Friday, 15 October 2010

How my multicultural dream went sour

How my multicultural dream went sour

August 5, 2004

Our correspondent, a New Yorker, imagined that life for her family on a London council estate would be a perfect example of community spirit. Then junk and urine in her garden, threats from neighbours and a drug-related killing outside her front door forced her to question her liberal values
- Michele Kirsch

SOMEWHERE between the time my children called out of the window to a dead man and his seriously injured girlfriend, “Would you like some chocolate digestives?” on the first estate, and the day I threatened to kill the wrong pit bull on the second estate, I started to understand how a good family could go bad.

The day I came back from the police station, after the care-in-the-community lady upstairs who hated white people in general and me in particular threatened to strangle me, my husband said, for the 100th time: “We should have stayed in the first flat.”

The first flat was two tiny rooms in a nice private cobblestoned enclave in Stoke Newington. There were a lot of families like us there — first step on the property ladder, first baby. There was a great sense of community. We were squashed but never felt poor. The negative equity-trapped families who had two school-age kids, with the parent sleeping on a sofabed in the front room, the kids crammed into the wardrobe-sized bedroom — they were poor. I thought they were nuts to live like that. Better to cut their losses and move into a bigger place with a manageable mortgage. There were large, reasonably priced ex-council flats with gardens in Hackney. Yeah, but we don’t want to live on an estate, they’d say. I didn’t get it.

I come from New York City, where people live in tiny, overpriced apartments, houses in Brooklyn, Queen’s, or the suburbs, or the Projects if they are really poor — city subsidised, urine-in-the-lift flats with huge cinder blocks and tiny windows to make you feel like you are in prison. Most of the people who lived in the Projects were black, Puerto Rican or white people who had too many kids and not enough money. The Projects were not a microcosm of New York’s supposed melting pot. It was never a melting pot, but more like a bunch of little pots simmering on the same stove.

There was a racial pecking order, largely dependent on who got there first. Though everybody hated the Puerto Ricans. Even other Puerto Ricans who had just come over were contemptuous of the “New Yoricans” who had been there a while. The Projects are American tower blocks, I guess. I didn’t even know what a tower block was until my class-conscious friend who lived in one on the Isle of Dogs wanted to know if my richer friends thought it was weird that he had a good job but lived in a tower block. “Tower block? I said you lived in a skyscraper with great views of London.” Like an estate agent would.

Council estates, the ones I had seen, were something between the Projects and normal apartments. Multicultural, yes, but they seemed altogether a more civilised affair because they were in England, where everyone said please and thank you and called you “Luv”, and black guys went with white girls and had beautiful children. It was Benetton on the dole, and I thought it was great. I didn’t know if the lifts smelled because on the estates I visited the lifts were always broken. I remember the graffiti on the stairwell: “We rule tings.” I laughed at the phonetic spelling, but wondered who “we” were. Didn’t keep me up at night, though.

When our first child was nearly two, her long limbs ridiculously draping over the plastic baby bath I still had to bathe her in, I said to my husband: “Let’s move to a bigger place, we can get an ex-council place that we can afford.” He also had a thing about estates, and we probably rowed about it, but finally, seduced by space, we moved to a three-bedroom ex-council flat on an estate called The C**t. Actually, it was called The Mount, but on the sign, someone had crossed out the M and O and replaced it with a C. Did I take this as a sign? I did not, even though it was, literally, a sign. Three bedrooms! All that space, hurrah! Yes, it was just off Clapton’s Murder Mile, but it wasn’t called that yet.

Not long after we moved in, the woman upstairs started chucking things into our patch of front garden — chicken carcasses, empty crisp packets, beer bottles, dirty nappies. She had three sons who were often taken into care, and she wore the vacant look of the heavily medicated. That was on good days when she took the medicine. On bad days she was out for blood, usually mine. I was the “white bitch whore” who “troubled” her sons by asking them not to chuck stuff in our garden. I rang the estate manager. They said she was care in the community and had “issues” with a violent past. I said I was getting “issues” as well and that I didn’t feel safe. I knew she had to live somewhere but even complaining about her made me feel non-PC and selfish, the council-estate equal of a nimby and quite a literal one, as I wanted her to stop throwing her junk in our yard.

But then she had a boyfriend who literally took the p**s in our front garden, holding his penis with one hand and a fried chicken leg in the other. I don’t know if it was a call of nature or a call of contempt, but it was a hell of a metaphor and I wrote about it for a newspaper. By the time the article came out I had had another child, and I took the kids to a one o’clock club (a play club for children) in the park. The woman who ran the club was black and had been friendly until she read the article. She said: “Why did you have to say the guy who did that disgusting thing was black? All you middle-class mums, you use our facilities, you take what you can out of the borough and then you have the nerve to write stuff like this. What do you expect if you live on an estate? Of course people throw nappies now and then, but this is racist.”

What was interesting was that I hadn’t said he was black. Though he was. It didn’t seem important. It was the stench of his urine, not the colour of his skin, that upset me. And the one o’clock woman, she lived on an estate, and she never had any trouble, she said. Was it because she was black? I started to ask myself some uncomfortable questions, which reached a frenzied liberal height when my then 4½-year-old daughter announced, after another incident with woman-with-violence-issues upstairs, that she didn’t like black people. I grabbed her by the shoulders and shrieked: “You don’t mean that! Don’t say that! What about . . .” And here I listed our friends who are black. In gestures that make me cringe now, I remember putting up a picture of June, my best friend in New York, who happens to be a black woman from London, on my bulletin board. I bought my daughter a black baby doll to push in her pram. I made more arrangements to see Nicky and her kids (black) and Khanyi and her kids (mixed race) to show her that nice people are nice people, that race meant nothing.

Then there was a black-on-black drug-related killing just outside my ground-floor living-room window. A dazed woman, bleeding heavily from her leg, was leaning against a car. The driver was slumped dead over the steering wheel, his head a bloody mess. I rang 999 and was told to wrap the woman’s leg in a towel until the ambulance came. I climbed out of the window and handed the towel to a guy who was helping the woman. There was a crowd of about 50 people, some standing on our little patch of Clapton. My kids did what they always do when we have company, which was to fetch the biscuit tin. “Would anyone like a biscuit?” they called out into this scene of carnage. How could I explain to them that dead guys don’t eat biscuits, nor do heavily bleeding gunshot victims about to undergo major surgery? When the lady upstairs saw the detective leave my house the next day, she shook her head and hissed: “White vampire”. I didn’t know what it meant, except that it was really time to leave that estate.

So why did moving to another estate in the heart of Stoke Newington seem like a great idea at the time? It was in a fantastic location, near the park, near the shops, near all our friends. It wasn’t Clapton. It was affordable. The flat had a massive garden. All the kids played out together in the playgrounds in the middle of the blocks, unsupervised. Seven-year-olds looked after their two-year-old brothers and sisters. This unsettled me. Were their parents lazy, insane, or did they just know it was safe, and that they were only a buzzer and a lift-ride away if they were needed? For the first four or five months I stood there, the lone parent in the playground, feeling, by turns, self-righteous and jealous. Clearly these parents knew something I didn’t. Isn’t this what middle-class mums secretly craved — for their kids to skip happily out of the door and run, scooter and cycle about with their siblings and mates and only come in for dinner? So was it a case of ringing Social Services, or getting with the programme?

I let my kids play out. The children on the estate were streetwise, older than their years, as if they grew in dog years compared with the kids who lived in the £650,000 houses round the corner. Everybody littered, but it was in the crisp packet rather than dirty nappies league, so this was proof that it was superior to Clapton.

Within days, all the kids were trooping in and out of our flat, for drinks, to use the loo, to play inside when it rained. But none of them ever invited our kids to play at their flats. “Don’t you think that is strange?” asked my husband. Again, I got the feeling that their mums knew something I didn’t, but I would probably find out the hard way.

It started to get ugly, a couple of years in, when one kid started to call my daughter names, all prefaced by “white”, so it was white witch, white poison, ugly white face. I wanted to kill this child, who was all of six or seven, but I had learnt my lesson from the last estate. Head down, don’t complain about the kids, don’t make eye contact with the parents. Then a couple of kids stole our bikes and, pathetically, left them lying in the road a few hundred feet away. My daughter begged me not to tell off the kids.

Things had started to feel badly wrong in a matter of months. My kids stopped playing outdoors. They just didn’t want to, they said. My daughter, who had started to go to the corner shop on her own, had to be brought home by the shopkeeper one day — she was afraid to walk through the estate because she’d been bullied on the way there. A friend who did not live on the estate pitched up one day with two kids whom she had found crying in the park. They had been left home alone all day, five and nine years old, and went to the park and lost their keys. I tried to get them a key, but the estate manager wanted more details. When it emerged that they were kids, Social Services came, and my heart sunk. I knew I would be thought of as an interfering old cow. To make matters worse, the older child was inconsolable, saying her mother would beat her. Why? She said she wasn’t allowed into white people’s houses. She had never been in one before. Five and nine, these kids were.

A gang of 15 to 20 teenagers started hanging out in the car park, revving up their motors all day, blaring jungle music from the car stereos. A pit bull ran wild on the estate, attacking workmen, stupendously leaping over our front gate, defecating on our doorstep on a daily basis.

After I shouted at the pit bull, the dog started snarling and running at me and my son. One day we opened the door and it was sitting there in front of us, growling. Insanely, I went to the kids in the car park and told them they had to keep the dog on a lead, and if it went for my kids, I would kill it. They looked incredulous and one said: “You kill the dog, we kill you.” And they all burst out laughing and one shouted: “Crazy white bitch. We were here first.” A few minutes later, to my horror, I noticed that “my” pit bull was in another part of the estate. I had threatened the wrong pit bull.

Then the gang threw a car battery into my garden. I threw it back into the car park. Thinking it was a game, they threw it back. Again, insanely, I tried to lob it back (when they weren’t there). It fell on my face and I had a black eye for three weeks.

Had I been wilfully naive to think that an estate could ever be an OK place to live? Were my kids going to say they didn’t like black people again?

Yes, the gang was black, the kids who bullied my kids were black, and I was afraid my kids were going to put two and two together and get five. I was afraid that I was starting to think in unfair, un-right-on clich├ęs. For example, it seemed to be the fashion for really big black kids to ride really small bikes. Was it a just a fashion, like the big trousers falling down their backsides? Were they too poor to get bigger bikes, or did they nick them from kids like mine?

When the same kids dumped their bikes down in front of the shopfronts so that you couldn’t walk into the shop without stepping over the bikes, was it a territorial thing, or were they too lazy to lock them up? When fancy cars drove into the estate every 15 minutes or so, and then tore out again, were the gang just being sociable, or were they selling drugs? Little things and big things, I kept jumping to the worst conclusions. During the final days on the estate, I saw a kid wearing an“It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand” T-shirt, and I felt like going up to him and saying “You are right. I don’t understand. Please explain it to me. Is it a black thing? Is it an estate thing? Is it a class thing?”

I secretly wished a white person would do something bad to us, to redress the balance. It did. I got mugged, but not on the estate, by two white kids a few weeks later. I stopped wishing for things in secret. And, self-confessed late bloomers, we did what we could finally afford to do, which was leave.

Partly I felt bad for jumping ship. I had a friend on the estate, a lovely woman who was trying hard, through the estate management committee, to make the estate a better place to live. She told off the gang after the car battery incident and they listened to her, they respected her. Was it because she was black, or because she had lived on the estate for a long time, and had known some of those kids when they were in nappies?
When I went a bit nuts during the pit bull war, nearly came to blows with someone, I felt as if I had let my friend down. “I’ve behaved badly today,” I confessed. “I know, I heard,” she said. I told her I had to leave, that I wasn’t being a drama queen but if I stayed I would have a nervous breakdown, that my kids were so nervous I was thinking of crushing up valerian root, a natural sedative, into their cornflakes, that my husband’s joke — to wave his arms grandly at all the litter and abandoned cars and hoodlums and say to my son, “Some day, my son, all this will be yours” — just wasn’t funny any more. She said she was sad to see such a nice family leave, but she understood that I had to do what was best for my kids.

So partly I felt bad, but mostly I felt relieved. All of us did. I took the stairs to our new private rented flat three at a time. My pal Sybil told me we had become like the happy Christian family in The Simpsons — we were obnoxiously happy. My nervous children were replaced by relaxed, happy and confident ones. My daughter started going to the shop on her own again. My husband loved to walk down the road after work and see loads of other people coming home from work as well, something he didn’t see so much on the estate. Unemployment is a terrible thing, but when you get up in the morning, really tired, and see other people hanging out, seemingly having fun, playing music, smoking weed, you don’t feel so sorry for them, unless you are some sort of right-on saint.

About a month after we moved, a friend who hadn’t seen me in a while said: “You look so well. Are you on something?” I said it wasn’t what I was on, it was what I was off.