“Where exactly did you say you live in the City?” It’s not uncommon to be asked this question as a resident of the Mansell Street Estate. “We’re between the Aldgate gyratory and Tower Hill DLR station, behind the bus garage, just off the Minories.” At...
“Where exactly did you say you live in the City?” It’s not uncommon to be asked this question as a resident of the Mansell Street Estate.
“We’re between the Aldgate gyratory and Tower Hill DLR station, behind the bus garage, just off the Minories.” At times I mix up the word order in an attempt to inject some excitement into what has become a mundane answer.
What ensues is almost always predictable “Wow, you’re so lucky.” Following a closemouthed smile, I usually reply “Yes, I am.”
‘The City’ doesn’t allure me in the same way it does for others, for the people who merely work in this wonderful borough but do not have the pleasure of living in it.
Its bustling streets and tall buildings are a normalcy. I’m not struck by the gleaming windows and sky scrapers. A blinking computer screen holds no charm for me.
I recall the school run. My mother tightening her grasp on my hand on the way to Sir John Cass Primary School, the only state school in the City of London, I would squeeze between the City workers to make it to school on time.
Since the school opening times and typical working hours coincided, I was accustomed to the jostling of the workers at exactly 8.50am.
I’d often observe the workers, suited and smart-looking, darting from the coffee shops to the office, a spilling coffee-cup in one hand, briefcase in the other. These were sights I was accustomed to.
As a child I knew no better. An innocent naivety at play, after all, this is what all adults do, right?
Having grown up on the estate and spent the most part of my 30 years of age here, I have come to appreciate the significance of where I live. Of the myriad advantages of living on the Mansell Street Estate, one of the most desirable is its excellent proximity to public transport. London is at your feet. ‘Lucky’ is an understatement.
It doesn’t surprise me that our estate is invisible to strangers. Within the hub of the concrete jungle, it’s easy to miss.
Hidden between two large walls, it has the feeling of a compound – secluded, secret and almost surreptitious.
These thick brown barriers appear to keep the estate well out of the public eye, deemed to be an eyesore, perhaps. But many residents feel the opposite – that as barricades they protect us from the eyes of the hordes of City workers that spill on to the streets at exactly 9am, 1pm and 5pm. I watch this routine unfold like clockwork every single day.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are actually of the playground located right in the centre of the estate.
Oblivious to the ringing phones, buzzing of fax machines and whirring printers on the outside, our estate was a small haven and it is where my friends and I would play on the swings, run around freely, and sometimes just simply lie down on the grass – making out objects, animals and shapes from the clouds passing by. A pleasant childhood we often reminisce. It was a spot of spring cleaning a few years ago that sparked my curiosity in the history of the estate. I discovered a dusty letter dating back to 1994. It outlined what was to be the shift of boundaries for the City.
The west side of Mansell Street would now belong to the City of London and the east, to Tower Hamlets. Though I was too young to form an opinion on the matter I witnessed first-hand the rapidly-changing streets which, to this day, are ongoing.
The estate, local primary school and church are now the only things I recognise from my childhood. All the road layouts surrounding the estate have been altered completely. Sauntering through the streets, I often find myself trying to remember what it used to look like. Sometimes my memory succeeds and at others time I resort to looking back at old photos.
It is when I look inwardly at the estate that a sense of familiarity comforts me. Built in 1981, it is essentially two blocks that are no higher than seven and five storeys – a far cry from a 1970s tower.
Although they don’t meet today’s specifications – many are too small for the size of families that live in them – they are pleasing maisonettes and flats. Residents on the ground floor also have small gardens that come to life every spring. It is from this perspective that I view the City.
As a child, a teenager and now an adult this has been my vantage point: home. A unique position in a most remarkable location. So now when I’m asked “Do you really live in the City?” I say, “No, the City lives in me.”
Sharmeen Choudhury works as a teacher in Tower Hamlets. She has lived on the Mansell Street Estate for more than 25 years.