Liveable Streets on the Boundary: Space and Sound on Britain’s First Council Estate
Words by Mardean Isaac
Images by Anton Yavorsky
On a Friday morning late last October, residents of Boundary Estate, Shoreditch—the first council estate in Britain—took to the streets in protest.
Mechanical diggers were turfing up the pavement outside their Victorian era tenement blocks, implementing Liveable Streets, a development project concocted by Tower Hamlets council and a consultancy company they hired to plan, oversee and implement the scheme.
Residents of the Boundary had not initially called for the project. Since it had been first unilaterally imposed on them around eighteen months prior, they had only been engaged in tokenistic and manipulative ways in order to fabricate an official sense of consent, while their many objections went unheeded. Now the unwanted and unnecessary works were set to do major material damage to one of the most architecturally distinct and historically significant residential complexes in London.
The council underestimated the agency of the Boundary residents. It was only this protest—countering an alienating and dreary spectacle with a colourful display of banners and flowers and song—that managed to halt the Liveable Streets scheme, on the day. But it threatens resumption at any moment.
The only grime or rap video I could find shot on the Boundary is “And Dat” by Bonkaz ft. Stormzy, which chops up shots of Bonkaz in the open spaces of the estate and he and Stormzy in grittier locales elsewhere in London. The expansive spaces of the Boundary bask in the fading light of dusk. It looks out of place juxtaposed with high rises and the poorly lit areas around them, dotted with corrugated iron containers and road signs. But despite the aesthetic discrepancies, the Boundary is very much part of the broader story associated with the generic image of tower block estates, chronicled in innumerable London songs and videos.
The Boundary was constructed on the former site of the Old Nichol slum—a ‘rookery’ notorious for poverty and crime. The Old Nichol was fictionalized in Arthur Morrison’s scandalizing 1896 novel A Child of the Jago as a place “where children were born and reared in circumstances which gave them no reasonable chance of living decent lives: where they were born foredamned to a criminal or semi-criminal career.” The opening of the Boundary in 1900 represented a stated drive by reformers from various fields of life to use public housing to combat the poverty and vice at the bottom of British society, a subject explored in John Broughton’s book Municipal Dreams.
The council estate today, of course, often carries a similar stigma of place to the slums of old. The musical and narrative forms partly native to it—grime and rap and drill—push against this stigma while exploring the realities behind it. This music is steeped in some of the key contemporary dynamics surrounding British public housing: belonging and representation; crime and policing; immigration and race; familial and generational politics; liberty and aspiration; competition and social bonds. In some cases, rap records have even provided the most substantial vestige of a vanished era in the history of an estate. K Koke’s tales of life on the troubled Stonebridge estate in north-west London, the “regeneration” of which in the 2000s saw its tower blocks knocked down in the hope that the notorious criminality they housed would disappear with them, is one such case. More recently, drill has provided a window into sagas of violence involving young Black people often living on conflicting London estates.
The Boundary consists of a series of tenement blocks surrounding Arnold Circus, a circular road, at the centre of which is a mound built from the rubble of the Old Nichol. The mound is stacked like a classic wedding cake, with cylindrical tiers that contract in circumference as it rises. Each tier contains a walkway punctuated by outward facing benches; between the tiers lie sloped plots of garden. On the highest tier, the benches face inward onto a pavilion, also referred to as a bandstand, which resembles, in Broughton’s words, “a strangely displaced seaside shelter.” The panoramic view is of seven roads radiating into different parts of East London, flanked by the buildings of the estate.
In designing the Boundary, Owen Fleming, architect in chief of the London County Council, the principal municipal authority in the city at the time, was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement of 19th century artist William Morris, whose mission was, as Broughton describes it, “to unite the fine and applied arts and mobilise both to serve a wider public.” Fleming approached the Boundary in light of his opposition to the “long row of dreary monotony” that he observed in East London, where “all the houses” were “precisely the same, without any sort of architectural feeling at all.” The design of the Boundary, tailored to its function as a public housing complex, sought to foster a kind of respectful togetherness while dignifying the individual. “The central garden, with bandstand,” writes Sarah Wise in The Blackest Streets, a book on the Boundary, “was Fleming’s way of showing that the estate should be a community, and not just a collection of squared-off blocks of flats with no relation to each other.” Fleming “envisaged happy couples promenading in the ornamental gardens after a hard day’s artisanal toil by the head of the family, as music from a central bandstand played.”
Liveable Streets launched in spring 2019, aiming to cover 60% of the borough of Tower Hamlets over four years. An initial LS postcard, produced under the Tower Hamlets imprimatur, pledged to “improve the look and feel of public spaces in your neighbourhood”, claiming “by creating a better environment, we can make it more convenient to get around by foot, bike and public transport.” It encouraged participation from locals, directing inhabitants of the Bethnal Green “project area” to a survey, an “interactive map” and two events in May. The postcard contained no reference to Project Centre Limited, the consultancy company the council hired for the scheme.
Neither the online survey nor the subsequent sessions in May, held in the Rich Mix cinema and St Hilda’s community centre, described the full extent of the program being planned. Yet after these events took place and the survey was conducted, LS summarized their progress in a way that appeared to show growing consent for this vaguely defined initiative.
Jonathan Moberly, a former Boundary resident who is a prominent member of a number of community groups in East London, attended two more sessions in June and July. “The consultants were not taking any notes, and the exercise was more about telling us what the ideas were than asking us what we wanted,” he says. Moberly asked to circulate copies of the plans but was told they were for the sessions only.
After the July meeting, however, the LS website noted that attendees were “presented with plans showing suggestions to improve the area and tackle issues based on your feedback from the early engagement”, and that their “thoughts” were “used… to further shape the designs to the desires and needs of the community.” Concerned local groups such as the Safer Neighbourhoods Ward Panel and Columbia Tenants and Residents Association invited LS for a discussion that summer but were ignored. “The consultation team appeared only to want to hold meetings on their own terms,” says Moberly.
In September, a PCL consultant first met with Friends of Arnold Circus, a registered charity composed of volunteers and trustees who take care of the Boundary gardens and bandstand. One trustee was so surprised by how fully formed the drawings were prior to any engagement or consultation they assumed the approach was a hoax. The FOAC trustees were also uncertain as to who was even behind the project. FOAC were informed that it was a Tower Hamlets project, and that the private consultant represented the council. Yet inquiries by the trustees made it clear that the parks department of Tower Hamlets knew nothing about it.
“It’s all very murky and unsatisfactory in a way that local government should not be,” Moberly says of the mixture of private and public interests involved in the incursion onto the Boundary. “Technically speaking there isn’t a developer involved; there are, however, consultants and designers [the What:If Project, chosen by PCL] who work like developers. Consultants refer to themselves as council officers, but they are not.”
According to its website, The Project Centre is the “consultancy arm” of NSL, a “privately owned organisation” which is part of Marston Holdings, a group of companies that “is the UK’s leading provider of debt enforcement/judicial services including; road traffic debt, council tax and NNDR, sundry debt, international debt and high court services.” The PCL Technical Director uses a Tower Hamlets council e-mail address in his engagement with residents groups.
The Boundary has become increasingly privatized over the decades; an unofficial estimate suggests it is now comprised of half council and half private tenancy, varying from block to block.
Residents have their complaints—mainly raucous spillover from Shoreditch nightlife, drug dealing and crime, and the decaying state of the buildings (a roof fell in last summer, and the resident had to move out). None of the changes proposed by LS pertain to these changes. In putting together and imposing this project, LS was unaware of any of the pre-existing complaints or issues on the estate.
LS cite box-ticking categories like green space and pedestrianisation, which tap into broader concerns, carry wider legitimacy and appear routinely in political campaign rhetoric. Macro-scale concepts are described by LS in broad and bland terms (“look and feel”). Yet the areas of modification proposed by LS are wholly insensitive to the particularities of the Boundary, whether social or architectural. LS drawings of the Boundary’s projected future depict a generic plaza in a sanitized contemporary urban location stripped of presence. A veneer of textureless imagery is imprinted onto the existing form of the estate, camouflaging the acts of destruction the development would actually entail.
The design suggests adding plants on the carriageway, for example, despite the very matured trees already in the Boundary landscape. “Greening is desired, but not on the road around Arnold Circus,” says Leila McAlister, who runs a café and a shop along Calvert Avenue, one of the streets off the Boundary. “The kitchens were originally designed to overlook the courtyards, so people could watch their children playing. The council seems to see those areas exclusively in terms of lorry access for bin chutes. But they would be the obvious place to green.”
The LS model of pedestrianisation includes hacking up the pavement, altering the road levels, introducing new surfaces and brightly coloured street furniture, and replacing the old york setts with beige synthetic gravel. But as McAlister points out: “All of those changes could be avoided by simply putting up bollards, or you could get rid of parked cars around the Circus and bring out the pavement, measures that would modify the design without destroying it.” There has been a low-level discussion over pedestrianisation among residents for a while now: some residents are receptive to moderate measures like those McAlister outlines, and others oppose them due to access issues. LS uses the existence of this discussion as a pretext to make crass and destructive decisions.
LS routinely claims to have consulted residents on their plans, citing numbers from positive survey respondents as evidence. They also cite tokenistic sessions that were deliberately short-notice or poorly advertised or done at bad times: consultants would turn up on Friday afternoon when FOAC volunteers were gardening, and LS would then write positive things about those meetings, implying agreement and cooperation. “They held what they called co-design workshops, but they were just presenting their designs to us,” says McAlister. “It’s all based on expediency, and they merely see us as a hindrance.”
A consultant one day approached McAlister to tell her that the pavement in front of her shop would be unearthed. “These are beautiful york stones that I’ve swept for 18 years and there’s nothing wrong with them,” McAlister says, “and nothing in the drawings showed that they were going to be replaced.”
In November came the ‘official consultation’: leaflets posted prior to two ‘drop-in sessions’ which the PCL website claimed “provided the opportunity for you to review the proposals with the project engineers and discuss any tweaks,” as if only tweaks remained to be negotiated. In January 2020, once the results of the official consultation were published, John Biggs, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, signed off on the budget to implement the proposal at a cabinet meeting.
In summer 2020, Susanna Kow, a Boundary resident who started the Save Arnold Circus initiative—a coalition of residents, businesses and heritage groups—contacted a local Tower Hamlets councillor who assured her that a substantial conversation which would take into account the testimony of residents as well as heritage experts was possible. The councillor agreed to have a public exchange around an exhibition about the Boundary in the St. Hilda’s East community centre, yet he didn’t respond when Kow and others followed up with him. During a September virtual Q&A, however, Biggs aimed to re-assure the audience: “We want to get it right and I’d rather take longer to get a decision that people are generally happy with than to rush things.”
On the morning of Friday, October 16th, workers began hacking at the Victorian-era stone on the corner of Navarre street and Boundary road. They targeted a radial corner stone, originally placed in accordance with the street plan envisioned by the designers of the Boundary, in order to create a corner amenable to turning buses.
LS were unaware that a campaign had existed since 2006 to have buses not pass through the Circus, instead creating a completely unrelated proposal they claim is based on computer models. “They had not tested it with an actual bus and at no point had they mentioned that it was necessary to lop off a corner of the pavement in order for it to work,” says Kow. “We showed them videos of buses getting stuck, reversing and breaking themselves up even after the corner was chopped to show how poor their computer analysis work was.”
“They claimed to have solved the bus problem,” says McAlister, who has been involved in the campaign since its inception, “but only diverted them in a very peculiar way around a quiet residential street then down a narrow cobbled street and back onto Calvert avenue.” “I had residents saying fumes entered their flats for the first time ever since the circus was closed as traffic is diverted to their streets,” adds Kow.
Days before the hacking, LS implied they were conscious of the significance of the stone, saying that it would be “taken out whilst the work is carried out”, but that “once the new kerb is in place all the original stones will be re-installed where possible.” The phrase “where possible” created the wiggle room necessary to excuse a casually destructive approach later. Elsewhere and similarly, LS tell residents in person that they will replace the york stone they intend to carve up—but in writing, they use the phrase “york type stone.”
Kow rushed out of her home that morning after the sound of the hacking had reached her, joining Moberly on the streets. The workers told Moberly they were pipe layers who had no experience doing this kind of work and did not know why they were asked to do it. Kow called a Tower Hamlets councillor who stated his surprise that the work was already taking place, and got the workers to put the pieces back in a discordant, slapdash way—what Kow called a “jigsaw manner.”
Then came the larger LS works on the Boundary that led to the protest on October 23rd. In a November meeting, Save Arnold Circus presented a united front to the council, demanding that the digger—frozen in suspended motion after the protest put a stop to the work—be removed and the project be halted. Yet the digger remained until around Christmas. It was a passive-aggressive reminder that the threat had not gone away, and that the only obstacle to it—the will of the residents as expressed through their physical opposition to the machines sent by the council—could eventually be overcome. Later, Kow found out that the council paid around £3500-3800 overall to keep it there, likely using taxpayer money.
Susanna Kow, who moved onto the estate a few years ago and is originally from Singapore, recounted a convoluted tale with extraordinary fluency and precision. Her protective instincts over the Boundary are immediately palpable. She was in March appointed chair of the newly formed Boundary Tenants and Residents Association. Moberly stresses the importance of this legitimate coalition of residents and groups in light of the fact that “the council has followed a policy of playing one organisation off against another.”
The Boundary Estate itself is a conservation area, and every building on the street has Listed status. The Arnold Circus gardens are a Registered Landscape, the landscape equivalent of the building protections. The space within their railings has, in principle, the same status as any public park. But as Moberly, who is co-chair of the East End Preservation society, says: “Theoretical protections are increasingly weak these days, and they do depend to a significant extent on the council’s desire to do the right thing.” He adds that the council is quick to point out that the highway doesn’t have protections, which only pertain to the buildings, not the spaces around them.
From 2008 to 2010 FOAC and the council worked together on a highly attentive and careful renovation of the gardens, the product of exhaustive meetings and original consultation projects, during which designs were honed for months on end. FOAC performed consultation as part of a steering group along with Tower Hamlets Parks and English Heritage on every aspect of the project, from choosing the architect down to the detail of the railing. The reversal involved since then has shocked those who remain involved in the horticulture of the estate.
The Boundary Estate residents engaged the heritage charity Spitalfields Trust to buttress their campaign. Kow described how the Tower Hamlets council contacted Historic England, a public sector heritage foundation, in the hope of obtaining a more lenient assessment of their design they could wield in their favour. But Historic England supported the position taken by Spitalfields Trust.
Heloise Palin, a trustee of the Trust, says: “We’re worried about diluting the purity of the design and the character of the Boundary: the street pattern and the fantastic buildings are one piece. It’s an incredibly important place, somewhere you go to learn: architecture students come here on tours. The council developed these proposals in isolation and without proper consultation with any heritage bodies—now the scheme has built up so much steam that it is proceeding despite the key principle not being considered. They have secured funding and don’t want to lose it, but from our perspective, they should have questioned earlier on if this was the best place for this project.”
There is much to note in seeking to understand the aesthetic and formal qualities of the Boundary. The indispensible blog Spitalfields Life describes the “inventive employment of vernacular architectural forms” across the premises, “turrets and Dutch gables, and steeply pitched roofs that evoke Medieval tithe barns.” Broughton writes of how the “sturdy proportions” of the residential buildings are “offset by a panoply of fine decorative Arts and Crafts detailing”, including “pitched, dormer and mansard roofs, prominent gable ends of all shapes and sizes, stone quoined windows and pedimented doorways, tall chimneys reaching for the sky, glazed terracotta tiling and, most arrestingly, quirky, colourful, streaky bacon-style banded brickwork.”
“It’s just amazing they have total disregard for the preciousness, the specialness of the area,” Kow says. “We do not think the consultants and designers are willing to change their plans based on the suggestions of residents and heritage experts, because they want to be paid based on their own proposals.”
The Tower Hamlets council blocked Kow from attending a meeting in early March on the fate of the Boundary. The minutes from that meeting produced and circulated by Project Centre, Moberly and Kow add, “suggest that the consultants still lack any empathy for heritage concerns and are pushing for their own designs to be implemented.”
The struggle over the Boundary seeks to maintain the estate as it is, but it also illustrates a dimension of preservation that does not merely look backwards. Without examples like the Boundary to wield, London’s urban landscape becomes ever more infertile to alternative futures.
Norman Jacobs, whose book Cracked Eggs and Chicken Soup collects his Jewish father’s memories of growing up in East London in the 1920s and 30s, describes the move from the nearby Spitalfields Tenterground to the Boundary as a significant lifestyle upgrade. The bandstand, a site of play and entertainment for children, was also a place for music:
“The bandstand would be even more packed on Tuesday evenings during the summer as this was when brass bands gave a two-hour concert of popular music. As well as those sitting round the Bandstand, all the windows in the buildings around Arnold Circus and its side streets would be pushed up from the bottom giving the inhabitants a view of the band as well as allowing the notes to reach right into their front rooms.”
The weekly soloist “was always met with thunderous applause that echoed all round the Buildings.”
The songs that accompanied the protests last October were testament to the music that is still performed on the pavilion. The bandstand is a kind of open-bordered shelter: the structure frames what happens within it while remaining porous to the vicinity. The sounds that emerge from it relate to the rest of Arnold Circus in a multi-faceted way. It is the amphitheatrical quality of the Boundary, reflected in Jacobs’ passage, that Moberly emphasised to me: “Surrounded by these housing blocks, you’ve got a lot of hard surfaces there that sound will bounce off. Anything that happens acoustically amplifies.”
A musical project by composer David Lang staged in summer 2014 emphasized this quality. Crowd Out saw a thousand untrained singers come together for a performance on the bandstand. The event’s goal was “to use music as a way to build a community of people to come together to explore what it means to be an individual in a crowd.”
Moberly was critical of the gentrifying aspects of the event: the way it was imposed onto the residents from outside, as if the estate didn’t belong to them.
I asked Moberly if he considered the open areas of the Boundary to constitute a “semi-public space”; he said it was a “deeply complicated question.” Especially in a city where so much space seems to be pre-limited in some way, it is that complication where the charm and peril of the Boundary lies.
The Boundary creates an oasis that is also a passageway. Here you can feel the flow of life moving from one point to another—of changing states of mind and mood.
Here, you can also try to suspend yourself from the day.
On still afternoons, the top tier of the Circus mound offers a distinct form of spatial generosity. At a remove from the demands of the street, you almost feel self-justifying as a public human presence. There is the absence of commercial pressure (unless you count the occasional offer of recreational drugs) and direct physical authority. Made vast by the protection and projection of the blocks around you, the air above becomes like a citadel, or cathedral, made of space.
On calm moments, when the delicate pledge of secret hospitality that the Boundary offers is not being abused, both silence and sound nourish you.
But the way that sound travels around the estate is also a form of mutual surveillance. You can hear street level conversation from the flats; sometimes, you can hear glass breaking from the other side of the estate, as if it was just behind your bedroom wall. At night, especially on weekends, the sound of formal shoes clacking against the high calibre paving—or that of a drunken young man broken off from his pack, struggling to light a cigarette—dramatizes these isolated narratives.
On the Boundary, sound becomes a form of self-location, and relation. At the right moment, you can feel a perfect distance from others, sensing their remove by silence. Depending on your own state of mind, the contingencies of the moment and the actions of others, sound can make events feel closer to you than they really turn out to be.
One of the most common complaints from residents of the Boundary concerns illegal partying in the early hours. Before Covid-19, revellers would finish their drinks in the pubs and bars in Shoreditch and adjourn to the bandstand. “People have been using the estate as a free car park: turning up early in the evening, preloading and then going off partying, coming back when the clubs close at half two,” says Moberly. Collateral damage took the form of cars ramming into one another, or people pissing on the front of houses.
During Bengali weddings young men spend hours revving-up rented sports cars. Driving fast around the ring road of the Circus is a way of temporarily announcing control over the space. But the circularity of the road serves as a metaphor for the limitations of these ultimately domesticated displays.
Lockdown has reduced opportunities for public turbulence. Yet during evenings last summer, even as all the nearby bars were shut, the Circus itself became the site of revelry.
A BBC piece from August chronicled the nights when the open spaces between the buildings of the Boundary transformed into “unlicensed nightclubs.” Drinks were purchased from vendors stationed at the Circus gates, then perched on the roofs of parked cars; music blasted out of vehicles functioning as “car bars.” One resident was interviewed with her face blurred: she showed the BBC footage of drunk people jeering at her and threatening her as she filmed them. She described the “heavy, deep bass music” that reverberated around the estate into the early hours. Residents peered from tenement windows into this party caravan parked on their doorsteps. In the silent morning they roamed the pavement, nitrous oxide canisters and empty bottles spread across the ground.
Moberly used to own a bar called The Foundry, on the corner of Old Street and Great Eastern Street, which was central to the artistic and musical culture of east London in the 2000s. It was an adaptable space, bringing together and supporting artists, who were allowed to host exhibitions for free, and hosting musical performances and poetry readings. Artist Gavin Turk was a regular. Banksy used to paint there and had several well-known pieces nearby. The Foundry was co-founded by Bill Drummond of KLF, and Hot Chip and Pete Doherty held early performances there. Perhaps the most significant musical contribution it made was helping to foster the growth of dubstep.
The Foundry was closed in 2010 to make way for a hotel by the Art’otel chain, the foundations of which were only recently put in place.
“The site is inside the Southern Shoreditch Conservation Area, and so should never have been approved in the first place,” Moberly says. “This shows how little protection Conservation Area status affords. We had huge community support when the planning hearing was held for the Art hotel: so many people turned up that they had to close Hackney Town Hall. It may have impressed the councilors but not enough to sway them from voting the Hotel through.”
Moberly depicts the jurisdictional dilemma of the Boundary as a magnet for its problems, noting that the municipal location of the estate is split right along the border between Hackney and Tower Hamlets boroughs. “All the bars are in Shoreditch, yet the fallout for residents is in Tower Hamlets,” he says. “It’s surprising that borders matter that much when it comes to managing issues.”
Moberly retains a surveying eye over the dynamics of Shoreditch nightlife with a view to how it is governed and policed: “Sometimes I wander around late at night and watch the absurdity of it all: the crazy stuff happening on the estate going unpoliced. Shoreditch High Street is stuffed with police: two large TSG [Territorial Support Group] vans are stationed there as a matter of routine, with two or three other normal patrol vans and Hackney enforcement officers swarming around on foot. They might find a few fights—might even cause a few—and make a few arrests. It’s easy pickings. But they won’t go into the Boundary, overlooking the transference of the nighttime economy into Arnold Circus. If you’re going out partying around Shoreditch, you’re volunteering to go, but if you’re a resident, you haven’t chosen to be there.”
Cornelia Parker, who lived on the Estate in the 1990s, noted in a 2015 Financial Times article: “From my attic window I could witness the drug traffic that used to monopolise the bandstand. Groups of Bangladeshi youths would gather and disperse, occasionally getting into skirmishes with local Indian gangs. It was their turf, none of the other locals dared to venture up there. The slopes of the mound were overgrown with shrubs perfect for hiding illicit activities.”
In the 2000s, the situation in the open spaces of the Boundary was dire. The slopes and tiers of the central mound were strewn with drug paraphernalia and broken glass; people would smoke crack on the steps of Arnold Circus. A ring of prostitutes solicited business around the road at night. Children were rarely seen. A group of drug dealers who lived on Calvert avenue were a local menace. Muggings and stabbings were prevalent enough that in 2011, residents obtained a Dispersal Order, an emphatic measure which gave police license to expel groups of two or more in public from the area, along with a curfew for unsupervised young people. The problems came back as soon as it expired.
During this era there was also an important dynamic between the design and function of the Boundary. In response to the scale of crime in the area (which was designated a ‘crime hotpot’), the police offered to cut down the trees on the Circus and replace them with floodlights. FOAC was established in 2004 when, as their website notes, the gardens and bandstand “had fallen into disrepair and were widely seen as dirty and threatening.” It was the approach of the police that spurred the creation of the group, as concerned locals moved to protect the cherished trees of the Boundary, an earlier, and successful, effort to defend the aesthetic autonomy of the estate.
(There have been periodic motions to regulate the Circus mound at night. Keeping it lit is one option: forcing attention onto anyone up to no good, exposing them to peering from the tenements. Bringing in some old gates that are still lying nearby to lock the open spaces is another option, though this would require someone dedicated to the task, on council expense.)
The peculiar semi-open and elevated architecture of the Boundary has turned it into a showcase for the bankruptcy and cruelty of drug criminalization. Walking the paths from Shoreditch to Whitechapel in the evening, it is common to encounter anxious looking adolescents, usually Black or south Asian, emerging from the shadows to offer wraps of weed from shoulder bags. The Shoreditch streets directly leading on from Arnold Circus are usually filled with weed aroma. But it would be inconvenient for the police to approach the customers spilling out of the usually packed Owl and Pussycat pub on Redchurch Street, for example, and parse their roll-ups for piff—or to stand guard and ward off the endless supply of drunk people pissing on the nearby Boundary Passage, one of the routes that links the estate to the nightlife beyond it. The pavilion allows them to target relaxed people on an elevated plane instead.
Before Covid, on any given afternoon or evening it was normal to see groups of up to ten Met officers surround young people—often of Bengali origin, or Black—on the pavilion, and write them up for passing a joint around. As Met vehicles constantly circle Arnold Circus, cars from other police branches, such as the TSG—which, according to its website provides “an immediate presence at critical incidents” and gives “substantial support to high-volume crime boroughs”—are parked on the emanating streets.
The most common music emerging from the pavilion is not from live instruments; it is hip-hop and grime coming out of phones. And the policing of the pavilion has yielded the spectacle of young people listening to DigDat or Digga D or Nines rap about the consequences of the War on Drugs then get written up or arrested under its very terms. Youth huddled around portable speakers become the human churn that fills police quotas.
The noise of chatter and music combines with piffsmoke to obfuscate the emergence of police climbing the stair to the pavilion from the street below. There is a cinematic quality to their appearance from the vantage point of one of the benches on the other side of the stair. Their heads ‘suddenly’ appear above the eyeline: they walk calmly up the steps, hands tucked inside vests, safe in the knowledge that the peculiar terrain of the mound, with its height and slopes and staircases and unobstructed views, means escape is unlikely. On gentle evenings, as young couples are draped over one another, the police go from one bench to the next: guided by the flare and glow of potential spliffs, they shine flashlights into the faces of those holding them.
One of the distinct charms of this space is that it allows for a kind of mutual privacy founded on the accommodation of different perspectives within the same structure. The process of transforming it into a prosecution dock is a warped inversion of that tiered elegance.
One resident I spoke to who did not wish to be named described his experience. The police approached him after he had just finished a spliff on a bench: the cloud of smoke hanging over him in the placid air served as an admission of guilt. Eight policemen surrounded him and wrote him up while noting his bad luck: this was their last comb of the pavilion for the day. He showed me the notice they handed him for an optional Tower Hamlets council ‘Drug Intervention Program’ meeting in the coming days. A successful young man working in the arts, he failed to attend.
During lockdown, when merely being outside became a conspicuous act, overt drug dealing around the pavilion has dwindled. Given the mobility of drug dealers and the swift adaptability of their delivery methods, this may have had a limited impact on business: indoor confinement has only fuelled less public ways of selling drugs.
There are broader uncertainties that are set to encompass the Boundary as lockdown ends, relating to the return of nightlife and the potential impact of increased police powers. The most compelling uncertainty the Boundary faces in particular, though, is whether it can continue to exist as the place that it is.
This is story was originally published in BRICK Edition 10.