IN THE CLEANSED SPACES THE WILD FLOWERS DID GROW

Hackney: A Drift through the Gentrified Zone

WILD FLOWERS

Phycogeographers

Nostalgia is a dangerous condition when drifting alone through a territory once loved. Ghosts rise up and swirl from every step. The years of evoking and fathoming the memory can blind the vision; the present is haunted by past possibilities. Though maybe it’s in these failed possibilities and fetishised pasts that we can find alter-futures, other possibilities, alternative paths and new visions. I drift Hackney knowing my weakness, my overcharges longing for the secret freedoms this place once offered me. Yet Hackney seems a perfect place to start a drift in search of the digitally expanded city. It is in Hackney’s derelict warehouses, once temporary autonomous spaces sprayed with day-glow paint, that the media start ups eventually occupied. The 90’s squat parties, artist communities and radical politics Hackney once embodied, sowed the seeds of its own destruction. The beneficiaries of psychogeographical knowledge are the estate agents. They understand more than the radical urbanist the value of an edgy radical artistic ambience. Maybe future psychogeographers will refuse to publish their books and put their energies into the construction of a negative ambience. One that turns a territory into a hostile zone for middle England yuppies who like to disguise their privileged heritage behind a hipster beard and moustache. ‘HIPSTER, YOU FOOL NO-ONE’. Creative industries, digital Shoreditch, silicon roundabout. You are the direct decedents of the suited YUPPIES that supported Margaret Thatcher. Liberal political views find it easy to align themselves with the liberal economics that exclude all but the most wealthy.

Town Hall Square

There has always been something quiet desolate about Hackney’s Town Hall Square. A sad desperation permeates the air. It has now been nearly 20 years since our first experiments. Discovering cracks in the homogenising urges of the globalised city, cracks from which autonomous spaces could emerge and take form. Not forms laid out in advance with a 0.1 fine line pen and a ruler, or on the screen of an Apple Mac running the latest CAD program, and not the forms of spontaneous order resulting from the free unfettered reign of the market.

TREACLE PEOPLE, STICKY LIKE US. A squatted social centre whose boundaries refused to remain fixed. Bleeding, draping onto the pavement, making advances, threatening to breach Mare Street and disrupt its rational flow of traffic. Maybe if the fluro swirls radiating out from this building had reached the road they would have rushed at speed throughout the whole system like a narcotic entering a vein. WEST; Whitechapel Road, Aldgate roundabout, off into the city towards the West End. EAST; A11, A12, the Eastway, M11 link road, eventually the A406 North Circular, enclosing and surrounding the whole city. A spreading wave disrupting the dominance of the privatised motor vehicle. TREACLE PEOPLE, STICKY LIKE US! I never did understand the reference to a failed 90’s ITV children’s programme, though I have a strong intuition that I may yet discover a new vein of treacle somewhere in this abandoned mine.

DRY MOUTH, hairs standing on the back of my neck, heart palpitating, panic setting in. FLASH BACK. This was the vulnerability. The weakness I was most worried about. Slippage into romanticised psychotropic nostalgia. I squint and try to locate this former building but its location eludes me. Was it the newly sandblasted former Salvation Army building with its stone laid in 1910 by the Mayor of Hackney T.E. Young Esq B.A.F.R.A.S. that now houses Hackney Councils Human Resources and Organisational Development offices? Or has the whole building vanished? Eradicated from the collective memory. Rebuilt as the Baxter’s Court Whetherspoons. One of the few pubs in the area that still has a working class and black clientele. I decide that it must have been where the spoons now stands.

The stories of Hackneys total gentrification are over-rated. On this the radical left and the Labour dominated council collude. Buildings like the Hackney Picture House act as a distraction. Your eyes are guided to the colour washed lettering, red, violet, blue, you watch like a voyeur the affluent clientele eating and drinking through the large windows, but if you can extract your gaze from this inviting spectacle the square has not rid itself of the abject. The Hackney Gazette features a full page image of a young bearded white man with the headline, ‘the face of Hackney’. This is the face they want you to see. The true face of gentrified Hackney remains poor and black, but less visible than ever before. Where are the late night shebeens and the pubs with pool tables blaring out the latest Jamaican dancehall tunes? Only the extreme acts of being public, like the 2011 riots, have the ferocity to puncture the mediatised facade Hackney has constructed.

Black and White zebra print wheelie shopping bag, NHS walking stick with large hard rubber stopper lay prone on the marble memorial bench dedicated to the memory of Robert Levy. A 16 year old teenager, stabbed intervening to help a younger boy caught up in a gang conflict. A seated man must be in his 60’s, brown and mauve dog print baseball cap and black sunshades. A gravely laugh reveals a good nature and bad teeth as his companion arrives. A middle aged black woman with a lumbering gait. Checked jacket, black leather flat cap with braids extending from the back, black tracksuit bottoms with a white stripe meet a pair of brown leather sandals. These two occupy the space more fully than anyone else in the square. They take ownership of the space around them in a way the occupants of the large wooden tables, visible through the windows of the Hackney Picture House, could never do. The wealthy rent their small patch of table for the price of an expensive meal or a drink and understand without any explicit rules that their occupation is temporary. This couple occupy with such conviction that it would take an intervention from the police to evict them. They are here for the day.

Hackney Picture House
Hackney Picture House

The Hackney Picture House has had its own turf war in the process of gentrification. At the southern end of the building is a grand semi circular ‘balcony’ with neoclassical columns sheltering a set of semi circular stone steps, which lead up to the, now defunct, grand entrance of the former Hackney Library. The balcony is ornately decorated with a large stone plaque displaying an image of St Augustine’s Tower draped on either side by stone garlands of flowers and fruit. As rents rise people are displaced. This decorative entrance provided temporary shelter for a growing number of homeless people. Mattresses arrived and a small community took residence under the protective stone coat of arms. The stench and filth of human existence did not fit the image Hackney council was fostering. This wasn’t the fashion quarter, Broadway market, Dalston circus, Shoreditch. But here was a fissure in the gentrification narrative in plain view of the Town Hall and it needed to be erased. Vanished, swept away, steam cleaned, and boarded up. Battleship grey boards now deny access … Defensive architecture at its most crass.

Its now 13 years since the last stand. The intoxicated and ill conceived occupation of the town hall on the last night of the Samuel Pepys. The Samuel Pepys had been the central hub of Hackneys alternative scene. The hang out of political radicals, squatters, artists, junkies and lowlife. It functioned as an information point between different networks. The Samuel Pepys was to a whole sub-culture what Facebook has become for everyone, but without the relentless data mining, advertising and surveillance. Though it is now clear that there was surveillance in the form of the undercover police officers embedded in the activist movement. I think I once saw Mark Cassidy in there. Here you would find out when the next illegal warehouse party was happening, where to find cheap or free accommodation, listen to Hackney’s local bands and get handed flyers for the next anti-criminal Justice Bill demo or Reclaim the Streets event. I liked it out the back, up on the roof. This was Basque territory. The roof would have a permanent haze of pungent dope smoke and a mixture of Spanish and Basque voices. I was told that most of this crew were here dodging Spanish National Service and others were on the run from the Spanish authorities for their political support for the Basque National Liberation Movement. I never found out if this was true. However throughout the 90’s there was a strong link between Hackney’s alternative sub cultures and those of Bilbao, Barcelona, and Kreuzberg in Berlin. The Samuel Pepys was to the borough of Hackney what the cockroach nest was to the Baxter’s Court Wetherspoon’s kitchen. It was clear to those in the Town Hall that any attempt at regeneration would have to involve eradicating this source of resistance. The fatal blow came from an unexpected direction, the National lottery and Sir Alan Sugar in the form of a £17 million project to refurbishment Hackney Empire. The Samuel Pepys is currently an under-used popup cafe.

Data\Money\Data

“…our ambition is to bring together the creativity and energy of Shoreditch and the incredible possibilities of the Olympic Park to help make East London one of the world’s great technology centres…in East London, we have the potential to create one of the most dynamic working environments in the world…we are today setting ourselves the ambition of making Britain the best place in the world for early stage and venture capital investment…Here’s our vision for East London tech city – a hub that stretches from Shoreditch and Old Street to the Olympic Park… [1].

David Cameron in East London, 4.11.2010

On 24 October 2010, two weeks before David Cameron gave his ‘vision of East London as a tech hub’ speech, the performance poet Robin Bale lead myself and three other participants on a walk around Shoreditch and Hoxton. He traced the invisible border that had been erected by the imposition of Hackney Council’s Alcohol Control Zones.

Screen Shot Robin

Alcohol Control Zones, also known as Designated Public Place Orders (DPPOs), give the police powers to stop people from drinking and to confiscate alcohol within a designated geographical area. In the words of the 2001 Criminal Justice and Police Act, a local authority can order the public; “(a) not to consume in that place anything which is, or which the constable reasonably believes to be, alcohol; (b) to surrender anything in his possession which is, or which the constable reasonably believes to be, alcohol or a container for alcohol …”[2]. The Act states that an offender will be “liable on summary conviction to a fine”. The fine can be a fixed penalty notice of £50 up to a maximum of £500.

The introduction of the Alcohol Control Zones immediately affected Hoxton’s street drinkers and rough sleepers, particularly around St-Anne’s church, Hoxton Community Gardens and Haggerston Park. In effect making the area a no-go zone for certain ‘undesirable’ members of the public. Robin’s original plan was to circumnavigate the Alcohol Control Zones, whilst drinking alcohol, in an attempt to observe what, in the environment, might have given rise to the measure [3].

I returned to this area again in March 2013 to witness another of Robin’s performances. This time Robin was performing a shamanic ‘cleansing’ of the area. He used chants of ‘Data, Money, Data’ and connected the rows of bottled water in Foxton’s faux-bar shop front with the river Walbrook which was believed to emerge from the sacred spring at the site of the former Holywell Priory. He berated the growth of local gyms, luxury flats and bars and exposed the ruins of the boroughs social housing. Since Robin’s original walk, the Alcohol Control zone had been extended to the whole of the borough of Hackney and the original Zone had now been re-branded as the Silicon Roundabout, not referring solely to the old street roundabout itself but to the digital cluster that, with the help of David Cameron, was now stretching in all directions from the roundabout.

The contrast this time was much more stark that in 2011. In 2011 it was clear that the desire of enacting the DPPO was to enhance the appeal of the area to young creative types by making the area ‘safer’ by eradicating the areas visible poor. Namely those who would meet to drink alcohol in the local parks or churchyards. This time the visible contrast produced by Robin’s performance was not between those members of the public who would sit outside bars drinking whilst those sitting and drinking in the parks were been harassed by the local constabulary. This time the contrast was between the large number of construction projects that were creating new luxury apartments whilst the area’s social housing was being under-invested, residents moved out, and whole working class housing estates demolished. Rows of derelict social housing lie side by side with new developments such as 145 city road, a 39 storey, 300 unit apartment block; 261 city road which will soon become a 36 storey residential tower; the 27 storey Eagle House and the 29 storey ‘Groveworld’ buildings.

Robins latest performance, ‘Data, Money Data’, highlights the direct relationship between the growth of Shoreditch as a Tech Hub and the Process of social cleansing that has been accelerated inline with government investment. His transformative and esoteric drift brought into sharp relief a sociospatial process that is having a massive impact on the land use of the inner city and has parallels in most post-industrial cities [4].

In many ways Shoreditch and Hoxton function as a metaphor for the wider industrial and economic shifts that have taken place since the end of the 1980’s. This area was a former industrial area that was hit hard by the decline and relocation of manufacturing and light industries. Leaving a proliferation of decaying former industrial properties and a high level of poverty and unemployment. The access to cheap industrial units attracted the 80’s artists associated with the YBA movement, reactivating these spaces initially into artist studios and galleries and eventually into bars, clubs and restaurants. However, the impoverished artists who created the Hoxton experience in the first place have also moved on because of the rise in property prices…’ [5]

What Robin’s performance suggests is that the area has taken a fundamental shift from “creative cluster” to what Saskia Sassen would recognise as a command and control node in the global network of economic exchange. Sassen has highlighted how the shift from industrial production to post-industrial knowledge and finance based production has lead to the dispersal of manufacturing, whilst creating new forms of centralisation which in turn producing new sociospatial configurations within the post industrial city.

Screen Shot skype face

In order to coordinate and manage the complexity of dispersed production, a vast expansion of the communications infrastructure is required. So we can see that the practices of knowledge based production develop in tandem with the development of the Internet and fuel its’ convergence with other communications infrastructures such as Mobile phone networks and locatative media. Contrary to many of the early predictions outlining how the rapid growth of networked communications would change the nature of work, freeing people from the office and out of the crowded cities, the converse has occurred. The major cities of the world have re-emerged as important centres in the global network of economic flows. We can visualise their emergent role as centralised control and management nodes within the global network of production and exchange, employing a growing workforce of immaterial knowledge workers. Sassen observed that, advances in electronics and telecommunications have transformed geographically distant cities into centres of global communication and long distance management [6]. I think that Sassen here correctly identifies the emergence of centralised control within the chaotic network of distributed production. Whilst the vast expansion of the communications infrastructure has enabled the production process to become deterritorialised, the need to control the activities of distributed production has coalesced into centralised control nodes within global cities and Silicon Roundabout is one such node. The reterritorialisation of global cities has also started to reverse the decline of the inner-city residential districts. The process of deindustrialisation left many inner city areas with high levels of unemployment, poor housing and a population socially excluded from more prosperous districts. As the City remerges the location of these districts, often close to the business and financial centres of cities are once again becoming desirable places to live for the young knowledge and culture workers whose immaterial labour is required by the new economy of information and control. Consequently properties in these areas have become attractive to property speculation and overseas investment. Because of the disproportionate concentration of very high and very low income in these areas they are characterised, as Robin’s performance exposes, by economic and spatial polarisation. The effect of the regeneration of Shoreditch and Hoxton has been to raise property value and increase rents. This, combined with the governments’ Housing benefit cap expected to be introduced in the area from September 2013, is producing the conditions for a literal class cleansing of the area, as poorer families are priced out and forced to move further and further to the outskirts of the city or displaced to cheaper areas altogether.

Screen Shot Housing

On Thursday 6 December 2012 the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London announced plans to transform Old Street Roundabout. The Government will put £50m towards creating a new civic space. The new space will house classrooms, auditoriums, shared office space, and 3D printing technology. Prime Minister David Cameron said, “We’re investing in creating the largest civic space in Europe – a place for start-up companies and the local community to come together and become the next generation of entrepreneurs’. It is clear that if Robins visionary divinations of the area are correct and the class cleansing continues the ‘local community’ referred to by Prime Minister Cameron will be a very different ‘community’ from the one that is currently residing in the area.

Robin Bale 2013 – ‘They knocked down the estates or decided that market rents, and who makes the market, was more appropriate. They put the occupants in tracksuits and taxed their booz. Theirs a fear of contagion. Gyms sprung up like mushrooms, where those who could – could reduce their flesh – to work of the burden of self hood. Where they could reduce their meat – to reduce the burden of selfhood. Running to stay still. – And the only flows round here – Underground – Will be Data and Money. That which comes to the same thing – Underground – Data and Money’.

 

Notes

[1] David Cameron in East London, 4.11.2010, Transcription of speech: Retrieved from: http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/east-end-tech-city-speech/
[2] Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, section 12, HM Government, 2001, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2001/16/section/12#commentary-c1772955 (accessed 25/02/11).
[3] Stated aim of the walk in: Bale, R (2012) “I know thee not, old man”: The Designated Public, In D.Naik & T.Oldfield, (Eds.), CRITICAL CITIES Volume 3, London, Myrdle Court Press
[4] Saskia, S. (2001). the Global City, p256, United Kingdom: Prinston University Press
[5] G. Evans and P. Shaw (January 2004). The Contribution Of Culture To Regeneration In The Uk: A Review Of Evidence, A report to the Department for Culture Media and Sport
[6] S. Sassen (1997). The New Centrality – The Impact of Telematics and Globalization. In P. Droege, Intelligent Environments: Spatial Aspects of the Information Revolution, MIT Press