Before meeting Alice Burke, I was warned she was a formidable character.
So it was with some trepidation that I cycled to the Nightingale Estate to meet the 79-year-old former auxiliary nurse and great-grandmother, who is famed for taking the fight to the gangs and drug dealers that once turned the estate into a no-go area.
Alice comes to greet me carrying a big bunch of keys, and takes me into the community hall that houses the Nightingale Lunch Club, which she has helped run for 20 years. I am at once put at ease as she reels off fascinating anecdotes about Hackney back in the old days.
Alice and her husband were rehoused in the Nightingale Estate in 1975 after suffering a gas leak and explosion at their flat in Stamford Hill.
It was a time when Nightingale’s six high-rise tower blocks stood imperiously over Hackney’s skyline.
The estate had been built seven years previously, when tower blocks were seen as the future of social housing and there was great optimism among town planners about ‘streets in the sky’.
“It was just after New Year that we had this invitation to come and view. I took my husband and as soon as I walked in I started crying,” Alice recalls.
“I said: ‘Go and sign up before they change their mind,’ but my husband said: ‘Let’s have a look round first.
“It was a maisonette with three bedrooms and it was brand new.”
“We took it and I think it was 17 January 1975 when we moved in, and it was snowing.”
At first, Alice’s new home lived up to first impressions. She made friends with her next-door neighbours and Alice’s three daughters could play in the garden and attend the local youth club.
Alice joined the Tenants and Residents Association and would meet regularly with representatives from the Greater London Council (GLC) to voice residents’ concerns and discuss what needed to be done on the estate.
But when the GLC disbanded and Hackney Council took over managing the estate, Alice noticed a change.
“We’d go into the rent office and they’d be so rude to you.
“Once they wouldn’t empty the big bins and there were rats and mice and maggots crawling out of the bin chamber.
“I started a petition and took it down the Town Hall. It did all disappear eventually but the attitudes were really atrocious.”
At the same violence and crime were on the rise. Thieves broke into old people’s houses, ransacking them and robbing elderly tenants of their pensions.
The final straw came when Alice was mugged whilst walking home from bingo with her daughters.
The incident happened nearly 40 years ago, yet Alice retells it with impressive detail.
“There used to be a gate on the entrance to Rogate House,” she says, “and these two boys were sitting on it. And I said to my daughters: ‘They’re going to try and mug us so just hold on to me, put one hand in your pocket and the other through my arm.’
“As we walked onto the estate about 100 yards I heard someone running and then I felt a bang in my back as he kicked me.
“I went flying and as I fell he went after my bag but I held onto it and he pulled me quite a bit along the road until the bloody handle broke!”
Enough was enough and Alice asked the police for help.
She was already meeting with officers once a month so had their ear. Patrols were stepped up and more officers started to come into the estate, which made elderly residents feel safer.
Alice even got the police to make two or three sweeps of the estate in search of drugs, guns and knives.
“They would put their drugs in plastic bags and drop them down the drains, or they’d dig a hole at the bottom of trees and put whatever they’ve got down there.”
Many people faced with rising levels of crime in their neighbourhood might invest in a burglar alarm or a big dog. Not Alice, who was determined to recapture the community spirit that was present when they moved in.
“I had three daughters and I wanted somewhere nice,” Alice explains.
“When I came here I was so delighted. It was a nice new place to bring my children up that was safe and clean, and I was not going to have that.
“So I fought for my children’s future and how they’d grow up – and I’ve been very lucky.”
In 1988, the Conservative government launched ‘Action for Cities’: a regeneration drive that would see government grants handed to some ailing inner London estates to, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, “make inner city decay a thing of the past”.
Nightingale was earmarked as one of the five Hackney estates that would receive money. Flats had fallen into disrepair and were in need of refurbishment. The six tower blocks that loomed large on the skyline were particularly unpopular, with their residents complaining of vandalism, smashed glass and abused lifts. At a public meeting residents talked about how better living conditions were needed on the estate.
“I don’t like tower blocks, I think they’re anti-social,” says Alice. “If you’re watching from the 21st floor and you see your kiddie fall over and get hurt, how long does it take you to come down to be with them?”
Demolishing the unpopular towers and replacing them with low-rise housing became a distinct possibility.
Alice volunteered to start up the Tenants and Residents Association again. She was elected its chair, and immediately set about showing that Nightingale would be worth the investment. Her first target was to insist that all council staff working on the estate wore badges and talked to residents with respect.
“Within a month all the staff had badges and the whole atmosphere had changed in the office. And we went from one thing to another.”
In 1990 the council entered into an agreement with Southern Housing Trust for the redevelopment and regeneration of the Nightingale Estate. The regeneration programme comprised refurbishment of 397 homes. Five tower blocks were to be demolished that in the first phase of regeneration would provide cleared sites for over 700 new mixed tenure homes.
The first demolition was Farnell Tower in July 1998, which was watched by 7,000 spectators on Hackney Downs.
Each floor had been emptied and secured, and the decanted tenants offered alternative accommodation either in the new houses or elsewhere.
But between demolishing the first tower and the next two – Embley Point and Southerland Point – there was a delay. Alice remembers wrangling with the council, which was set on temporarily accommodating people from its housing list in the two towers, which were practically empty bar a handful of tenants. While this happened, the towers fell prey to squatters.
“The people who lived there kept ringing me up saying we can’t go on like this much more,” Alice recalls.
“There were prostitutes and minders at the bottom where there were these drug flats, and big blokes dripping with gold saying to tenants: ‘You stay in your flat and don’t come out no more,’ really bullying these tenants, and some of them were old – it wasn’t funny.
“We even had people giving drugs out on corners and 100 yards from my front door. They did it and I’d go out and say sling your hook before I call the old bill.”
During that era Alice even received a death threat. “I laughed and said that person was not right in the head,” she says.
“If you let them get under your skin they’ve won – and I wouldn’t let them win.”
Alice eventually managed to convince the council and police to take action.
There was a raid, though a lot of the squatters had already left by then.
Emberly and Southerland Point were finally demolished in December 2000, and three years later the final pair of towers were razed to the ground. The BBC show Top Gear famously hoisted an ‘indestructible’ Toyota Hilux onto the roof of Rachel Point before its demolition. Remarkably, when the car was pulled out of the rubble it started first time.
Alice stood on the top of Seaton Point, the only tower that escaped demolition, during the countdown – and was even given an honorary plunger.
“We watched this cloud of smoke go down the road and it was like a big ball of rubbish that was there one moment and now we’ve got rid of and it’s gone somewhere else.”
The first phase of refurbishment was completed in 2006, the tower blocks making way for over 700 new homes
And the final stage of regeneration is currently in the pipeline, with plans for 400 new homes on a two-hectare site agreed last year and set for completion by 2020.
For Alice, Nightingale is something like the way it was when she first moved in all those years ago.
“When the first people had gone into the new homes it was though a cloud had lifted on the estate, people walking through, smiling and saying hello. They still do it. How are you? Fine thank you.
“It was a totally different community. It was a community.
“And it was as if everyone woke up out of a sleep and it had changed so much they were happy.
“And that was worth seeing.”