims of Grenfell, Stormzy’s performance slams Theresa May’s government for their unfulfilled promises for Grenfell, and their attempt to erase the tragedy from the nation’s memory. One line from Stormzy’s rap – “you criminals, and you got the cheek to call us savages,” – stuck out to me, because it highlights the ethnocentric ideas surrounding immigrant residents that predates the dark colonial history of the UK, the US and Australia. 

This showed itself when an Australian Senator justified the Melbourne tower lockdowns by labelling the tenants as “drug addicts” and “alcoholics” who did not know how to speak English, and therefore could not follow COVID-19 protocol. But across the street from the towers, private residents living in newly-gentrified areas, were given nearly eight hours to prepare for their own ‘stay at home’ directions. It reveals the State’s desire to paternalise and exert control over ethnic minorities, especially when they do not have ownership of their homes. 

Cultural sociologist Stuart Hall builds on this link between colonialism and housing injustice. He states, “They are here because you were there. There is an umbilical connection. There is no understanding Englishness without understanding its imperial and colonial dimensions.”

So when the media tells Stormzy, and by extension all immigrant social housing residents, that they should be grateful for the opportunities, and especially the housing,  given to him by the charitable West, it reveals the conditional basis of our acceptance in these countries. It is, however, crucial to remember Hall’s words as it tells us that our existence in the Global North is a by-product of the exploitation, extortion and destruction of our home countries, and we have a legitimate claim to the places we live today. 

As the world increasingly globalises, so do the issues we face. The failures of public housing have a visceral impact on the lives tenants lead, and when we draw global connections between places like the USA, UK and Australia, it helps inform the solutions required to address housing injustice on a global scale.


References

  1. Carrasco, Dangol & Faleh, “Our lives matter – Melbourne public housing residents talk about why COVID-19 hits them hard”, in The Conversation, July 24, 2020.
  2. Glass, “Investigation into the detention and treatment of public housing residents arising from a COVID-19 ‘hard lockdown’ in July 2020”, in the Victorian Ombudsman, December 17, 2020.
  3. Hall, “Exhibition: Black Chronicles II”, in the Autograph, 2008. 
  4. Lockwood & Scruton, “Why Beauty Matters”, in The British Broadcasting Corporation, November 28, 2009. 
  5. Sandhu & Balakumaran, “Join The Dots: Geographical Displacement”, in The Real News Network, July 19, 2017.
  6. Schubert, “Melbourne public housing tenant says Pauline Hanson stubby cooler sent during lockdown was ‘salt in the wound’”, in the Australian Broadcasting Coorporation, September 10, 2020. 
  7. Shire, “Home”, republished in Facing History and Ourselves, December 3, 2020, originally written in 2009. 
  8. Weaver, “Overcrowding crisis hits Muslim families hardest”, in The Guardian, September 24, 2004. 
Nasteho Said

Nasteho Said

Nasteho Said is a Global Studies and Journalism student at Monash University. She regularly makes video essays and writes articles on topics related to identity, literature, politics, news, and more. Find her on Youtube and at @heirofthehorn.

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