Hackney’s Holly Street Estate: The mile-long corridor that was ‘a bit like The Shining’
PUBLISHED: 16:29 04 March 2017 | UPDATED: 18:04 23 March 2017
As his photographs of the Holly Street estate go on show, Tom Hunter tells The Gazette about life on the 18th floor
“It was a real no-go area,” Tom Hunter remembers.
“There were burnt out cars in the courtyard. The lift used to break down and people p****d in it. There were crack dens. It was pretty hideous.
“I saw a dead body out the window once, just lying down. People didn’t want to walk down Queensbridge Road because it was so violent. It was quite an edgy place.”
"It felt lawless to be there. People would scurry along trying to get out of those corridors. It always had that sense of menace - a bit like The Shining."
The photographer spent six months living on the Holly Street Estate in 1998 and two years taking photos of its residents, who were being moved out.
Now those photos are being shown in the Museum of Childhood, along with an eight-foot tower he built out of photos replicating one of the doomed buildings.
Just like his “ghetto” sculpture in the Museum of London, you can peer into its windows and see images of the people just before eviction.
Holly Street, built between 1966 and 1971, became one of New Labour’s pet projects.
Living nearby in Mapledene Road, Tony Blair had witnessed its horrors himself.
He wanted to knock it down to regenerate the housing estate.
One of its corridors was a mile long, and lauded as the longest in Europe.
It was both horizontal and vertical, and went from left to right across five low-storey towers – earning them the nickname “snake blocks”.
“There were always big gangs hanging out,” says Tom. “It felt lawless to be there. People would scurry along trying to get out of those corridors. It always had that sense of menace, a bit like The Shining.”
Tom was handed keys to one of Holly Street’s flats by Hackney Council so he could document residents before their evictions.
“It was rough and violent and there was graffiti and rubbish everywhere, but then you went into people’s homes and it was a warm experience – meeting these people who had put pride and effort into their homes and bringing up their kids,” says Tom.
“There was a contradiction going on between local government and decay, and personal pride. It was a privilege to work with the community before it was scattered to the wind.”
He remembers “beautiful flats, with high ceilings, and great views out west to watch the sun setting”.
“I was up on the 18th floor, and there was a person living on the floor below who would forget his keys on a Saturday night,” he said.
“He’d come out through my flat, hang off the side of the tower block and swing gently and let himself go at the right point and drop down to his own balcony. I only looked at him doing it once and I felt totally sick. I let him do it but I wouldn’t go out and watch him again.”
Just before the tower block fell, he hosted an exhibition on the 19th floor, with his photos covering the entire room.
“It was brave of people to visit,” said Tom. “I think someone had p****d in the lift before I went up there.”
It turned out to be Tom’s break into the art world: Charles Saatchi came along and bought the whole lot.
Soon after, the snake blocks were demolished along with three of the estate’s four towers. One remains to this day.
“They wanted to knock down all four but the old-age pensioners were very vocal and said: ‘We want to live in the tower blocks. We like the views’,” explains Tom.
“They loved the fact they could get a lift and the community feel. They thought it was much safer, which was completely the opposite of what I thought they would say.
“I thought they would want to live in bungalow but they wanted to live in the sky.”
Searching for Ghosts runs at the Museum of Childhood until January 2018.