It’s the sort of noise dodgy electrical equipment makes in a silent room. There isn’t the damp sweet green smell that you have in the summer evenings in the country; it’s a dense, very warm and very human air. The air can be cloying and comforting, like the city that it’s produced in. It’s the smell of hot tarmac, and the creamy E-number laced taste of a screwball ice cream. Ultimately it’s the sight of that ‘No Ball Games’ sign.

This is what a council estate is to me.

It’s based on memory, and so I can be easily accused of romanticising the environment that I grew up surrounded by in South East London. But after living elsewhere in London, surrounded by estates that are not my own, this idea has altered very little.

These government-funded areas of tiny homes and high-rise flats, often with a distinctly brutalist architectural quality, which make up a significant part of the English capital, are often seen as pits within society made entirely of concrete and bad manners. They are places that should be ignored and avoided. Main interests of a resident of such a place are as follows: how long they can make that Iceland party platter feed their nine kids; how quickly they can sell on those few bags of weed that Gary down the boozer slipped them a week ago, and JD Sports. These are all understandings and preconceptions about a group of people based entirely on their economic background, nothing more. The only generalisation that can be genuinely made about those that live on a council estate is that they make up the most concentrated collection of people living in poverty in Britain.

If you Google image search the term ‘council estate’, the first two options that are given as frequently searched associated terms are ‘worst’ and ‘scum’. Economic bigotry is often relatively ignored, when in fact it’s something that is as intrinsically linked to creating an accepting society as addressing racism, homophobia and sexism. But with large areas of council housing being demolished in Elephant and Castle to make way for ‘a better class of people’, (I believe the term you’re looking for is social cleansing) it’s something that can no longer be disregarded.

It’s this discrimination that have followed me throughout my life. Okay, so some of these generalisations may have a hint of truth, my passion for Adidas and my compulsion to by a new pair of trainers at least once a month (they’re pretty and I have yet to come across a situation in which trainers aren’t always the most appropriate footwear choice) may have its origins on the estate. However, any generalisation made about a section of society, no matter how light-hearted, can quickly slip into prejudice and the reactions that I’ve had about where I’m from are interesting, if not alarming.

Often the reaction is based within the bourgeois fascination with the working class, a fetishisation of the ghetto and those that are from it. Many confess an attraction to the ‘chav’ quality that is attached to the residents of government-funded housing. Girls and guys that harbour a desire to find themselves a chain-smoking man in a tracksuit with a staffie on a chain leash called Darren, or a girl with her baby hair gelled to her forehead, a pair of enormous gold hoop earrings swinging against her neck. This is what they crave, despite their middle-class upbringing in a village just outside of Oxford, populated with Pimms and homemade hummus. This is the apparently harmless allure of the other, however this fetishisation hints at the underlying assumption that residents of council estates are nothing more than a pair of sexy trainers.

Seeing as the primary word to describe those from an estate is ‘scum’, people are often shocked that I don’t live up to this stereotype, that I am not ‘scum’. But then what person can genuinely be described as scum? Scum is something that is rancid, that must be removed and disposed of; labelling those that live in a certain place due to their economic situation is in itself a pretty scummy thing to do really, isn’t it? It comes as a surprise to people that despite my sexy trainers, I’ve somehow managed to remove myself from this desperate land of heathens who don’t wash their net curtains enough. This reaction is based mainly on my ability to form a coherent sentence and that I’ve managed to get myself a degree, neither of which is of course expected of a boy from the estate. I’ve been told “don’t talk like that, you’re one of us now” when my South London accent thickens after a few pints. One of what exactly, and what was I? The thing that you think I was hasn’t changed, because it doesn’t exist. It’s a person that is made up of stereotypes formed together to create an incomplete version of a human. Such reactions demonstrate an archaic relationship with social hierarchy that still exists in a society which is meant to see through such arbitrary divides.

No fun can be had without: well-fed pigeons, unrestrained dogs and ball games

Well-fed pigeons, unrestrained dogs, ball games and you’ve got yourself a party

It isn’t just in Britain, arguably the birthplace of the class system, where such a divide exists. Having lived in Australia for the past five months, there have been many occasions where there has been a passing prejudiced remark made about those that live in the government-funded ‘commission’ housing that exists here. The sight of a discarded shopping trolley next to some vaguely run-down high-rise flats strikes fear in a surprising number.

Yet this fear or fascination with the estate is a ridiculous and dangerous concept. These assumptions reinforce the removal from ‘normal’ society that perpetuates the genuinely deprived realities of life on the estate. It is not a glamorous existence, however it is nonetheless a human existence, and the lack of humanity that is often attached to being from an estate is worrying. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has remarked upon the dislocation between those with money and those without: ‘It is easy to romanticise poverty, to see poor people as inherently lacking agency and will’. Just as a person innocently fetishises a sovereign ring, so they are also removing the humanity from the wearer.

In fact it is the humanity of the estate that is what outsiders do not recognise. There is a stronger community on an estate or in a tower block than any that I have experienced or witnessed when not in such surroundings. The sense of anonymity and aloneness that so many feel in London or in western society is not present on the estate. Despite their sometimes harsh nature -after all they are places of extreme social and economic deprivation- once leaving them nowhere since have I felt part of a community in such a strong way.

Even as I wander through the alternate universe of an estate now, there still remains a sense of this humanity, an atmosphere of community. Everyone isn’t shut up in their own houses, ignoring one another; the close proximity of the living conditions promotes togetherness.  Kids play outside together, rather than sitting indoors. The supposedly modern change in the way that children are raised, trapped inside, apparently out of harms reach isn’t a modern concern, it is economic. You don’t find groups of kids playing together on leafy gentrified streets, but you’ll find them on the estate. You’ll also find neighbors and friends engaging with one another on the front steps of their houses and flats. There is no pretention; there isn’t the wariness of those that surround you that exists in middle-class streets, there is no fight for social superiority; who can source the most authentic chia seed pudding or knit a jumper out of kale leaves. So if you’re from a council house in Croydon or Penge, no, your probably not going to be able to pop out and get an excellent flat white minutes from your door. But flat whites and chia seeds mean very little if you aren’t letting your kid play with the children next door because their parents didn’t redecorate using organic paint. Whenever I see that ubiquitous ‘No Ball Games’ sign, attached to some yellowing brick above a defeated patch of grass, I genuinely miss the estate.

So, yes, I do eat hummus and drink cocktails now (whilst wearing trainers, of course) which can be a right laugh, but would I prefer to be kicking a ball against the ‘No Ball Games’ sign instead? I probably would, actually.

Image credit: Ethan Price