London was electric and unhappy last June. The country had just gone through a general election, which ended in a hung Parliament, and terrorists had carried out their two worst attacks in more than a decade. Huge, worrying abstractions—Brexit, the government’s austerity program, new forms of jihadism—dominated the news. The weather was hot and I woke early each day and automatically checked my phone for whatever disorienting developments had taken place during the night. Six days after the election, on June 14th, I was supposed to be interviewing the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, in the afternoon. That morning, at dawn, my screen showed a twenty-four-story social-housing block, Grenfell Tower, in West London, entirely ablaze against the pale blue of a perfect summer morning.
It was obvious that my meeting with Khan would be cancelled. I got on the Tube and, without really planning to, found myself heading in the direction of the fire. The Underground station closest to the emergency, Latimer Road, was closed, so I got out at Shepherd’s Bush, about a mile to the southwest of the tower. Navigating narrow residential streets by the smoke in the sky and the hovering drone of a police helicopter, I came across firefighters resting in the shade of their trucks, and a row of Muslim women, sitting on a long low step and weeping, before I saw the building, which was blackened and uncanny. Concrete apartment blocks are not supposed to burn as a single entity. Grenfell Tower looked like something much smaller—a charred electrical component, or a destroyed grill—implausibly magnified. Nine hours after the fire began, flames rolled in the upper floors. The smoke coiled up counterclockwise and, every few minutes, the warm breath of a terrible smell would arrive with the wind. Around me, local residents were on their phones trying to describe what was in front of their eyes. “The whole building is, like, gone,” one young man said. “The people up there are cooked,” another said. “They’re cooked, man.”
On a patch of grass on Grenfell Road, families who had been evacuated laid down blankets and pillows and tried to rest. A woman was looking for water for her four French bulldogs. There was a van full of used oxygen tanks. Everybody was on their devices. People were sharing blog posts written by a local tenants organization, the Grenfell Action Group, that had warned of blocked passageways, condemned fire extinguishers, and other hazards dating back to 2013. The tower, which had a hundred and twenty-nine apartments, had been refurbished the previous year and covered with a form of aluminum cladding that is banned in the U.S. and elsewhere in Europe as a fire risk. “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord,” the group wrote on November 20, 2016. “They can’t say that they haven’t been warned!”
Outside St. Clement’s Church, on the edge of the housing estate, I watched a girl in her late teens, seething and distraught, debate with a friend about whether to approach a TV news crew with what was on her mind. “It’s money, money, money,” she was saying. “They want us out of the borough.” Grenfell Tower, which was mainly occupied by public-housing tenants, stands in the northwest corner of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the wealthiest local authorities in Britain. When it was built, in 1974, Grenfell was known locally as “the Moroccan tower,” for the large number of immigrants and families with ties to North Africa who lived there. On the night of the fire, it was occupied by retired textile workers, schoolchildren, poets, engineering students, and refugees—an island of the ordinary and the vulnerable in a rich part of town. Thankfully, some of the Muslim residents of the tower were awake for the late-night prayers and meals of Ramadan and helped others to escape. By the time I arrived, people had already photocopied images of the missing and stuck them up on phone booths. One showed Khadija Saye, a twenty-four-year-old artist whose work was showing at the Venice Biennale, and who, it was later discovered, died in the fire. She had been living with her mother on the twentieth floor. “If anyone has seen her, please let me know.”
In the preceding weeks, the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London had been accompanied by stories of taxi drivers offering free rides and people opening their homes. After the fire, the nation responded again. Stores gave out food, and churches and mosques filled up with diapers and spare clothes. That morning, I watched an aproned man from Waitrose, an upmarket grocery chain, pushing a trolley full of bottled water and fruit toward the emergency cordon. But the hours and days after the disaster were more strongly characterized by a kind of civic dysfunction. There was a radical distrust between the victims and the survivors of the fire and those who were supposed to be in charge. The usual set of public rituals around a disaster—the media’s witnessing, the politicians’ visiting, the fumbling for a language to talk about what had happened—was not working. When, the next day, Prime Minister Theresa May visited the burned-out tower, she failed to meet with local residents and survivors. The only images of her, talking with firefighters, were taken with a long lens. Morbidly, and excruciatingly, the antagonism between the victims and the authorities took the form of a public argument over how many people had died. Six days after the fire, the police and the fire brigade would confirm only that seventeen people were missing. No one believed this. On national television, the pop singer Lily Allen, who grew up nearby, said she had heard the true number was more like a hundred and fifty. In the end, it took six months of sorting through the ash to establish the final toll of seventy-one.
Most images of the fire show Grenfell Tower standing in isolation, seemingly visible across the city, but, in fact, the streetscape around the tower is closely packed with townhouses, low-rise apartment blocks, and, in early summer, the spreading canopy of trees. This is typical of London, a city whose long and unplanned development—a great merging of Roman ruins, medieval villages, and its partial reconstruction after the Second World War—resulted in a jumbled geography. Immaculate Georgian squares rub up alongside housing projects. The physical proximity of rich and poor in London has for centuries allowed the city’s inhabitants to believe that they share a common existence, and to believe—or to fear—that they might swap one status for another. “I prayed that I might not be houseless any more, and never might forget the houseless,” David Copperfield recalls during his journey to respectability in Charles Dickens’s autobiographical novel, first published in 1850. Last year, in an essay in The New York Review of Books in the weeks after Britain voted to leave the E.U., Zadie Smith, writing about the mother of one of her daughter’s schoolfriends, observed fissures in the city that had not been present during her own upbringing in public housing:
She had seen me open the shiny black door to the house opposite her housing project, just as I had seen her enter the project’s stairwell each day. I remembered these fraught episodes from childhood, when things were the other way around. Could I ask the girl in the big fine house on the park into our cramped council flat? And later, when we moved up to a perfectly nice flat on the right side of Willesden, could I then visit my friend in a rough one on the wrong side of Kilburn?
The answer was, usually, yes. Not without tension, not without occasional mortifying moments of social comedy or glimpses of domestic situations bordering on tragedy—but still it was yes. Back then, we were all still willing to take the “risk,” if risk is the right word to describe entering into the lives of others, not merely in symbol but in reality. But in this new England it felt, to me at least, impossible. To her, too, I think. The gap between us has become too large.
What Smith sensed in the days after the Brexit vote, the Grenfell Tower fire revealed with a terminal clarity. There are distances within London that are uncrossable. Two weeks after the fire, the Conservative leader of the Kensington and Chelsea council, Nicholas Paget-Brown, resigned over the handling of the disaster. On July 12th, his successor, Elizabeth Campbell, admitted that, during eleven years in local government, she had never been inside an apartment in one of the borough’s eighteen high-rise tower blocks.
Britain’s inability to provide decent housing for its growing population has been the greatest, and most insidious, public-policy failure of the last generation. Since Margaret Thatcher began to sell off the nation’s council-housing stock, in 1980, and to privatize its supply, the market has never kept up with demand. Each year, housing experts say that the U.K. needs to build around two hundred and fifty thousand new homes; each year, private property companies build about half that number. In a political culture that venerates home ownership—in the form of tax incentives and speechifying by all parties—grotesque disparities have been allowed to arise. In London, where property prices have increased by around seven hundred per cent since 1990, just five hundred and five homes for public-housing tenants were completed in 2016. No new projects were started.
In 2017, it became clear that, somewhere, the moral imagination required to be good neighbors—Copperfield’s prayer, the “risk” that Smith and her friends used to take—had been abandoned. In 1974, when Grenfell Tower went up, Britain was supposedly “the poor man of Europe” and gripped by economic despair. And yet it built around twice as many new homes as it does now, and more than a hundred thousand for people on low incomes. Forty years later, the apparently botched refurbishment of the tower, which was home to around three hundred people, of whom around a quarter are now dead, did not include a sprinkler system, or new fire escapes, which they had requested. The council saved two hundred and ninety-three thousand pounds by downgrading the cladding for the façade. The total cost of the contract was £8.6 million—slightly less than the price of a four-bedroom house a few streets away.
In the days and weeks after the fire, the government launched a public inquiry to investigate the causes of the disaster and to prevent something similar from happening again. There was excited talk of demolishing similarly unsafe tower blocks up and down the country. By the end of July, a national survey had found a further eighty-two high-rise buildings covered with flammable cladding. But then, in the way that it does, the ordinary stupor resumed. In early August, the Guardian reported that just twelve of the two hundred and nine families made homeless by the fire had been rehoused, while more than sixteen hundred properties stood empty in Kensington and Chelsea. (In recent years, house prices have been rising so fast in expensive areas of London that it doesn’t even make sense for landlords to rent them out.) By mid-December, around a hundred households displaced by the fire were still living in hotels. A group of survivors had mounted a petition against Martin Moore-Bick, the seventy-one-year-old retired judge chosen to lead the inquiry, because his “life and professional experience” were so different from theirs. “Sir Martin is very, very good at what he does,” Adel Chaoui, who lost four relatives in the tower, said. “But he does not necessarily understand us.”
A couple of weeks ago, I retraced my steps from the morning of June 14th. The sky was blue again, although this time bright with winter. Again, the black ruin loomed up suddenly above the streets. Since the summer, a red construction elevator had been affixed to the side of the tower, allowing engineers and recovery teams to travel up and down. Three workmen in white overalls and face masks stood gesturing on the fourth floor, where the fire had started. Grenfell Tower was slowly being covered in white panels, ahead of its demolition, next year. Some roads were still blocked off. On the patch of grass where I saw the survivors resting, someone had strapped a blue wooden cross to a tree with a yellow ribbon. It was exactly six months since the fire. A national memorial service was taking place in St Paul’s Cathedral, on the other side of the city. In St. Clement’s Church, a group of people had gathered in the nave to watch it on television. Large banners said “Grace” and “Unity” on the walls. I sat at the back. The high-profile ceremony, attended by members of the Royal Family, was reportedly the idea of the survivors of the disaster, a ritual to mark the scale of the tragedy.
The broadcast, on the BBC, showed hundreds of Grenfell residents—nondescript Londoners, bulky in their winter coats, Muslim women with their headscarves—sitting in the pews. A Syrian musician played the oud. There were hymns and prayers. No one in St. Clement’s sang, or said a word. Toward the end of the ceremony, schoolchildren from the neighborhood sprinkled hearts made out of green construction paper at the feet of the dignitaries sitting in St. Paul’s. On its own, it didn’t make much sense as a gesture, but the children seemed to know what they were doing, and placed the hearts with great precision. While they did so, the cathedral choir sang “Somewhere,” from “West Side Story”: “Somewhere. We’ll find a new way of living, we’ll find a way of forgiving. Somewhere.” It was beautiful. Everybody cried. I cried. At the same time, it was just a song, and I found that I didn’t believe it.