Dr Nicola Mann, Assistant Professor of Communications and Visual Cultures, gave a talk entitled ‘A Disconnected Community? (Re)visioning the Heygate Council Estate through Digital Activism’ at the Crime and Deviance in 20th Century Britain conference at the University of Lincoln on June 26th – 27th. The abstract is as follows:
From the wailing police sirens in The Bill (1984-2010), to the gun-toting bad boys in Top Boy (2011-2013), during the late 20th and early 21st century, London’s Heygate council estate was a stage on which to enact terrifying anxieties about crime and social deviance. Channel 4’s use of Heygate as a backdrop for the archetypal “sink” estate in one of its current idents illustrates this dynamic (see image above). Devoid of people save for the traces of human life left by a grubby washing line, Heygate’s graffiti- and rubbish-laden walkways gives visual form to the suspicion that council housing is a lost cause.
As if in answer to these visualizations, in 2010 the government announced a radical overhaul of the estate – a £1.5 billion regeneration project that will transform the area into a “brand-new town centre” over the next fifteen years. By demolishing the Heygate and replacing it with mixed-income accommodations, the council aim to integrate its residents into the same neighborhoods as doctors, teachers and others gainfully employed in the hope that diversity will help counteract the area’s association with concentrated poverty, organized crime and dependency on benefits. I propose that the dystopian vision of the Heygate in popular culture contributed to its notoriety in the nation’s visual imagination, and consequently helped to influence, either ideologically or psychically, the current socio-spatial restructuring of its urban landscape.
In spite of these ravaging visual treatments, some residents express a keen historical attachment to their living environment. Ex-Heygate resident, Jean Bartlett, accepts there are problems on the estate, but disputes its horrific reputation: “We find it unfair that the media always come here and think we’re so bloody deprived. We’re not.” The latter part of this presentation considers the visual activism of residents who respond to the dominant visualizations of their homes with counter-narratives centred on an attachment to place. I focus primarily on the website, Southwark Notes, which re-connects displaced tenants, attempting to reflect the civic engagement that came to play a dominant role in life on the Heygate during its lifetime.
Dr Mann teaches on the BA and MA programmes in Art History and Visual Culture at Richmond University.