LONDON — It’s been called a “tale of two cities”: London’s Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, with its billionaires’ homes, neat rows of embassies and a royal palace, is known around the world as the wealthiest place in Britain. Yet it’s also home to some of the capital’s poorest, most ethnically diverse neighborhoods — including the one where an apartment block went up in flames this week, leaving at least 17 dead and whole families missing.
The shock of that tragedy, the worst of its kind London has seen in decades, has mobilized residents to set aside the extreme inequalities of the borough and come together in an outpouring of grief and support.
Churches and mosques near Grenfell Tower were inundated with donations for victims of the fire, many piled so high with boxes they had to turn away a steady stream of residents who kept appearing with food, clothing and other supplies. Strangers stopped each other in the street to catch up on which items needed to go where, offering their bikes for transporting donations.
“We’ve all got compassion. We’ve all got children who went to school with the kids who lived in that building,” said Kirsteen Malcolm, who has lived in north Kensington for 20 years.
Malcolm was helping at a makeshift collection station under an overpass, where affluently dressed Britons and headscarf-covered Arab women alike jumped in as volunteers, forming a spontaneous human chain to load cases of bottled water into a van. Other volunteers sorted through mountains of donation boxes and bags. A local restaurant closed for business Thursday, instead setting up a stall at the station to serve free meals to all.
“The community is just rallying. People have just shown up to help,” said Sinead O’Hare, a volunteer working at another donation point. “When I arrived last night it was so busy, but a stranger put me up in her house. It’s amazing.”
Those trapped and unaccounted for in Grenfell Tower, a 24-story government-owned block, included many migrant families from the Middle East and northern Africa. A wall of prayers and condolences outside a local community church reflects the diverse backgrounds of local residents, with hundreds of messages left in English and Arabic. “Allah, make it easy for everyone,” one read.
Suhad Adam, who works with a local charity helping Somali communities, said she felt the atmosphere of solidarity defied the impression that London was tense from community divisions in the wake of the recent extremist attacks on the city.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen London come together like this, Muslims, Jews, Christians,” she said. “The message now is a strong one. We are together.”
While Kensington commands the most expensive property prices in the country, its northern tip, where the blaze took place, includes neighborhoods ranking among the 10 percent most deprived in England, according to official data.
Just blocks away, toward the south of the borough, are the glamorous houses and restaurants of Notting Hill, an area favored by investment bankers and wealthy expatriates, and mega-mansions owned by the likes of Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich. Kensington Palace, the home of Prince Harry, Prince William and his wife Kate, is also close by.
The tower blaze has brought out long-simmering anger about that stark divide. When approached by reporters, a local resident railed about gentrification projects that knocked down low-income housing in the area, saying no one in government had paid attention to their plight. Another man at the scene said that only better-off people “with a cut-glass accent” have any hope of being taken seriously by officials.
“The people who died and lost their homes, this happened to them because they are poor,” rap musician Akala told Channel 4 television. “Repeated requests were ignored. There is no way that rich people live in a building without adequate fire safety.”
Still, the overall feeling at the scene was one of a community united — for now — in its determination to help in whatever way it could.
Volunteer Joy Ebere, who was handing out free pastries, cakes and fruit, said: “The food is for everyone. They have shown their love.
“We’ve seen many tears — my colleague here was just crying,” she added. “But at the same time we are trying to use good to overcome the pain.”