I watched the tower block explode: a failed experiment in living went up in a cloud of smoke

An explosion on a sunny Sunday morning is just what you need. There was to be a "controlled demolition" near where I live. A block of flats was to be blown up. I thought we might even go en famille - though this proved too much for my teenage daughter. There are very few things we do together any more, and sentimentally I thought that watching a building collapse might be one of them. "I am going, yes, but not with YOU."

At least my other daughter was interested. My friend said you could find out about it on the Internet. She knew a lot about the whole procedure because her sister was in the "exclusion zone" and had to move out from 8am until 4pm. The local pub was open from 8.30am, with a board outside which read "Come and see the blow-up".

Destruction has never seemed so jolly. Certainly, the Hackney Explosive website made it sound fun, fun, fun. "Barkway Court will disappear from Hackney's skyline in a spectacular blow-down at noon. Within seconds, the 19-storey tower block will be reduced to rubble, clearing the way for the development of homes for older people."

Well, that's good then, isn't it?

By noon, crowds were gathering. The road was cut off. There were police and fire engines everywhere. Some of the crowd were old hands who had seen several blow-ups. There seemed to be a great number of goths. Somehow the word must have got around the goth grapevine. With their thrilling pallor and vicarious interest in death and destruction, I guess they felt morally obliged to attend an event that was about the end of something.

Me? I was just there for the bang. Or so I thought until it happened. There was much muttering in the crowd about blowing up the lot of them. The tower blocks were horrible. Why single out that one? It wasn't any worse than the one in front of it. Some people said that tower blocks were alright if they were done up and made into luxury apartments for people without children.

Yet, even without children, these cities in the sky are a peculiar way to live. I lived in one once - 18th floor up, pissy lift, wind howling through the unfinished slats and the lift shaft at night. It was on top of the world, and woe betide if you ran out of milk because it was 18 floors down and then 18 floors up again. You could see everything from out of your window and feel nothing. It was not a normal way to live. Perhaps the whole thing was just badly designed. My tower block certainly was. Air currents would collect and whirl upwards. Sometimes the carpets would hover six inches off the floor, the draughts were so strong.

You never knew your neighbours. They were just people in the lift that was always getting stuck whom you really didn't want to get stuck with. Nowadays, such blocks would have a new front and a concierge. I see Hackney council is fond of concierges. It is a vast effort to convince tenants that they are living in Dalston upon the Seine, that they don't need guards at their door but poofy-sounding concierges.

I looked at Barkway Court - this condemned entity. It was unbearably sad. I wondered who had lived inside it. I wondered who had built it and designed it. Who are the architects whose buildings don't even last for 40 years?

The website gaily reminded us that this was the 13th tower block "to bite the dust since Hackney council's regeneration programme got under way, and it is a spectacular reminder of how the borough is changing for the better". Clear the ground and start again. New London and its new citizens will rise up out of the ruins. Everything will be better. Public housing will no longer be pie in the sky. It will be grounded.

There is a countdown and then a thud. Not like a bomb, more like a stab. Then the tower falling down so gracefully breaking into three pieces as it does so. No real mess, it just concertinas in: 19 floors lying on top of each other. Dust rises up, and we cheer. Well, some cheer. We are supposed to be glad, and yet there is ambivalence in the crowd. Something has gone and we are not quite sure what it is.

"Was that it ?"asks a sulky girl of her mum. "Yes, that was it. What did you expect?" That was it. A failed experiment in living up in a cloud of smoke. But how will we live now? For who is really interested in public housing these days? It's all property prices and mortgages and everyone owning their little slice. The old mix of London is changing. Concierges for council tenants. Electronic gates for private ones. Everywhere I look, some old school or church is being turned into a luxury development. Everything that was once a public place - a school, church, an old dairy - is now just space to be divided up among entrepreneurs.

But I don't see the new schools, the new places of worship being built, the new meeting places, the new forums - apart from the Dome, which is so franchised-out that it may as well be one giant loft development.

I don't see much attention spent on our collective ownership of London; rather, parts of it are changing hands before our eyes. I guess this so-called controlled demolition reminded me of other forms of demolition. The crowd starts to drift away. "Mummy, can we see another building blown up tomorrow?" asks my youngest. We walk home full of unexpected sadness. We visit our friends and the kids play in the garden. The TV is on. Ken Livingstone has lost. Dobson is in, and London's future is still being traded on as if the contents of a city can be sold to the highest bidder.

The author is a columnist for the "Mail on Sunday"

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why the party still needs its soul