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Watching a London estate being dismantled brick by brick

Andrea Zimmerman recorded the demolition of the Haggerston and saw the effects it had on a community coming together in the face of mass displacement

Estate: A Reverie is a lyrical portrait of an old-fashioned red-brick estate in Hackney. It’s an obsessive search for the truth of the place, compulsively documenting its history, its sounds, its colour, its people. We see the Haggerston from every possible angle, with an almost microscopic focus on every stairwell, window, and brick. The film doesn’t idealise or demonise the estate; it slowly comes into focus through a series of intimate conversations with its residents. At one point, Matilda, who had lived there for 52 years, reflects on what a home really is, a question which is always just beneath the surface of these interviews. Proudly dusting her already immaculate flat, she says, “I feel the flat is a part of me, and my husband, and my daughter.”

The buildings were earmarked for demolition in 2007, but the last wasn’t pulled down until 2014; the director, Andrea Zimmerman, recorded this period, which was characterised equally by uncertainty and freedom. This is a film about the Haggerston’s life and death, and the strange in-between period which brought people together, painting murals, holding historical workshops, dancing and making music while the Council’s ominous orange boards, placed over the windows of empty flats, steadily engulfed the estate. It’s also a film about London in 2016, about the government’s assault on social housing and the mass displacement of people that local councils and property developers consider undesirable.

To start, could you tell me a bit about your own personal involvement with the Haggerston estate? How did it change in the 17 years you lived there?

Andrea Zimmerman: I first moved in there when Hackney opened up the lists for a lot of estates that were deemed unfit for families. In the 80s, it had a big heroin problem; it was a bit notorious and run down, and people didn’t want to live there any more. When I moved in, there were still some problems with drugs, but I never felt threatened. I couldn't understand why people wouldn’t want to live there; it was a beautiful estate. It was just a very open place. It was always an estate that was very active, because it was always kind of left alone [by the council]. There was a really great food co-op, for example, set up because so many people had literally nothing.

By calling your film Estate, it seems like you’re directly engaging with “the council estate” of the public imagination, often associated with danger and fear… is this something you wanted to challenge?

Andrea Zimmerman: Yes, definitely. I’m really trying to refuse this fearful image of the estate, and to show the beauty of people’s lives, so that these people can’t ever be erased. This is crucial in my work. I don’t just want to say “look at this, this is wrong”, I want to show the beauty of things, because, on an estate, everybody has massively different experiences, everybody has so much to give.

Is there something in the architecture of the estate itself that is important? How does it affect the way people interact?

Andrea Zimmerman: On the old estates, even if you didn’t talk to people you were having to cross them, on the balcony or on the courtyard. You weren’t alone. This is something that a lot of the old people talk about; they’d spend a lot of their time sitting on the landings, and everybody would see them, they would see people, so they were never lonely. They might not have had people coming in to visit, but they were being acknowledged by people all day long. And this is a beautiful possibility which has been completely erased by new kinds of flats.

The Haggerston was also a truly mixed estate. A third of residents were leaseholders, a third social housing tenants and third were on a variable rent in between the two. But we all lived together, and all these years I had no idea who was a leaseholder and who was not. Why would I care? Now, in the new City Mills development, one block is just private housing (where the most expensive flat is £1.2 million), one is just social housing, one shared ownership. What developers now describe as a “mixed development” aren’t mixed at all. We never have to mix, and that’s a real tragedy.

The film focuses very intensely on one space, exploring it in a number of different ways. How did you approach the idea of place?

Andrea Zimmerman: I was working with the idea that, in the archaeology of one specific place, we can understand all sorts of different things. I thought, “what is this one little glint, this one name? what does it mean?”

So we started running these historical workshops, and started asking what it meant to go back in time, into the 18th century novels of [Samuel] Richardson. Why did somebody in the 1930s name the towers after characters in a novel, whose writer thought that England was completely debauched? How did this person imagine the future inhabitants of the estate in the 1930s? In the workshops, the residents were actively participating in their environment in a really meaningful way. We were asking, “who own history? who owns this land? who owns us?”

How do you feel about London at the moment? Do you have any optimism left about the future of social housing?

Andrea Zimmerman: I think the situation is worse than it’s ever, ever been in our lifetime. The Tories are destroying the very idea of “the public”, of public ownership. They’re making people struggle so hard for survival that they can’t do anything else but struggle, so that the government can do what they want. Social housing is being systematically eroded. This is what I hoped Estate would do: allow people to feel a place and to feel its people and to see the devastation that occurs when places are erased. That said, a home is so much more than just a building. I always try and believe in beauty, and we have to be able to imagine the conditions for change, even if it’s not currently in our grasp.