Regeneration Game: Margate 1 – 0 London

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Hackney Wick Artist Helpline by John Atherton & Sweet Toof

The exodus is on. If once London attracted the avant garde, does it now repel them? This week arts accessibility champions Open School East joined the artists heading to the south coast, Bristol continues to pull the permaculturists and environmentally ambitious while ‘startup centre’ Berlin is a no-brainer for the entrepreneur.

Last night saw the packed opening night of street art exhibition Save Yourselves. Evoking the Hackney Wicked buzz of old it was both a celebration of East London’s artistic renaissance and a wake for the Wick that was. And yet again we heard the ‘Margate conversation’…

Stour Space is not by the sea like Margate or Hastings, instead it stubbornly clings to its spot by the canal; an enduring limpet of affordable art space on the bank of Fish Island, reluctant to be washed away in the tide of gentrification which pushes persistently through E9 and is changing the identity of the area.

Most importantly to the creative community, it’s eating into that most precious commodity any creative practitioner needs – space. Space and ownership are the two issues that always come up in our 6+ years of walking the Wick and watching its changes.

If you can’t afford space, where do you make your art? If you don’t own the space, you have no control as – thanks to your presence adding hugely to the land value – rents spiral. Many entrepreneurs in East London now actively factor that into their business plan, the “I won’t be able to be here in 2 years” variable.

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Next door, Vittoria Wharf tenants have been evicted (#SaveVittoriaWharf) and Stour Space knows that if proceedings there are anything to go by, a few more years are the best it can hope for. “They make it sound like we’re against housing,” said one activist. “Like it’s either art or houses”.

They have a plan: a plan that could be a “template for London” using land trusts and other credible systems to allow redevelopment and new houses to be built without destroying the existing artistic culture. A culture that is theoretically valued by the authorities and was supposed to be preserved as part of the Olympic legacy. Legacy? Remember that word? Affordable housing? Remember that promise?

We love street art and particularly the conversations it opens up. Our only beef with British street art is that it isn’t political enough. But not so last night, where there was no love on show for the planning overlords the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC). Community engagement can be a tough and thankless gig but in regular meetings of the local Community Interest Group (CIG) artists, architects and all sorts have missed work to come together to engage with the planning authorities in a constructive way.

Having recently attended just such a meeting upstairs at Stour Space, it could be accurately summarised as “Your idea for a culturally diverse Hackney Wick where new developments are complimented by preserving the creative nuclei that made this place what it is – and added a fortune to the land value – is all very interesting, but we’ve a decades-old joint plan with a developer for a bridge that may be needed (or not, we don’t know for sure). And anyway we’re from the Regeneration department so we can’t actually answer the Planning Dept questions that are crucial to this discussion.”

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Not having the right people in the room to engage with planning questions struck some as incompetent, others as cynically convenient. Sham-sultation as opposed to consultation? That was the view of many after this deeply frustrating session. In Australia they tell you to stay out of the way of the huge ‘land train’ articulated trucks that ply the country’s highways because they don’t stop for anything or anyone. The regeneration juggernaut wasn’t even slowing down for the amber light from the Fish Island community that day.

So if you’re already living in a city where you can barely afford to live and then you feel you are not valued or indeed being actively displaced, shipping out to the seaside suddenly feels a lot more attractive. So it’s happening, that is simple. Reactions to it are more complicated.

A few think that some cultural displacement in a country where economic and cultural capital is hugely biased to one city is no bad thing. Obviously your artistic events diary suddenly got a lot fuller in Margate and if it can happen there then where next? Rotherham has been mentioned and even Sunderland touted.

Others, like the Londoner born and bred who recently lost their studio at the Hackney Wick innovator Mother Studios (priced out by rent hikes last month after 17 years of providing affordable studio space), care deeply about the city and worry for its future. And they worry for small towns which may get a cultural boost but which may also feel they’re being colonised. Because a city like London should be more than about generating GDP right?

It should be a place where people can live full, rich fulfilling lives? Even creative lives? Where they can bring up kids? Where they can grow old? Isn’t that the kind of world we want? That was certainly the vision at this week’s Eudaimonia conference at the YMCA with Alain de Botton’s School of Life, which emphasised how important creativity is to wellbeing. The same week in which History of Art was deemed to be a ‘soft’ subject not worthy of A-level.

And if the market continues to drive out some of our most creative minds, where will that leave us? London doesn’t have Berlin’s ‘no-budget’ culture and post-Brexit even Berlin now finds itself at the centre of an eastward-shifting EU and is very slowly losing its ‘poor but sexy’ tag.

But we need the diversity and plurality of voices that means you don’t just have £15 events at the big institutions as your cultural offering. Expensive flats in newly created monocultural ‘quarters’ where the recently moved-in neighbours complain about events after 10pm have their place. But it’s the cracks between the shiny paving stones where you find the really interesting stuff, the diversity and the plurality.

Last week there was a fundraiser for local charity Just Play in north Hackney at Reel Rebels Radio. The old school were out in force: the ex-squatters and characters that could tell you when ‘revolutionary’ in Stoke Newington meant more than a new style of pizza. Between visits to a trestle-table bar the band played, a quirky mass-participation film was made and there was a cabaret though here the line between performer and audience was a blurry one that shifted all the time.

But a pension-less generation of artistic folk can’t live purely on bonhomie and camaraderie. If you want your creativity London, you’re going to have to value it, plan for it, cherish it, cultivate it. Money talks, but creativity makes us human. Can we find the beach in London – or do we all have to move to Margate?

Save Vittoria Wharf activists have asked us to point out that this is not a done deal, the dialogue goes on and a positive solution that benefits all is still possible… Also to be scrupulously fair, we have benefitted from some LLDC local initiatives and sincerely hope a mutually beneficial story can still come out of this.

Save Yourselves runs at Stour Space until 31st October. Free entry. Alternative Hackney Wick runs until, well, who knows…?   #SaveYourselves #SaveHackneyWick

 

More? Hackney Tours founder Simon Cole has also launched the social enterprise Half Day Holidays – taking people for a slice of ‘Eudaimonia’ in arty seaside Margate but then bringing them back to London after they’ve spent a few bob in an arrangement that seeks to benefit all parties. He has also trained youth street art guides for another social enterprise that’s upskilling Camden young people called Underground Camden Tours and is looking for Hackney youth guides now.

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