The KLF burned a million pounds on the isle of Jura in 1994 to make a statement and try (it’s said) to negate the all-pervasive power of money. On Tuesday on another island, Fish Island, Save Hackney Wick burned 10,000 names on a petition to mark the apparent failure (at the time of writing) to stop ‘big capital’ doing whatever it wants to Vittoria Wharf in what remains of the creative/alternative culture colony Hackney Wick.
Celebrated Hackney writer and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, responding to my question last weekend at Faversham Literary Festival, said that even though these battles are generally lost and that a city by its nature evolves and changes and “people adapt, …they’re important to fight” and they inspire others.
Despite a 10,000+ name petition appropriately pictured below in front of the Another Time Another Place exhibition of 1970s Hackney by local photographer Neil Martinson, a historic part of Vittoria Wharf is being knocked down in favour of a bridge that nobody wants and many came together to actively oppose.
It’ll bring cars into a quiet part of Fish Island, showing up – say many involved – the talk of ‘car free cities’ and ‘people-friendly streets’ as just so much political and developer rhetoric, paying lip service to environmental issues while doing more of the same in a city where air pollution is known to shorten lifespans.
These issues are very much in the ether right now, from Elephant and Castle to Hackney Wick to Seven Sisters and Tottenham. Some of these battles are being occasionally won. Increasingly, people are asking “Who is London for?” Some are environmentalists, some are displaced locals, some are social justice activists or just concerned Londoners.
Sinclair is adept at highlighting the tension between cities changing and the unsettling effect that has on the people who made it in the first place. Others remind us that we’re only renting in this world and everything changes. But the Save Hackney Wick campaign was just asking to save a bit of the Wick that was (see here for a post on the importance of alternative spaces in cities’ cultural life and even in evolving our society).
It wasn’t a case of being ‘anti’ everything, there were ideas floating about to incorporate Vittoria Wharf into plans so everyone could get something. Doubts have been expressed about this demolition by the Tower Hamlets mayor and at London Assembly level. To no avail…
For the record, a key moment for myself was being in a packed consultation meeting with London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) representatives where it became apparent that even if God had manifested themselves in the room and declared the scheme insane, there was a decade-old plan and it was going through.
When the planner in the audience stood up to ask a specific and pertinent question, there was nobody to answer it because they were all from the Regeneration team. A friend who’s been around longer than myself, on hearing this, nodded and wearily commented: “Yes, it’s an old one that. Send the wrong people and then you can’t respond to the question.”
So as some of the pertinent and poignant comments were read out, the names were burned in a quiet ritual by the canalside at Vittoria Wharf under the shadow of a huge stadium that is symbolic of the all the downsides of the Olympic project. “How many times over have we paid for that?” asked one activist. A short funeral service was conducted, of which a video should soon be online.
Some see mixed results from the big changes in and around the 2012 games; others after in-depth research over years (eg Games Monitor) say “There’s nothing good about the Olympics. Even the transport infrastructure improvements here were already happening.”
In Hackney Wick and Fish Island, the people who are at the margins here (precarity is spreading with the gig-economy etc but let’s not be so crass as to conflate people here with those dying of poverty on sink estates or under ATOS rulings) are disappearing fast.
People who create art or promote DIY culture and alternative ways of communal living are disappearing. The people who wanted a slightly different lifestyle are disappearing. The experimenters and innovators are moving on.
They’ll be replaced by renters handing over huge sums and buyers mortgaged up to the hilt, running full tilt on the hamster wheel to keep a roof over their heads. All the while, the ‘creative economy’ of East London is being sold abroad by the likes of the Mayor, who was notedly absent from this debate.
As I write this, BBC 6Music are giving a shout-out to all the people helping the homeless as the Beast From the East bites. Flats in Hackney Wick range from around £450k up to £850k, in a city where the basic fundamental human need of shelter is seen by many as just another investment opportunity.
Just for a second, imagine owning 30 properties in a city where there are homeless? Imagine owning properties on the other side of the world in a country that’s not your own while people go homeless? Isn’t that, if you just pick it up and examine it philosophically, a ridiculous concept? Other societies manage to be less unequal and hierarchical, but we’ve been conditioned to just say “that’s just the way it is, you can’t change anything”.
When I first started looking at Hackney history, I couldn’t believe how fast London has changed. So actually things can change. And they do. Perhaps a better city is more achievable than we think? Perhaps it’s just there, under the paving stones? Maybe we can find the Hackney Beach? Sous les pavés?
Psychogeography has been diluted, but was created as a way of critiquing the system we live in. This year under the banner #Hackney68, Hackney Tours will be looking to Paris ’68 and the techniques of the situationists – a big influence on the KLF and indeed on many artists and creators today – to poke at the fabric of the Spectacle and highlight these societal absurdities and ‘givens’ we accept unthinkingly. It’s the nature of philosophical enquiry, the Socratic Method.
What’s the point in learning about Charles Booth and his comments on casual labour as a structural driver of poverty if, in the era of the gig-economy and Zero Hours contracts, we repeat the same mistakes?
Surely the past should provide a lens to give more context to the present and to help us better plan the future?
Some involved in SHW say there are some skeletons to come out still about these bridges. But for now I leave the last word to some people who signed the petition. Their comments are typical of the outpouring of feeling of alienation and frustration. Whose London is it…?
“Growth at any cost is just like cancer… More roads, more cars, more congestion and a lower quality of life for everyone. What on earth are these people chasing?
“We are a community that manage to know each other and make space to do creative things. In flats I don’t know my neighbours I’m lonely. Here we have a warmth in these spaces. If you bulldoze down these spaces all that goes, the artists go, the communities go. Please don’t do it.”
“I used to have a studio there. I live quite close. The area was vibrant, different, raw, but it is being turned into another identikit sanitised dead-eyed-developer-district for the benefit of who?”