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July 13, 2012 8:05 pm
I grew up in north London, but in 1993 I was living in a one-bedroom flat in Bayswater, working as a writer. I had met this woman I really loved, Marie; she’s in PR. We’re married now. One day she looked at me and said, “James, if we’re going to have a family together, we need somewhere other than the chest of drawers to put the baby.” We searched for a house for nine months. I said to one estate agent, “Let me look through your filing cabinets and go through every property that hasn’t sold in the past two years.” When we viewed this place, Marie said, “This is our house.”
Our friends thought we were mad when we moved to this part of Notting Hill. We were told there was a drugs market nearby on the All Saints Road. We went to the local pub at 11pm and stood outside. There were loads of dealers and hookers but we thought, “We can handle this.” When we moved in, the taxi driver made us pay him in the cab and watched us until we were safe inside.
The real problems started when our neighbour proudly told me he had two girlfriends. They were crack-addicted prostitutes and before long he was addicted too. His flat became an open house for dealers and users. The noise was terrible, day and night. I realised these were not the conditions in which I wanted to raise children.
I remember going to my first meeting at the residents’ association and thinking, “Who are all these people and why are no decisions being made?” I promised never to subject myself to this sort of thing again. But after a couple of months I found myself volunteering to chair the rubbish disposal sub-committee.
It had never occurred to me before, but I discovered that I had this desire to make people’s lives better, whether as a community or by doing it one person at a time. It took six years to turn the area around. In that time I changed my own life too. By accidentally becoming a community activist, I realised I have an ability to coach people, which is now what I do.
At the start of all this the problems in the neighbourhood weren’t just down to the crack den next door to me. Dealers used to target people living in housing association properties in the area and hang around their flats because they thought they could get away with it. The tenants would get hassled by the police but the council wondered why the police weren’t doing their job.
The turning point came after many, many meetings. A policeman said, quietly, “We never talk like this.” It was the first time everyone realised we were all on the same side.
I took responsibility for a place everyone called “Dog Shit Park”, an area enclosed by bushes with overhanging trees and high walls. There had been a rape and a mugging there. It was where the dealers hid from the police. The council helped us re-landscape it – by that time they too had “got” it.
It turned out that the problem was not really local. Most of the hookers and dealers came from outside; they came here to create a market. Introducing parking restrictions worked most effectively in the end. As did getting the police to photograph dealers – who then had to go home and change their clothes, making life more expensive and difficult. The most difficult tenant was evicted and eventually three new families moved in, which has worked out great.
Twenty years ago if you wanted your kids to survive, you kept them off the All Saints Road. We have two teenagers now and the mark of success for me was seeing children on that street. By the time the film Notting Hill came out, the area was transformed, although it’s still pretty diverse.
The residents’ association got more support from housing association tenants than from so-called middle-class professionals. They always said they were “too busy”. I thought, “I’m bringing up a family, I’m running a business, I’m renovating a house … In what sense are you more busy than I am?”
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