I recently came across a photograph of a family eating a meal outside the broken shell of Sayer Street School, which was bombed during the blitz. It stood out, because Sayer Street no longer exists. This was once a long road of shops – a fishmonger, cat-meat dealer, grocer, saddler, bookbinder – and solid, five-storey tenements in Elephant & Castle. When the blitz began, the street was hit by several bombs.
What happened next to Sayer Street encapsulates several aspects of the waves of development that continue to shape London – and the central role played by the bomb sites of the blitz 75 years after the first explosions.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Sayer Street was used as a car park. This was a popular use for bomb sites: indeed, the NCP car park empire began with the £200 purchase of a bomb site on Red Lion Square.
Then, in the 1960s, the remaining residents were turfed out as Sayer Street was demolished, chewed up by the Heygate Estate – a council housing development that was originally conceived as one of three gigantic estates stretching from Elephant to Peckham, linked by walkways and ramps for two miles. “These plans were incredibly radical, sweeping away neighbourhoods irrespective of damage and replacing them with high-rise towers nobody wanted to live in,” says Peter Larkham, professor of planning at Birmingham School of the Built Environment. The Heygate was bleak, poorly built and badly maintained, but it housed many of London’s poorest. […]