Forty years ago today, a fire broke out at Yvonne Ruddock’s sixteenth birthday party on New Cross Road which left 13 black youths dead and a community grieving. The housefire arrived after years of violent, racist attacks from the area’s National Front, which many believed to be responsible for a firebombing alleged, but never proven, to have caused the incident.
The tragedy was met with silence from our heads of state and government, Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, respectively, and prompted the following response from south London’s black community: ’13 dead, nothing said’. In brief and ascetic summation, the New Cross Fire represented one of the starkest indictments of Britain’s indifference to the safety, security and humanity of black children and families to take place in the metropole.
That is, until 14 June 2017, when flames spread around the flammable cladding of Grenfell Tower like a matchbox set alight and left 72 people dead. After the smoke emanating from the North Kensington council estate had finally cleared, the British public learned the names, identities and stories of the victims of this grave injustice. Of the 67 council residents who were killed in the fire, 57 were from black and ethnic minority (BME) backgrounds. The Grenfell Fire represented, much like the New Cross Fire, a harrowing example of Britain’s deep institutional racism and its treatment of the multiracial working class living in our capital.
While viewers across the country watched coverage of the Grenfell Fire on a loop in the days and weeks following the catastrophe, the same was not true of the aftermath of the New Cross Fire. There was a remorseful lack of attention paid by the British media, and parents of the victims were first to say as such in interviews back in 1981: ‘Had it been white kids, [Margaret Thatcher] would have been on the television, on the radio, and sent her sympathy.’ When black Britons from across the nation came together on 2 March 1981 to march from New Cross to Hyde Park in the largest mass movement for racial justice on British soil at the time, journalists stationed in the offices of Fleet Street chanted monkey noises at the protestors down below.
Coverage of the protest in New Cross in 1981 and in the wake of Grenfell in 2017 vary in other marked ways. Footage from 1981 depicts a working-class neighbourhood in south London with a prominent Caribbean community, reflecting the settlement of the Windrush generation and their children in British cities in the post-war era. Footage from 2017 tells a different story: the charred remains of the tower block in North Kensington is made visible against the Westfield White City Shopping Centre and the multimillion pound homes of Ladbroke Grove in the background. The nation outside of the capital (and albeit many within as well) were flummoxed to hear of the conditions of abject poverty and divestment that precipitated the tragedy had occurred in the country’s wealthiest borough, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Local activists in the borough and council tenants across London understood Grenfell to be the direct culmination of decades of gross neglect and disinvestment, accelerating regeneration schemes in the area, and pressure from cash-strapped councils to find innovative ways to cut costs, evident in the decision of companies involved in Grenfell’s refurbishment to install cheap and flammable cladding as a way to potentially drive profits. These forces had become enshrined in governmental policy and the discourse of the past decade which tells tales of pernicious ‘sink estates’ that breed poverty and crime and dictates that inner-city neighbourhoods shall no longer be the primary domain of the urban working class. The link has already been aptly made between what happened in Grenfell and ‘the way in which tenants of social housing are treated as problems to be managed.’
While these forces were not manifested in the New Cross of the 1980s, the same sentiments of disdain for the black and brown, migrant working class were present, and have been long simmering since. Black residents in the neighbourhood at the time have spoken about how they were made to feel unwelcome by white residents and fell victim to racist attacks by an emboldened far-right. When residents sought support from local services, they were greeted with suspicion and left disappointed, under-served and under-protected.
Forty years on, the New Cross of 2021 has been transformed into something that would be unrecognisable to the residents of 1981. The introduction of trendy bars and restaurants, as well as ‘creative studios,’ have prompted the media to term New Cross, and the surrounding Deptford area, as the ‘the new Dalston by those who think another Neo Dalston is a good thing.’ Deptford Market, which has facilitated traders on the high street to sell fruit and veg to local residents for the past 150 years, has now been joined by the eerily similarly named Deptford Market Yard, which sells Basque tapas and bespoke flower bouquets. The Job Centre, a pub which offers craft beer and DJ sets on special nights, retained its name from the previously shuttered employment agency which stood in its original place.
Longstanding residents of New Cross are beginning to wonder what these brought-upon changes mean to them and their future in the neighbourhood. Forthcoming research completed by the Runnymede Trust and the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) studying the topic of gentrification (with its core, defining feature of displacement) has been found to be a highly racialised urban process in London, as many have long suspected. Quantitative data analysing elevated levels of population churn, which tracks the race and ethnicity of residents who move out of a given area within a given timeframe, has been disproportionately driven by the movement of BME, working-class Londoners outwards in the 2010s.
The primary quantitative analysis found that between 2006 and 2016, nearly a third of all black residents had moved out of the neighbourhood where the New Cross Fire took place. The proportion of Black African and Caribbean residents contracted from its peak of 24 percent in 2006 to 17 percent one decade later. While council investment in a new community centre and improved transit links are to the potential benefit of all who reside in New Cross, they can only be enjoyed by those who do not hold a precarious relationship to the fabric of the city. Precariousness continues to be one of the defining characteristics of Britain’s multiracial working class, as found in previous Runnymede work.
The New Cross Fire represents a politicising moment of a previous generation when black Britons refused to be marginalised in their own neighbourhoods and took to the streets to make their voices heard and their story known in the halls of power. Our generation’s reckoning with the institutional racism of Britain has come multi-fold, with the Grenfell Fire marking a defining event in the public consciousness. The significance of both events represents the deep inequalities that occur throughout the United Kingdom and are concentrated in London. And as we look forward into the 2020s as an era of radical change and adaptation, we must strive for governmental policy and discourse that identifies the multiracial working class as central to the national interest, rather than an addendum to be dealt with.