Grenfell burned, but it did not burn down: two years on, it’s still standing, twenty-four stories in height, its blackened exoskeleton swaddled in white plastic wrapping like the plaster on a wound. At the top is a gray billboard emblazoned with a massive lime-green heart, the beacon towards which thousands of people would converge last Friday evening on the second anniversary of the fire that killed seventy-two and ignited a nationwide conversation about the fatal mismanagement of public housing under austerity. When the bus I rode to the memorial pulled up to the stop nearest the tower, almost everyone got off.
On the day of the fire, I and millions of others had watched online as flames devoured the social housing block. Grenfell would blaze for 24 hours: an electrical fault in a refrigerator had triggered the fire, faulty fire doors combined with the lack of a sprinkler system allowed it to spread unabated, and flammable exterior cladding fed its deadly leap from floor to floor. A multi-year, multi-million pound refurbishment completed shortly before the fire—during the course of which process 16 council surveys signed off on the renovation work—had failed to flag up any of these issues, despite the fact that the use of such cladding on a building of Grenfell’s kind was in direct contravention with regulations.
June evenings in England are long and sun-soaked, so that the vigil held at the meeting of Silchester and Lancaster Roads felt in some way at odds with the cheeriness of the world around us, in the way that sadness is always in some sense private. The wind and the walls scattered the sound of the gathering from far away, so as I approached the only thing I could make out was an indistinct melancholic waver—the ghostly echo, I realized when I finally reached the crowds, of a woman onstage singing “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Mirroring the heart above all of our heads, green became the emblematic color of the day—there were green suits and green scarves and green cable-knit sweaters, green hijabs and little girls whose parents had tied their braids with green ribbons. And it was late spring: green the grass and green the garden rows. At one point, as a gentleman from the local gurdwara led the crowd in a Sikh prayer, I saw a solitary green balloon break free of whatever small hand had held it, bisect the sky, and float away.
As well as sadness, the air of the vigil contained a throb of rage: two years on from the fire, the government’s failure to make any meaningful steps towards accountability continues to provoke fury. When it was his turn to take the stage, British-Iraqi rapper Lowkey, who witnessed the fire and wrote a piece that has become something of an anthem for the tragedy, used the opportunity to denounce neoliberalism in verse. Just a few months prior, models and activists wearing 72 Dead and Still No Arrests? How Come? t-shirts had occupied the runway at a London Fashion Week event, a demonstration organized by the advocacy group Justice4Grenfell. Strictly speaking, the shirts’ claim is no longer true—Reis Morris, a community member who lost family in the fire, is currently serving a two-month prison sentence after allegedly threatening a fire chief during a conversation about the fact that the tower’s plastic cover was coming off. A few blocks away from the tower, someone has strung a banner with the words I am Reis Morris along the side of an overpass. There are some fires that get put out and some fires that don’t.
Grenfell is located in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the wealthiest areas in the UK but also the borough with the most extreme economic inequality. Its borders enclose Kensington Palace, residence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge; Harrods, which used to sell pet tigers; and Instagram-saturated Notting Hill. It is also home to numerous social housing developments. The presence of social housing and minority communities in an area otherwise dominated by white wealth does not sit well with the more conservative elements on the borough’s council, who have reportedly referred to Grenfell as “little Africa” and warned that accepting refugees would create “the Islamic Caliphate of Kensington and Chelsea.” In an open bid for gentrification, the borough’s website states, “While the majority of the borough is well developed, there are a small number of sites which could provide development opportunities.” These same “development opportunities,” it transpired, have been gotten at via a legal loophole that has allowed their creators to dodge their legal responsibility to build a certain percentage of social housing, producing a serious shortfall by the time the Grenfell Fire necessitated the rehousing of hundreds. All of this against the background of the many homes that sit empty and idle during all or most of the year, the property of oligarchs, real estate conglomerates, and other mega-wealthy figures like Michael Bloomberg.
The history of the area’s divide runs deep: in 1818, a night soil collector named Samuel Lake converted the area that would become Lancaster West Estate (the development that includes Grenfell) into a pig farm, feeding his animals on the refuse thrown out by his wealthier neighbors. Many of those who moved to the area shortly thereafter had been made homeless by massive railroad construction works elsewhere in the city. By the mid-1800s, residents of what became known as “the Pigs and Potteries” could often find work turning the area’s soft clay into bricks for the chic townhouses of abutting districts, but their own neighborhood was suffocatingly overcrowded, crisscrossed by ditches that reeked of pig offal, and so beset by disease that its child mortality rate was 87 percent. In Household Words, Charles Dickens wrote, “In a neighborhood studded thickly with elegant villas and mansions . . . is a plague spot scarcely equalled for its insalubrity by any other in London.” By the twenty-first century, death by water in the form of fetid cholera pools had been traded for an elemental danger of a different kind, but the gulf between rich and poor—one etched into the built environment itself—has remained.
After the vigil came the silent walk: the solid crowd melted into a river of bodies flowing block to block, street to street, without a word. It was strange to be so surrounded and yet not spoken to, and so too was it strange not to box in grief but to allow ourselves to embody the enormity of the space that it takes up in the lives of the living. I thought of The Waste Land, and the unreal London full of the shade-like figures of those whom “death had undone”—an ambiguous phrasing that could either mean the dead themselves or those whose lives have been marked by the deaths of others. We walked, past the I am Reis Morris sign and past the tube station, past the bus stop I’d gotten off at, past two columns of bikers who have stopped along the sides of the road, taken off their helmets, and bowed their heads as though in prayer, past families who have gathered to watch the procession from the sidewalk or the stoop or the windows out of which they lean, dressed in mourners’ black. One mother tried without success to quiet her young child, who said goodbye to every person who passed. The other exception to the silence was the click and whir of shutters: photographers and camera crews on every side, climbing and clambering to get the best view of the crowd. At one point I heard an insectoid buzzing and looked up to see a drone hovering almost directly above me—counting? Filming?—now gaining altitude, now coming low, now flying, finally, away.
The Grenfell Tower fire occurred under May’s reign, and the mismanagement of its case will in all likelihood continue. One of the measures activists have agitated for is for the government to bring charges of corporate manslaughter against the council or the tenant management organization. It’s a legal risk, as most of the cases prosecuted under the relevant law—which is only a little over a decade old—have involved employee-employer relations, with nothing near the scale of what happened at Grenfell. At any rate, it remains unclear what, when, or even if responsible parties will ever stand trial: in May, it was announced by Caroline Featherstone, solicitor to the inquiry, that the findings of investigators would not be made public until the fall, with “no guarantee” that charges will be brought in the end. In the meantime, the effects of the fire have lingered long after its extinguishment. Public Health England has been largely dismissive of reports by local residents of a so-called “Grenfell cough,” a respiratory ailment afflicting those near the tower, but a damning report by chemist Anna Stec found high levels of hazardous and potentially carcinogenic compounds in the soil. Flammable cladding of the type that burned at Grenfell is still on the homes of tens of thousands of Britons, a fact that activists recently highlighted with a series of guerrilla light installations that lit up unsafe buildings across the country. Reading the news about Grenfell—the tug-of-war between delayed reports and new revelations, bureaucratic foot-dragging and activist engagement—it’s difficult not to feel a certain level of psychic whiplash between certainty that something will be done and despair at the possibility of even the minutest of changes.
It is a violet hour: as twilight comes on and the walk rounds the corner to the point where it began, the blanket of silence frays gradually into a neighborly chatter as people recognize familiar faces, embrace, catch up. But it would be wrong to understand this as a kind of renunciation or forgetting: it feels instead, in the moment, like the tempering of a great collective resolve. This too is a kind of fire; time will tell how long it will burn.