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Mozart Estate: Westminster's Secret Ghetto

by Alan White
13 July 2013 9 Comments

The Mozart estate sits at the heart of Queen’s Park ward in Westminster. The area is home to 11,355 people, squeezed into squat blocks of social housing sat tongue-in-groove with terraced private houses...

THE MOZART ESTATE sits at the heart of Queen’s Park ward in Westminster. The area is home to 11,355 people, squeezed into a couple of square kilometres of high-density accommodation. Squat blocks of social housing sit tongue-in-groove with terraced private houses. The ward is cut off to the south by the Harrow Road – this stretch of it a shabby but lively strip, bustling with independent traders. To the north is its slightly more affluent double, Queen’s Park of Brent, where there are middle-class pubs and restaurants around the tube station.

There’s no obvious demarcation between the two areas. Westminster’s Queen’s Park isn’t particularly shabby. Brent’s Queen’s Park isn’t exactly opulent. The fact that a single name serves two different governmental areas is barely remarked by locals: it’s all just Queen’s Park. But there is in fact a significant divide. Brent’s Queen’s Park ranks a little below average on deprivation measures. Westminster’s sits in the most deprived quintile. Out of the 625 wards on the Greater London Authority’s wellbeing index, it ranks 624th. It has a ‘very high’ rate of psychosis (over 25 episodes per 1,000 of the population) and the third highest number of people on the Westminster Learning Disability Partnership caseload.

Over the past few years it has also generated a series of increasingly troubling headlines. In October 2010, police investigated what appeared to be a gang-related kidnapping: a 13-year-old boy claimed he was bundled into a car, held for 24 hours and beaten with a handgun. In mid-January last year, after learning of a 12-year-old boy who was attacked with a bottle, the City of Westminster warned that teenage stabbings and violent assaults had reached crisis levels. In September 2011, a man fired a shotgun into a group of people on John Fearon Walk. Three young women were injured. One of them, an 18-year-old, was hit in the neck by the pellets while holding her 11-month-old son.

One image from 2007 sticks with me: a boy in Clapham, shot dead in a bedroom that shared a wall with an upmarket gastropub.

Clearly something is going wrong. And yet the question of just what that might be has been asked throughout the history of the Mozart estate. The place wasn’t really on my radar until the shooting on John Fearon Walk. I had recently finished a book on gang culture. I knew that the gang problem can throw wild gradations of social wellbeing into sharp relief. One image from 2007 sticks with me: a boy in Clapham, shot dead in a bedroom that shared a wall with an upmarket gastropub. All the same, I imagined that the greater general affluence in this part of West London would reduce the severity of the issue. Apparently it didn’t.

The more I researched, the more the Mozart seemed to point to something profound about Britain’s whole approach to housing and social policy since the 1960s. Throughout its history the estate has been a test bed for ideas about what makes a community. Indeed, I started following events in the ward just in time to see the latest initiative take shape: a scheme, untried in London, to devolve responsibility for the quality of life in Queen’s Park to the residents themselves.

The Mozart estate was built in the mid-‘70s. Down came the Victorian terraces of Mozart Street and Lancefield Street. Up went tower blocks connected by overhead walkways in the high modernist style (‘Folk-build is dead in England’, as a slogan of the time had it). Before it had even been finished, tenants were asking to move out. There was a dampness problem, and persistent reports of what would now be called anti-social behaviour: vandalism and petty crime. In her 1985 book Utopia on Trial, the geographer Alice Coleman used the Mozart as a central case study in her argument that bad housing leads to bad behaviour. She described ‘a plague of flats’ that ‘build anti-social people’. She and her team surveyed more than 100,000 flats across Britain, checking the quantities of litter, graffiti, urine and faeces in their surroundings and noting the numbers of children in care. The statistics varied with the design of the estates. On these measures, she judged the Mozart to be one of the worst in the country. Her solution: the whole place needed to be rebuilt.

Westminster Council agreed and set out a two-year building plan. It was, in fact, the first test of Coleman’s principles, which were subsequently applied to estates in several other cities as part of what was ominously called the Design Improvement Controlled Experiment. The first objective was to reduce the number of places where people could hide. The Mozart’s large blocks of flats were divided up into smaller groups, each with their own stairway. The high-rise walkways came down. Bungalows replaced garages, clearing the sightlines towards the entrances and deterring prowlers from approaching the flats. Ground-floor maisonettes gained small private gardens in place of the nondescript communal areas where undesirables gathered.

On these measures, she judged the Mozart to be one of the worst in the country. Her solution: the whole place needed to be rebuilt.

The work was never quite finished. This year an 88-year-old Coleman told The New Statesman that Westminster ‘mucked [me] about’ and the job was ‘very much botched.’ But the media were impressed. The Independent enthused about ‘gnomes and hanging baskets of flowers’ adorning the gardens of ‘recently transformed homes’. The Times called the Mozart Estate a ‘beacon of hope’. ‘One of the reasons the Mozart is improving,’ its report concluded, ‘is that the people moving into the estate have more civic pride than the old residents who had had years and years of no one caring about them and being gradually ground down.’

In a sense the papers were right: crime and anti-social behaviour did fall, and it probably was because the estate had been rebuilt. But the design may not have been the decisive factor. The most disruptive families were shifted off the estate while it was being renovated. Once the work was over they came back, and their children had grown into teenagers. The violence of 2010 alone shows how far short Westminster Council came from solving the problem of crime. If it wasn’t the buildings, what was it?

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

Stephen 10:49 am, 25-Oct-2012

Really good engaging article!

The Baron 8:39 pm, 25-Oct-2012

Wrong. Alice Coleman's a dick.

Trevor Coote 6:27 pm, 20-Mar-2013

I worked in the Mozart Estate housing office for 5 years in the mid-80's and I remember really debilitating social problems, crack dealing, a couple of high profile, nasty killings and 3 or 4 bad families responsible for much of the worst anti-social behaviour. I knew a number of the tenants very well and many were really struggling. A lot of the 'bad boys' were really just 'sad boys' who were trying to big-up themselves to impress their peers. It was a sad place and I often think of my time there.

avs 1:57 pm, 28-Mar-2013

I grew up in the one of the houses on Mozart Estate. It was really nice at first in the late 70s when it was new. Fortunately we were in the houses on the boundaries of the estate. If you were right in the middle of the estate or near lancefield street it was rather grim in the mid 80s to early 90s. Users and sellers of crack cocaine congregated around there. I think the problem with the estate in the past was that there are a large number of people on a cramped built up estate There were never enough play areas for the kids. All the open play areas were eventually built on As Trevor above pointed out, it just needed a few anti-social families to upset the whole balance of the place. But there were some great families too with good kids who went onto university etc....Now in the 2010s...If I was Westminster Council, I would think hard about the kind of families they locate on the estate....It is intimidating when you see large groups of hyperactive young males drinking and congregating. Ultimately I'm sure Westminster council will do something if things get really bad....particularly as its so close too the Queens Park Conservation Area which has become very wealthy over the years with those sought after Victorian cottages

deb 11:36 pm, 21-Jun-2013

i grew up on the mozart and it was a dump.yes it wasn't the most attractive building,but its not the buildings,its the people you put in them. They could throw millions and millions at that place but alas it will always be a.....shithole! we then moved to the avenues,into one of them so called desirable cottages. there was less space in them,they were just as damp and overrun with mice,nothing desirable about that i can tell you. again it wasn't the buildings so much but the gutter level people that were put in them. i still go back to visit and laugh at the ever increasing demise of the place. it used to be a fair mix of cultures but now its pretty much an ethnic only place which somehow seems to add to grotty grey feel to the place. when i get off the train at where i now call home,i kiss the floor as im so glad to be ouuta there.

Ian Hough 2:04 pm, 26-Jul-2013

This article sorely needs some photos of the place.

Steve Rolles 8:57 am, 3-Sep-2013

Interesting article - stupid negative unhelpful photo. please change it.

Nick 11:38 pm, 1-Mar-2014

I lived on the estate until the mid 80's as did most of my family. I have happy memories of growing up on the estate, swimming down the jubilee and the youth centre in the middle of the estate. Yeah you had all the skin heads sniffing glue all over the place but I don't recall my parents being worries about me being out in the evening. There was bound to be a few wrong people given the size of the estate but on the whole it wasn't a bad life experience, at least I don't think it was!!!

Zayna Almohamma. 11:46 pm, 2-Apr-2014

Queens park, has always been and always will be a shit hole. When i was small, it was a filthy, run-down ghetto, full of crime & poverty. Now it isn't as dirty but it is still full of poverty. To be fair, majority of the people who live there including me and my family, are just normal families living normal lives. But we will always be in fear of gangs and nasty people in general because we know they are all around us. My husband works night shifts & is considering carrying a gas mask and putting police on speed dial because when he comes home the streets stink of weed & there are groups of youths on all the corners. Another recent thing that really annoys me, is those people buying houses there for cheap because its on an estate, and then lording it over us locals & treating us like dirt. But if they were actually that much richer than us they wouldnt only be able to have a house on a council estate.

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