Hackney: A Drift through the Gentrified Zone



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.

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