Sign from Grenfell marchIndia Stronach

Some time before the year 1356, a Saxon named Cnotta established his settlement on a hill to the west of London, and named it Cnottaing. This became Knottynghull, or Notingbarons. Today, Notting Hill is affluent district within the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea with a strong history of creativity, high fashion, and deathly social division.

The Hill’s artistic heritage dates back to Pottery Lane in the 19th century, from which vast brick kilns remain scattered about the district. By the 1840s, landowners undertook a vast series of developments, creating stunning communal gardens and pretty Georgian squares. Although the houses were spacious and beautiful, the upper classes could not be enticed away from their preferred stomping grounds in Central London. Prices were lowered, and the district was filled with the middle class, drawn to the bland aristocratic styles and affordable prices. Novelists and antique dealers began to fill the streets as they do to this day.

In the early 20th century the neighbourhood’s fortunes began to turn. Cascading ill luck befell residents. Extensive bombings demolished the dainty squares and churches. Serial killer Reg Christie papered his victims into the walls of his elegant townhouse. Racketeers seized the opportunity to create a profit, slicing vast homes into cheap flats until Notting Hill had become known as one of London’s most crime-ridden slums.

Low prices attracted a wave of immigrants from the West Indies in the wake of the Second World War, met with almost instant hostility from the local Teddy Boy subculture. Tensions spawned a wave of violent assaults on black residents reaching a head in 1958, when white passers-by aggressively intervened in an argument between an interracial married couple. The next day the woman, Majbritt Morrison, was assaulted by a gang of white men who had witnessed the incident. The riots began that night, and went on for days.

Now known as the Notting Hill Race Riots, mobs of up to 400 attacked the homes of West Indian residents. Almost 150 arrests were made, primarily of white Teddy Boys, but also of black residents carrying illegal weapons for their own safety. Nine white young men were given exemplary sentences of five years and a total of £4500 in fines.

Trinidadian activist Claudia Jones had moved to London after being exiled from America for her outspoken political views. She organised what would become the Notting Hill Carnival, now Europe’s biggest street festival, to help recover from the riots and build race relations in a still-divided London. The carnival remains the epicentre of controversy in Notting Hill. Each year, there are demands by police and participants alike to make it a ticketed event, which residents and activists consider an attempt to keep out the people whom the carnival was always intended to bring together.

The 1975 carnival was deemed troublesome by police, whose sole purpose at the carnival had been to prevent it, since local authorities had not given it permission to continue. In 1976, they took a particularly forceful approach to minor troubles, breaking up the entire gathering after discovering pickpockets in the crowd. The media, like the police, decried the carnival as a riotous mob.

None of these tensions disrupted the carnival, but Notting Hill remained a world of divisions. By the early 1990s, property sections were unable to give an average cost of living because the gulf between rich and poor was too wide to accurately quantify. The pattern of gentrification begins when the rich can no longer accommodate the lifestyles of the rest of the area.

“As long as the area stays poor, it will be seen as crime-ridden and unsafe, until it cultivates its own aura of cool, and the process begins again”

Working class neighbourhoods like Notting Hill tend to develop an aura of cool – new fashions, new music and new food bubble up from the intersections of culture created by low rents. The excitement is what draws people to the area, and the wealthy begin to move in. With them come the shops and lifestyles they can afford. The residents who created the community are slowly priced out, and the area becomes home only to the rich. Soullessly indistinguishable from any other home of the rich. The poor find somewhere they can afford. For as long as the area stays poor, it will be seen as crime-ridden and unsafe, until it cultivates its own aura of cool, and the process begins again.

Grenfell was one of many council blocks in Notting Hill. Rumours have flared up on whether the cladding, intended to improve the appearance of the blocks, was to blame for the fire’s fast spread. Incendiary comments aimed at immigrant tenants have sparked tensions again. Activists have fought for months for the class and race divides that impact the case to be brought to attention, acknowledged in the trial. Organisers and survivors united the community for the first time since Cnotta, the unknown Saxon, laid his claim upon the hill.

On the 14th of each month since the fire, people have gathered to march in silence up Ladbroke Grove to honour the victims. In September, I walked past the flat where I used to live before the rents went up. There were news cameras, and reporters who spoke in hushed, respectful whispers. The traffic fell still, buses static with uncomplaining passengers. We walked past trees lined with spikes to keep the birds from landing in them. Later, people gathered in candlelight, volunteers handed out hot food and leading chants. In the true spirit of Notting Hill, a heartbroken survivor led the group in singing a Bob Marley song

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