Once Upon a Time in King's Cross

Catherine Packard
Curated for Bloomsbury Festival 2020

An affectionate depiction of community life in a once infamous King’s Cross neighbourhood during the 80s and 90s, through the eyes of local photographer and resident Catherine Packard.

This exhibition looks at a spirited community, who continually fought for a better quality of life in an area stigmatised by the media and feared by the wider public. The photographs in this exhibition are a tiny snapshot of life in and around Hillview; a Victorian housing estate off Cromer Street originally built to house the poorest of workers.

A link to a video of a 3D digital gallery version of the exhibition is here.

"My obsession with photography, particularly social documentary, started at Kingsway Princeton College in 1978. Having left school at 15, I found myself in the photographic studios and darkrooms of what was, for the time, a very progressive and creative Further Education College. I got my first camera, a Pentax K1000 and took it everywhere with me, never tiring of capturing human interaction and intervention in the everyday, seeking out instants of unguarded emotion, as well as the perfect composition. Over the years my portfolio broadened out to incorporate portraiture, urban and rural landscapes and more abstract imagery. The photographs in this exhibition are much more personal, taken in and around the Hillview Estate where I live.

I moved to Hillview in 1981, dubbed ‘the Hell Hole’ by local press, a squalid Victorian housing estate in King’s Cross. I was a 19-year-old squatter, apprehensive and also excited by my new living circumstances, but with absolutely no intention of living there any longer than I had to. Little did I imagine that I would continue to live and thrive within those redbrick walls: bringing up children, finding a home and good friends amidst a disparate bunch of so-called ne’er do wells and troublemakers.

In fact, amongst the drug-dens and brothels, the building was inhabited by a broad mix of people, including artists, musicians, performers, journos, techies, academics and activists determined to ensure a better quality of life for themselves. A flourishing artistic community, reaching out to the wider neighbourhood through annual festivals and parties for local pensioners, was a far cry from the supposed social dregs stigmatised by the media. 

A long campaign by Hillview residents and Shortlife Community Housing - a committed, well organised and savvy housing collective founded in the 1970s - saved the estate from being bulldozed by the then Camden Council, and eventually in 1993 secured permanent homes for the community still living there.

Today’s King’s Cross is a very different place, the industrial and railway landscape filled with desirable chic and shiny new builds. However Hillview and the surrounding neighbourhood have remained very much a village-like community but with an inner-city edge; still battling for home security in what are hard times and struggling to reap the benefits from the increasing gentrification which engulfs the area. 

This exhibition brings together a series of unique moments: a snapshot of community life, urban vistas, and ways of living, some of which have now disappeared.  A tender and playful commemoration of a special and significant time.

Once Upon a Time in King’s Cross is dedicated to everyone who has been touched by, or contributed to the radical and indomitable spirit of Hillview"

Catherine Packard