Look down the road, ladies and gents, see that shabby block of 100 artists studios? That’s due for demolition. See those luxury flats? That used to be a gay pub with the best parties in town.
Nostalgic East End tours are all the rage these days. But for those left cold by touring gastropubs formerly frequented by murderers like Jack the Ripper, a new outing last month offered the chance to take in similarly sinister sites – the battlegrounds where community campaigns are squaring up to big money.
There is a joke going around that the “green dress lady” adorning the much-mocked hoardings of the Mettle and Poise development encasing the former children’s hospital next to Hackney City Farm might be holding a bagel (a symbol of gritty “East End authenticity”), but it is actually Shoreditch that she is eating.
It is this devouring of community spaces that led Stop the Blocks, a campaign that started the mid-2000s, to dust itself off and unite a clutch of disparate campaigns opposing the “devastating effects” overdevelopment is having on local people.
Flipping the idea of the artist’s open house, its ‘Closed Weekend’ event took participants on a whistle-stop tour of “contested sites” across the borough, highlighting how public space is being “sold off for private profit”.
It might not sound like everyone’s idea of a fun day out but seasoned campaigner and trade unionist Glyn Robbins, who decided to resurrect the campaign in March and acted as the Closed Weekend tour guide insists this is not about “wallowing in the hopelessness of it all”.
Robbins, 51, a life-long East End resident, compares the kind of changes seen in Tower Hamlets and Hackney, epitomised by projects like the controversial Bishopsgate Goodsyard development, to the “aggressive land grab” of the Docklands during the 2000s.
The coalition’s classily-designed map certainly encompasses an alarming number of buildings, pubs and council estates ranging from the Holland Estate, currently under threat of demolition by the housing association that owns it, to artists being kicked out of their studios on Cremer Street and the ‘poor doors’ of One Commercial Street.
Robbins acknowledges the coalition needs to pick its battles. “We have to think strategically. We can’t chase each development, we need to focus development on key issues.”
But while not all the blocks can be stopped, it’s about applying pressure where possible, explains Robbins. “We need to lobby politicians, raise awareness and get local councillors involved.”
Stop the Blocks is for many about a sense of commonality. Appearing together on the same map is encouraging to small campaign groups, as it shows the role their battles play in the bigger war.
The Joiners’ Arms pub on Hackney Road was a colourful stop-off for the tour. Charlotte Gerada, who is involved in the Friends of the Joiners’ Arms campaign which won a significant battle in obtaining an Asset of Community Value listing from Tower Hamlets Council, greeted walkers with “queer bunting, LED balloons, multi-coloured confetti and pop music”.
“We invited those on the tour to hear more about the Joiners’, its importance for the queer community and our campaign’s achievements. It was encouraging to meet so many people who were in support of our campaign and our vision for the Joiners’ Arms.”
Another stop-off was the premises of open artist platform and film laboratory no.w.here, which has been based on Bethnal Green Road for the past nine years. Born out of the ashes of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op, this not-for-profit organisation supports artists, runs multiple workshops and discussions, and hosts events and exhibitions.
“We were about to sign a nine-year lease”, explains co-founder Karen Mirza, “But it went off the table. Property investment companies are involved. Now we’re on a three month rolling lease and it’s only a matter of time before we are evicted.”
It’s a familiar tale. When leases expire there are a few tenants in a position to match the kind of money offered by property investors. Many artists see their displacement as par for the course. Mirza, who has never run a campaign before, says this constitutes “wimping out”.
“Artists should do more. It’s not about self-preservation. We’ve got savings and resources. It’s about rights to live in live-able cities that you have grown up in and had a stake in.”
“The implication of us as artists has got to such a level where we are first, second and third generation gentrifiers. We have to dig deep and ask questions about spatial justice. If you’re not taking the responsibility and not joining the fucking dots you may as well stand with the developers.”
Mirza mentions Cremer Street studios, where artists facing eviction were told to either agree not to object to the development or get kicked out early, as a particularly pertinent example. Developers Regal Homes rubbed salt in the wound by launching a regeneration-themed sculpture competition for the creation of a ‘public artwork’ sculpture to reflect the creative heart of the area.
“Only one artist stood up”, said Mirza. “If we stand on our own we’ll all be picked off. That’s the whole point of Stop the Blocks. What is one more artist studio gone in East London? Who gives a fuck? But what about when it’s an artist studios, a queer pub, a hospital, a pub, two or three housing estates – there’s a difference.”