Aysen Dennis’s tower block in south London used to house hundreds of families. But now she’s one of just 30 residents left, and she’s staging a one-woman protest against gentrification.
“This is my home. I don’t give them the right to make a decision on behalf of my life,” she says.
“I’ve been campaigning the last 23 years, and I’m going to keep fighting until the very end. This is not right.”
The 64-year-old former women’s refuge worker is holding out against plans to knock down her estate, the Aylesbury Estate, in Southwark and build new flats. To that end, she has turned every room of her council flat into a densely-packed, wall-and-ceiling-covering exhibition documenting her decades-long struggle to remain in her home.
“Years later, I’m still here. That’s all that matters. Even if I prolong, to make them lose lots of money because of the court case, that is what I am after”, she says. The Big Issue is here, standing in her flat, to find out about a last stand against the tidal wave of property development pushing Londoners out of their homes.
The Aylesbury estate is symbolic. You might remember it as the run-down estate in the old Channel 4 ident, all grim concrete and billowing laundry. Tony Blair chose to do his first speech as prime minister on a staircase here.
“For the past 18 years, often the poorest people in our country have been forgotten by government. And I want that to change,” Blair said.
“There are estates where the biggest employer is the drugs industry, where all that is left of the high hopes of the post-war planners is derelict concrete.”
To outsiders, a reported 10-15 crimes a day made the Aylesbury estate a perfect example of such inner-city poverty.
That’s not how Dennis remembers it. When she moved into her council flat in 1993, it was vibrant. Having come to the UK from Turkey five years before and experienced racial abuse, the multicultural estate was somewhere she felt she belonged.
“You look after the kids if the mother needs to go somewhere, or they ask you to get something for them,” she says.
“The neighbour had an operation – we cooked every day until she came out of hospital, because she had three kids. This kind of environment.”
But what she misses most are the voices of children playing outside, on the balconies and walkways.
When I visit, two days after her thirtieth anniversary in the flat, it’s quite different. There are flies, boarded up windows, puddles in the lifts, and nobody is walking around – let alone children having fun. About 7,500 people used to live here. Now it’s a ghost town.
In the past five to 10 years, the clearout has sped up, she explains. Dennis estimates just 30 people remain in the block, out of a total 250 flats.
To find out how the change happened, I enter Dennis’ flat. It’s been transformed into a 360-degree exhibition, telling the story of the past three decades.
At the turn of the millennium, three years after Blair had put the spotlight on the estate, residents began receiving letters saying it would be knocked down. In 2001, residents voted against transferring to the control of a housing association.
Built in the ‘60s as part of a programme of slum clearance, the Aylesbury found itself up for a similar fate within just 40 years as the council came to believe the flats were badly built in the first place.
By 2005, Southwark council had come to the conclusion that refurbishing the flats wasn’t worth it, and decided to knock it down and replace them with housing association flats.
The current plans halve the number of socially-rented flats on the estate from the current 327 to 163. At its peak, the Aylesbury estate had over 2,000 council homes, like the one Dennis still lives in.
Demolition of other parts of the estate began in 2010, and the council has denied the Aylesbury is a victim of “managed decline” – a lack of repairs and maintenance designed to push people out. In Wendover House, however, Dennis has been swimming against the tide.
“I’m still fighting, and I’ll carry on fighting. You don’t make your home in a day. It takes time,” she says.
It’s obvious which door is Dennis’s – it’s covered in campaign posters. When she answers and opens the door, it reveals a hallway covered in material from her fight.
Every surface is covered, with something to read wherever you look. The aim, says friend Alessia Gammarota, is to be overwhelming.
The corridor of the two-bed flat is devoted to other campaigns Dennis has been involved with – often springing out of the battle against demolition, and spilling into a wider struggle against gentrification in the capital.
It’s made up of leaflets, photographs, paperwork, and media coverage collected over the years. Having had the idea for an exhibition knocking about for a few years, in August 2022 Dennis set about making it a reality.
Gammarota was tasked with going through the seemingly-endless material and turning it into a story. Every room has been used.
Dennis’ bedroom is a mental health-themed room, detailing the toll sticking up for yourself can take. A modified game of Twister goes through the stages of getting a simple repair done, the white plastic mat bathed in light from a makeshift stained glass window.
Next to it is the room which belonged to her sister, Pinar, who died in 2019. As the exhibition has gone on, visitors have contributed ideas – such as the brown leaves hanging from the ceiling as a memorial.
The bathroom is a “one-person cinema”, which – after I duck beneath the fabric covering the door and position myself next to the bath – has a projector showing a film.
Even the toilet has been utilised, turned into the council room, complete with bog roll sporting the Southwark council logo.
And in the lounge, there’s more. Dennis sits me on the sofa and starts a film. It’s about the occupation, in 2015, of a different part of the estate. Activists and squatters broke down fences, and climbed up onto the balconies. Riot police came to remove them.
“I love that part. I keep watching. I wish we were there again doing the same over and over,” Dennis recalls as we watch.
Those flocking to the exhibition, which was extended into May due to popular demand, have been met with talks on gentrification, the history of the estate, and the housing crisis in London.
Taken as a whole, the flat is a monument to direct action. Even the fact Dennis still lives there – with the council still collecting rent – is an act of resistance, a daily victory for her.
She’s also taking Southwark council and developers Notting Hill Genesis to court, arguing the demolition plans amount to “social cleansing”.
Beyond the exhibition, Dennis wants to turn her focus to a larger struggle, with campaigners and academics figuring out how to turn the tide on gentrification in London.
There are big forces at play. Foreign investors and sovereign wealth increasingly shape the property market in the capital. Individual residents are fighting housing companies with intimidating balance sheets. Is victory even possible? “Why not? If I don’t feel it, I wouldn’t start the campaign I’m fighting.”
Urgent action is needed to prevent even more people being pushed into homelessness. A secure home is the first step in addressing the cruel cycle of poverty to ensure people can fulfil their potential. Join us to keep people in their homes.