Two towers face each other from opposite poles of London. One is The Shard, a giant of ice, a splinter of glass stuck in the Thames bank. The other is Draper Estate, a massive block of grey concrete with hundreds of apartments like pigeon holes, cubes dug among the tubes. The Shard is situated between the touristic centre of London and Tower Bridge on one side, and a new, transparent area on the other. Here, everything is privately owned and people are not even allowed to take photos unless authorised. By contrast, Draper Estate has new buildings advancing on one side but, on the other, Elephant & Castle is as it has been for decades. A working class neighbourhood, run down and among the most dangerous in Europe, known for its gangs and murders. There is barely a mile between The Shard and Draper Estate.
Luisa Pretolani welcomes us in one of Draper Estate’s apartments, the moka coffee pot already on the stove. She has been living there for years and wants, at the same time, to both stop the change, and to change something.
Luisa is a documentarist, now heavily involved in a series of social projects focused on the teenage gangs of the area, particularly around Draper Estate and the other nearby massive buildings. She founded the Draper Film and Music Academy, an association teaching cinema and music to the young of the neighbourhood to keep them off the streets. Local criminals often use boys, twelve or thirteen years old, in the complicated power struggle for control of Elephant & Castle. Children under ten cannot be criminalised, and punishments for boys under eighteen are sensibly lighter than for adults. Looking over south London from her balcony with the railway going to the eastern boundaries of the city, Luisa tells us that many criminals begin by giving presents to the youths, first involving them passively and then actively. They finally give them a knife, and ask them to do something to prove their bravery. This is the cause of three underage murders that took place only yards from Luisa’s flat. Fifteen, sixteen year old boys chased by a mob of youths on bikes, two adults in the distance monitoring the situation. Two, three stabbings and then the attacked boys are left there, bleeding to death. Right below Luisa’s apartment you can still spot the remnants of flowers commemorating the latest of these murders.
Luisa’s idea is to provide the teenagers with an alternative to all of this, giving them something to do and a recreation space. A place where they can go during the day, inside her building, reaching them before the gangs. And, at the same time, stopping the change which could soon cause the disappearance of Draper Estate.
Gentrification is in fact taking place in Elephant & Castle, as in other areas in London: Hackney Wick, Brixton, large parts of the East End. Elephant & Castle is now witnessing the disappearance of the area’s old commercial centre, after which the area was named, to be replaced by a new twenty storey building. The Highgate Estate, a monolithic block of concrete where at least 1,500 families lived, was razed to the ground and its inhabitants relocated elsewhere in London and across England, as far as Liverpool. The majority of these buildings, including those of Draper Estate, are comprised of council houses that the local Council is now selling off to a few major companies that buy the buildings, knock them down and then rebuild. Highbury Estate was sold for less than a tenth of the selling price of the new buildings that are currently being constructed. Aylesbury Estate, where the majority of the gang members live, will soon face the same destiny. Draper Estate, and Luisa’s flat, will then become the last outpost against the advance of glass.
This requalification of the area is not necessarily a positive process. It erodes the existing community and creates new areas with incredibly high purchase prices that exclude the local families. They will host businessmen for short terms, offices and nothing more. Peripheries are not disappearing but simply being moved somewhere else, further away, destroying the social fabric and family links of the neighbourhood. Luisa works to stop this process, making Draper Estate a cultural beacon with a social objective. Besides the activities for the youth, Luisa organises theatre courses, meetings for single mothers and drug addicts, all in Draper Estate. If it were to become a charity, becoming recognised as a centre with a clear social value, the building could not be destroyed and would be able to continue its role for the community.
Luisa is defending a part of London that has no Italian connection; it has the flavour of the British working class, the Clash, Guns of Brixton, a tough and almost forgotten London. Yet, it is her Italian heritage that makes her one of the few trying to preserve the very soul of this part of London from another British peculiarity: changing, innovating, destroying and rebuilding, without looking back.
— Photo: Luisa Pretolani filming from the balconies of Draper Estate.