Attack the Block

Even though it is the name of the 2011 film, the phrase “attack the block” could also describe the process of selling off and the regeneration of land and neighbourhoods in London. More precisely, the trend in recent years has been for local authorities to sell housing estates to private developers in order to facilitate large scale renewal of housing stock and the regeneration of neighbourhoods. One justification that councils have offered in making the case for renewal has been that due to the state of disrepair and the social issues presented by such conditions, it is beyond the financial means of councils to refurbish and upgrade the existing housing stock. It is no secret that most sites earmarked for sale are regarded as prime real estate. Enter the property developers who have the resources to purchase and redevelop the valuable land — value that is defined within a paradigm of exchange value rather than use value.
Whilst, of course, the financial burden is passed on to the property developers, and local authorities promise new social and council housing paid for by the proceeds of the land sale, the proposed benefits also have profound consequences. These are starkest for the current residents of any site. For example, the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle — one of the locations in Attack the Block — tenants in social rented accommodation were dispersed across London, and sometimes beyond, to other council housing. Those who owned the leasehold to their properties were offered amounts under compulsory purchase orders that did not allow them to buy a comparative property locally. Those in one bedroom properties were offered an average of £95,480; the cheapest one bedroom flat in the planned Lend Lease development was to cost in excess of £300,000.[1]

The individual and collective social cost to the breaking up of such communities, then, is irreversible separation, as one community is dispersed across a very large city. One of the local campaigns, 35% Elephant, shows the mapped displacement of the former tenants and leaseholders, as depicted in the following images.[2]
ATB1ATB2

These maps provide an interesting visualisation of the dispersal of those former residents. For both tenants and leaseholders, these maps clarify how the former community was geographically exploded. It is also salient that each of the journeys represented by these maps is most likely one-way. With that in mind, these images bring to light a collective parting of ways without the prospect of return or of re-establishment of the former communities.
Added to the sense of irreparable change to the parts of the city’s social fabric, Loretta Lees (2014) makes the argument that the London that is left in its wake is not viable or socially sustainable. New Labour pursued a policy of mixed communities, a policy that aimed to foster social integration and mutual flourishing by engineering a social mix of different backgrounds within the same property development. She highlights how the policy, although oft cited by the Mayor’s office and local authorities in the name of regeneration, has largely been abandoned, given the paucity of planned, genuine social housing by property developers. Lend Lease, for example, have plans for around 25% of the development to be ‘affordable’ social housing — this includes socially rented, affordable rent and shared ownership. Real council housing has been and is being written out of the future.
Lees argues that, with ‘[m]ost of inner London now gentrified, […] council estates and tenants have become the final gentrification frontier’ (2014: loc. 3772). The mixed communities policy has, moreover, merely provided a means by which the state has proceeded to displace estate residents from the Heygate and similar, central London locations. Lees writes, ‘[s]ignificant numbers of low-income tenants have been, and are in the process of being, displaced from their homes and communities in inner London through the guise of mixed communities policy’ (2014: loc. 3834). Such changes in the material reconfiguration of London underscore the ephemerality of the city’s spaces and architectural environment; the Heygate itself was condemned to closure by Southwark council less than 40 years after its completion. However, these changes in the spaces of the city, particularly around Elephant and Castle, conspicuously symbolise the forces of capital guiding the priorities of the local council — where a big bang solution was more favourable than a restoration of the Heygate’s existing housing stock. Such a restoration was, in fact, mooted, costed, and could have been made possible (2014: loc. 4121) but such a modest solution did not serve the priorities of the capital forces which built a narrative around the estate that it was always already inviable [3]. Whilst such capital forces are generative insofar as they ensure the ongoing reconfiguration and creation of the city’s material, perpetuating its unfinished, ephemeral materiality, these forces are also socially destructive. Communities are scattered. Without these, the city’s material fabric is undermined such is the inextricable link between the city’s architectural spaces and their human occupants. Playing bagatelle with communities of people, decoupling people from place, suits capital but does not serve the city well, when the ephemerality of social relations in a large, international city is accelerated and fuelled by the forces that promote its material change.
With the closure of the Heygate and pressure on surviving estates to be swallowed up in the same wave of regeneration, Attack the Block (2011) creatively deals with those who resist forces that threaten the estate. The film follows a gang of teenage boys, led by Moses, in thrall to their estate gang and drug-dealer boss. The boys mug a nurse who, it turns out, lives on the same estate as them. Shortly thereafter, something crashes from the heavens into the street they stand in, wrecking a car. An alien, soon dispatched by Moses, hails the the start of an attack by a legion of other invaders that arrive — the boys’ estate is officially under attack. The straight concrete edges of the estates’ blocks and the distinctive angular walkways belonging to the Heygate are evident as the boys seek to defend their estate against the invaders. In the end, all that the strange creatures appear to have been doing is pursuing the scent of a fellow alien, perhaps in order to mate.
The film is comic and light-hearted and notable for its locations and smaller budget, but the film is vitally political, too. Outsiders and authorities external to the world of the estate are impervious to the assault — the boys stand alone. In this sense, these alien trespassers, bent on the single goal of reaching the dead alien whose scent they keenly detect, do not so much stand for the property developers and local authorities but more for the unseen work of capital forces mentioned above. Their goal is to serve the best interests of capital by the most efficient means. Likewise, the manner of the aliens’ single-minded pursuit of the scent of their fellow life-form, the goal, is just as ruthless: people die; property is ruined; and the estate terrorised.
The total impassivity of the world outside the estate is evident, when, having contacted the police, the young nurse turns up with them on the estate looking for the Moses’ gang. The police’s efforts are fatally sabotaged by the aliens, but, of course, the damage and death come to be blamed by the police at the end upon Moses and friends, residents of the estate. Their otherness, it seems, mandates that whoever comes from the place of alterity must be caught up in the negative mythologies that come to be associated with it over time. Moreover, it is on this very point that the film rebuts such an assumption. After the police are killed, the young, white nurse who is relatively new to the area, teams up with her former assailants to survive. Only at this point do the boys discover that she too lives on the estate, that she is part of their world. They help her escape the aliens and she helps to patch one of the injured up. It is not so much to do with the sense in which the perilous circumstances throw the nurse and her assailants together, rather it is the fact that they are neighbours and live on the same estate that is the key variable that facilitates the transcending of differences in race, class, education, and background. It is not just that this unlikely band fight for their estate; this film defends the notion and potential of such communities.
Francesco Sebregondi (2012) argues that between the time of the Heygate being emptied of all but its most determined residents and prior to the estate’s demolition to make way for new buildings, a kind of void opens up in the city landscape, ‘[a]n unoccupied, un-utilised, un-programmed space’ (2012: 338). Leaving a sealed-off, neglected estate of buildings on display to London residents served the conventional, neoliberal narrative that the estate was destined for closure in any event and that such closures should be welcomed as progress. Sebregondi points out that one of the unique phenomena to arise within the void is its role as an image ‘machine’ (2012: 339). That is, it became the site for many films seeking to shoot on a location that typified brutalist sensibilities, and Attack the Block was, of course, one of those objects that arose from that void. Now, Sebregondi argues that one of the functions of the many films [4] made on the Heygate was to reinforce the narrative of this and other such estates as being harbours of violence and criminal activity. More than this, these images co-opted the memory of the estate, to ensure it would be remembered in such a light. What is interesting about Attack the Block is that there are signs of resistance to the general narrative and the memorialising of the estate as a place of crime and violence. Yes, people are killed by aliens and the boy-hoodlums come from there, but the film models the triumph of the estate, of those supposed troublemakers — who exhibit courage, bravery, and self-sacrifice — united with their one-time victim to survive and defend against the intruding force. And it is the estate as a social fabric, of local people and knowledge that accomplishes the very thing being exploded by capital forces.
The other consequence of the many images of the estate in this period, according to Sebregondi, is that images displace and dislocate. So, ‘related to the very phenomenology of the image, is […] [the dissolution of] both the specificity and the materiality of the Heygate as a place’ (2012: 339). Whilst Attack the Block no doubt participates in this very process, what is championed is the idea of the ‘estate’ as a distinctive place, but also as one that is worth something (other than pounds and pence), against the ’30 years of stigmatisation in political discourse and popular culture [that] has established the council estate as a page already turned in the city’s history’ (2012: 340). The film pictures the Heygate — and indeed every council estate — as something that can and should be fought for, preserved, saved.
As a cultural object that arose from the void in the city’s landscape, Attack the Block embodies the very same things as its characters in defence of the estate.

[1] Ian Steadman, ‘Look to the Heygate Estate for what’s wrong with London’s housing’, New Statesman, 6 November 2013 <http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/11/look-heygate-estate-whats-wrong-londons-housing&gt; [accessed 22 August 2015]
[2] ‘The Heygate Diaspora’, 35% Campaign, 8 June 2013 <http://35percent.org/blog/2013/06/08/the-heygate-diaspora/&gt; [accessed 22 August 2015]. See also the pamphlet: Loretta Lees, Just Space, LTF, SNAG, ‘Challenging “the urban renewal”: the social cleansing of housing estates in London’, in B. Campaign, D. Roberts and R.Ross (eds) Urban Pamphleteer #2 ‘London: regeneration realities’, London: Urban Lab, UCL pp. 6-10 <https://www.ucl.ac.uk/urbanlab/research/urban-pamphleteer/UrbanPamphleteer_2.pdf&gt; [accessed 5 October 2015].
[3] For more for the narratives surrounding the Heygate see Stephen Moss, ‘The death of a housing ideal’, in The Guardian, 4 March 2011 <http://www.theguardian.com/society/2011/mar/04/death-housing-ideal&gt; [accessed 1 October 2015]
[4] For example, films such as Shank (2010), Harry Brown (2009), World War Z (2013) and The Veteran (2011) in addition to television episodes and music videos.

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