Housing estates in London don’t have the best reputation – there is a stereotype rough and crime riddled.
But life on an estate can be different than these stereotypes. Janet Burns is a resident at the Cranbrook housing estate in East London, where she is also the Chairwoman of the Tenants and Residents Association at the Cranbrook Estate, which is a mixture of families, retirees and young professionals.
She explains that they can be a place where people from all walks of life can not only live together, but thrive.
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Janet describes the quiet life on the estate. “There hasn’t been any trouble around here. The lad who parks the car next to mine, he’ll bring me up a curry.”
She understands how that differs from what a lot of people think life on an estate is like.
She said: “Nobody gets hurt or anything like that. You hear about these stabbings happening and it’s like they’re happening a whole world away.”
There is a basketball court, a community centre for the residents to use and even a community garden, which is Janet’s pride.
12 years ago the community garden used to be an empty dumping ground, but after a resident got permission from Tower Hamlets council to turn it into a garden. Now it is a flourishing community garden, under Janet’s reliable green thumbs.
She added: “We like to get everyone involved in the garden. We grow all sorts – herbs, berries in the summer, squash.”
The idea of a community garden is that residents who live in housing area can all help out in the garden, and they can also eat the food grown in there. Janet and the others who run the garden try to make what they grow inclusive of the diverse cultural communities that live on the estate.
They try to grow vegetables eaten in Bangladeshi cuisine, for the community that live on the estate.
Janet explained: “We grow things like pumpkin, and kodu.”
A kodu is a type of squash that is used a lot in Bangladeshi cuisine. In fact, getting to know different cultures that live on the estate has been particularly enjoyable for Janet and those who help run the association.
She said: “We’ve got a Bengali women’s group. They bring all these delicious dishes. So we like to sit just outside in the garden and say ‘we’ll be here,’ to try some of their food!” They also hold groups for seniors, children, mothers and other cultural groups.
There is a communal building on the estate where residents can request to create social groups which reflect the international mixture of people who live there. As Janet is charge of the association, any groups have to go through her.
If this cultural cohesion sounds idyllic, it came from over a decade of hard work.
Janet said: “I’ve been here for around 12 years now. And we’ve shown people that we like them.” She said that as people got to know her and about the garden, they get more involved.
“It’s not like before, when people used to run them down.” Janet is referring to the sad fact that for much of the late 20th century, East London was known to be a violent place for the Black and ethnic minority communities that lived here.
Of course, the community centre and life on the estate is much quieter now. It is winter in the garden and lockdown means the community centre is shut.” But Janet is as busy as ever.
With funding that they get for the resident’s association, and by partnering with local community organisations, she is still helping the residents.
Janet said: “Last Christmas, I got the seniors giftbags. Many of them can’t come out so last Christmas, I went down to the local cash and carry and bought them gift bags.”
Over the past year, Janet reckons getting to encounter others on the estate keeps people sane. “Some of the seniors like sitting in the garden, while we work, and have a chat. It really helps them.”