The Cleansing of Hackney

The Ecologist, March 2006
Paul Kingsnorth

‘How do I feel?’ Tony Platia shrugs his shoulders in a very Sicilian way.

‘How d’you think I feel? Look at what they done to my place. Thirty one years of my life I put into this and they left me with nothing to show for it.’ He touches my elbow and gestures at the street outside, unseen beyond the impromptu barricades that shore up what’s left of Francesca’s Café.

‘This used to be a lovely community’, he says, intensely. ‘When I come here it was old east end, real rag trade. It’s all being killed, all the ordinary people pushed out. They’re taking from the poor and giving to the rich. Look around you.’ He touches my elbow again, shrugs his shoulders, looks bleak.

‘Breaks my heart’, he says.

Tony Platia is a sharply-dressed, sharply-spoken Sicilian. Thirty one years ago he opened Francesca’s café in Broadway Market, Hackney. It was a traditional London Italian caff; cappuccinos, pasta and loyal customers who saw Francesca’s as one of the beams shoring up the identity of their neighbourhood. But that identity is changing, and today, Francesca’s café has become an unwilling and unexpected frontline in a new war: that of ordinary folk versus developers; community versus corporation.

It’s just gone seven a.m on a freezing, dark January morning. But Francesca’s no longer serves breakfasts or early morning coffee. Targeted by developers, it is under threat of eviction, to be replaced by luxury flats and a new theatre. Unfortunately for the developers, the local community would prefer to keep Tony and his café. This morning, with rumours flying of bailiffs on their way to evict Tony, Francesca’s is boarded up, shuttered and occupied by local people, making an unexpected last stand for their community.

Inside, the café is a dark swirl of conversation, rumour, anger and cigarette smoke. In the centre of it all sits Tony Platia. Occasionally he looks around him as if wondering where he is, and how it all came to this.

Three decades ago, much of Hackney was run-down, shabby, boarded-up, and often dangerous. Today the artists, media types and city workers who have been flooding into nearby Hoxton and Shoreditch have discovered Broadway Market. The streets are now increasingly lined with expensive baby buggies, silver BMWs and Italian scooters. Every Saturday, Broadway Market is home to upmarket stalls, where you can buy loaves of artisanal bread for £2.75, or stock up on porcini mushrooms and alpaca scarves. Hackney is officially happening.

There are some who like this, and some who don’t. On one side, some who have lived in Hackney for decades are concerned on a number of levels about how the neighbourhood is changing. There might be more money around, they say, but it doesn’t go to them. Property prices are rising, and ‘ordinary folk’ can’t afford to buy new places there anymore. Gentrification, they say, is killing Hackney’s character. On the other side, there are those who point to the fact that shops which used to be boarded up are now flourishing, and that new people are coming into the neighbourhood, making it more mixed in character – and, they say, safer.

In theory, at least, they should be right. In theory, this influx of new people and new money ought to mean more trade for local businesses like Tony’s. It ought to mean ‘regeneration’. Everybody, so the theory goes, should be a winner.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, an unholy alliance of hawk-eyed property developers and a corrupt and venal local council has launched a land grab which is ripping the heart out of the neighbourhood and impoverishing its local people. And what is happening in Hackney is a foreshadowing of similar situations all over the country, as money, power and property values combine to destroy the lives of ordinary folk, and rip the heart from their communities and the character of their neighbourhoods.

Just ask Tony, whose story has come to symbolise everything that is going wrong in the east end. Thirty-one years ago, Tony started up his business in Broadway Market, in a property owned by the local council, to whom Tony paid rent and rates. His café was popular, and it made him a modest living. But unknown to him, it was becoming caught up in a financial scandal that would lead to his ruin.

Years of corruption and incompetence have left Hackney council in debt – to be precise, a staggering £72 million worth of debt, as auditors discovered in 2001. Mandated by the government to sort it out, and quickly, one of the council’s solutions was to sell off its commercial properties; properties like Tony’s café and dozens of other small, local businesses in Broadway Market. When Tony heard this he prepared to make an offer for Francesca’s himself; the council, after all, had assured leaseholders that, if they could meet the guide price for the properties, they would have first refusal on them.

But Tony had competition. A Kent-based millionaire property developer named Roger Wratten, who had recently snapped up the properties on either side of Tony’s place, had his eye on Francesca’s. An unidentified ‘someone’ informed him that Tony was trying to buy it, and from that point on, all Tony’s attempts to do so were thwarted – paperwork was lost, phone calls went unreturned. For three years, Tony struggled for the simple right to buy his own business. But in February 2003, it was sold, at auction, to Roger Wratten.

Cock-up? Coincidence? Wratten and the council say so – but many locals say otherwise. They see a conspiracy of council and developers, aimed at clearing out the small, less-profitable local businesses, and replacing them with new, upmarket developments that will bring in a lot more cash. Developments like the one that Roger Wratten wants to build on the site of Francesca’s and the adjoining properties, for example – a combination of luxury flats and a new theatre, in which his theatre-director wife can stage Shakespeare plays.

There is certainly something convenient about the speed and apparent ease with which whole blocks of properties in Broadway Market and the surrounding area are being sold to wealthy developers, none of whom are from the local area – and many of whom bought the parties at knock-down prices; in many cases lower than the leaseholders were prepared to pay for them. A company registered at a PO Box in Nassau bought a whole row of shops for less than their leaseholders would have paid. Another registered in Dubai did the same. A Russian property company now owns nine properties in Broadway Market; it bought them for £250,000, though they had an estimated value of almost £5 million. Roger Wratten’s Kent-based business owns several more.

So what? What’s wrong with investors buying up properties they can regenerate if it brings in money and smartens up the neighbourhood? What’s wrong, it seems, is that the people of that neighbourhood are not being asked what they want. Neither, in many cases, are they getting anything out of it. And in some cases, like that of Tony’s, they are not only failing to benefit but they are losing their livelihoods.

Start to look at this from a distance and it looks uncomfortably like the neighbourhood is being socially engineered; cleansed of undesirables; having the awkward and sometimes spiky-edged colour, character and reality squeezed out of it. Made comfortable for people in designer shirts who don’t like getting their shoes dirty and who get suspicious if a cup of coffee costs less than three pounds. In financial terms, this certainly makes sense; property prices in east London are shooting up, as the middle classes move in. Now, too, there is the added impetus of the 2012 Olympic Games, which are to take place less than a mile from Broadway Market, and which are already putting added pressure on property values.

On one level, then, this is an ordinary tale of gentrification, squeezing out the poor to make way for the rich. And yet there are two things which make it a more complex tale. One is that, though Broadway Market is certainly a lot more gentrified than it was just five years ago, it is still a mixed neighbourhood. Small cafes, newsagents, jellied eel shops and vegetable stalls jostle side by side with Tapas bars, upmarket clothes emporiums and designer hairdressers. And as for those demonised yuppies; it seems that some of them are actually on Tony’s side. For the last few months, local people have organised a petition to save Tony’s café, and many of the hip young dudes who swan around the artisanal market on a Saturday have signed it. They, too, it seems, like the idea of a mixed neighbourhood. They, too, think that Tony’s is worth saving.

The second heartening thing about this story is just how many people feel that way. When news filtered through to the local community about Tony’s rough treatment – and that of others on the street – a few brave souls decided to do something about it. They organised a campaign and a petition to allow Tony to stay. They talked to the council and the developers, they alerted the media, and they worked hard to ensure justice for the small traders of Broadway Market.

Justice didn’t arrive, despite their best efforts. In July last year, bailiffs arrived as Tony was opening up his café, evicted him and began demolishing his life’s work before his eyes. But the developers had been slapdash, and the campaigners managed to halt the demolition halfway through on health and safety grounds. Then they moved back in, occupied the café and, against everyone’s expectations, including possibly their own, they rebuilt it, brick by brick. Today, Francesca’s still stands – battered, bruised and with an eviction order hovering over it, but still at the heart of the community.

Inside, Arthur Shuter, one of the leaders of the local campaign to save Broadway Market, sits drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, safe against the freezing chill outside.

‘I can understand the council’s position’, he says. ‘If they give in on Tony’s, they will lose millions, the developer who bought it will be furious and it will set a precedent. The council like to say things are out of their hands. The developer claims he’s putting something back into the local community. But we’ve shown him what community really is.’

Arthur is interrupted by Elijah, a great bear of a man with a voice like Frank Bruno. ‘He doesn’t care about the community!’ he says, scornfully, of the developer. ‘He’s a corporate guy. People would come to Tony with their problems, and he’d always have a solution, y know? He was like a community leader. He helped me through the hardest time of my life. This is nothing to do with community – it’s all about money. They didn’t reckon on us standing up to them, that’s all. We don’t like bullies.’

‘And they are bullies’, says Arthur. ‘Oh, most certainly. The developers think they can turf people out of their homes and their businesses. The council talks about ‘regeneration’ and ‘best value’. They use all the right words. But they’ve been caught out here, and they’re in a real fix.’ He stubs his cigarette out in an overflowing ashtray.

‘We won’t go away’, he says. ‘They don’t like that.’

At the time of writing, Francesca’s café still stands. By the time of publication, it may not. But if and when Tony and Arthur and Elijah and the rest are evicted for a final time, it will not be the end of things in Broadway Market. There are other properties to defend; other battles to fight.

Next on the list, for example, is number 71, the Nutritious Food Galley, a fantastically diverse and popular vegetable shop run by a quiet, dignified Rastafarian man called Spirit. Spirit moved into the premises when it was abandoned and spent time and money renovating it himself. When he heard the council were selling it, he went to the auctioneers and presented them with a deposit cheque for £10,000 – ten percent of the asking price. He had been told that if he did so, the property would be his.

So he was shocked when he went along to the planned property auction, just out of curiosity, and heard his own property sold off, for £85,000 – £15,000 less than he had been prepared to pay – to a property developer based in Nassau. The auctioneer and the council explained to Spirit that a ‘mistake’ had been made, but there was nothing he could do. The new owner of his shop immediately raised his rent by 1200%. Soon they plan to evict him. Spirit says he is going nowhere; apart from anything else, he has nowhere else to go. It seems certain that if the bailiffs come, they will have many, many people to deal with.

For this is an increasingly angry community. It senses that it is being ripped off. People who have lived here for decades – sometimes in the same houses in which they were born – no longer feel they belong. Their children can’t afford to live here anymore. And above all the usual tension and worry that comes with change, hangs the feeling that the Council – the people who are supposed to be on their side – are selling them off like so many pineapples or cups of cappuccino, to the highest bidder.

What is happening in Hackney is not a purely local issue. All over the country gentrification and corporatisation, sparked by inflating property prices, are bringing forth the same kind of cultural cleansing, destroying the lives of ordinary people who can’t match the new money, and see their communities and birthplaces taken from under them.

Hackney, perhaps, is a touchstone – or a touchpaper. Whatever happens to Tony, Spirit and the rest of this community, one thing does seem certain: Broadway Market will not be the last place whose people, instead of going gently, decide to stand their ground.