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East London 2012: Is It Dead?

The world’s greatest sporting spectacle descends on 
London’s creative heartland 
in three months. 
Is this the final nail 
in the 
coffin of the area’s “capital 
of cool” 
status, or will DIY 
creativity find 
new ways 
to thrive?

For many people, the day that Shoreditch died was the day the Foundry closed its doors for the last time in 2010. A former bank building, it was opened in the late 90s by Jonathan Moberly (in partnership with the KLF’s Bill Drummond and others). “It was an artist’s foundry, that’s where the name came from,” remembers artist Tracey Moberly, Jonathan’s wife and the Foundry’s co-owner. There were six exhibition spaces and a yard where impromptu events could happen, and it was used by protest groups as a place to plan their strategies before the G20 protests in 2009. “There was a philosophy that everything was free apart from the beer. You’d have an artist who’d never shown their work before next to a YBA, so it was all juxtaposed. Young Banksy was doing loads of stuff in our corridor. Hot Chip met in there. Even Chelsea Clinton came in, apparently. We covered the Foundry in gold lamé for the Golden Jubilee, for both the anarchists and people that wanted to celebrate. That’s what the Foundry was all about. People would meet outside their comfort zone.”

The Moberlys are currently looking for a location for a new Foundry, even though the 18-storey “art hotel” that was lined up to replace it has never materialised. “They couldn’t get planning permission to shut the roads down either side, so they couldn’t build it,” explains Tracey. “It’s just an empty building.” It is now owned by the Reuben Brothers, a privately owned, Swiss-based real-estate company. “They funded Boris Johnson’s campaign for mayor and the Conservative election campaign. It is the complete antithesis of 
the Foundry.”

On the long and dusty Commercial Road in Stepney stands the George Tavern; its landlady, artist Pauline Forster, sits in the kitchen, one of many rooms in the upstairs of the pub she has lived, worked and painted in since buying the pub in 2003. She has long held plans to open Stepney’s, the forgotten nightclub attached to her pub. “It is home to what is probably the only light-up dancefloor left in the country and was quite a crazy place before I owned it. A swastika once flashed up on the dancefloor to music. The club hosted a famous transvestite night run by Ron Storme, and was a hangout for footballers and their wives and gangsters including the Krays. It’s a heritage building and would be an amazing location and an ideal venue for different types of events.” But Swan Housing own it and plan to demolish it, which would threaten the pub’s existence as well as the club’s. “It is one of the oldest pubs in London, and features in Pepys’s diaries. Swan want to build eight apartments on the Stepney’s site. (If it happens) the pub will lose its music licence immediately. Quite a lot of musicians and artists rely on it for their income.”

Pauline’s long-running battle has earned the support of such high-profile allies as Kate Moss and Andrea Riseborough, who were bewitched by the building during shoots upstairs (the latest being our recent Grimes cover shoot). “To raise funds for this campaign I am going to auction off my moth-eaten jumper, which was worn by Kate for a Hedi Slimane shoot upstairs. I have already stopped Swan building on the green spaces of the estate next door – it would have blocked the little light that the residents get. 
I lobbied the council and distributed letters through the estate, knocking on doors to tell people what was going to happen. If you stand up to projects like this and get somewhere, it gives people more hope.”

Many of the scruffier bars and venues in the area have been spruced up or chased out. Last October, Reuters reported that Shoreditch was on course to become a “mini Bond Street” that would welcome luxury retailers eager to capitalise on Shoreditch’s “edgy image”. Property values in areas such as gallery-strewn Redchurch Street have doubled in the past decade, and have the potential to do so again in the next five years as the retail giants move in. For those stores that chose east London as a cheaper, dirtier alternative to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the unthinkable has happened – the east is now mimicking the west.

“I’ve got photographs from our roof of the Gherkin going up,” says artist Sue Webster. “Gradually, there’d be another building going up in front of it and then another. They were just coming towards us like space invaders!” Webster and her long-term artistic partner Tim Noble are two of the most globally renowned artists to have come out of east London. They have lived in the area since the mid-90s; a decade ago, they turned a disused furniture factory on the corner of Chance Street into their current studio, the Dirty House, with the help of David Adjaye. Nearby is 
the new Shoreditch High Street railway station, members’ club Shoreditch House and “the world’s first pop-up mall”, Boxpark. They are shocked when they think back to how different the area was just ten years ago, and how much the financial sector encamped in the City nearby has now come to dominate the feel of it – but are under no illusions about their complicity in this change. “Artists come and occupy the warehouses. Then because of the artists being here, more bars open up,” Webster explains. “Then the estate agents come, followed by trendy bars and restaurants and cafes, and before you know it you’re living in a shopping centre.”

During the past decade, Dalston took over as London’s coolest destination. The creative industries moved in, welcomed by willing Turkish pool-hall owners eager to embrace the demographic in return for healthier profit margins. “Places like Dalston have become playgrounds for tourists,” says Christopher Tipton 
of label and promoter Upset the Rhythm. “Every time you go down there, there’s 
a whole new bunch 
of fresh-faced 18-year-olds with wheelie luggage, and 
all these disenfranch-ised Turkish men who don’t have anywhere to play pool any more.”

Upset the Rhythm can be credited for spearheading the boom of venues in the basements and pub backrooms of Dalston. When they first approached a Turkish furniture store about using their spacious basement to put on the hardcore noise-band Lightning Bolt, the infamous Bardens Boudoir was born. “We were just trying to find an empty warehouse, any kind of space that would let us do a pretty raw show,” says Tipton. “At the time, we had no idea people would even go there – we drew these chalk arrows all over the pavement from Dalston Kingsland station, and sent longwinded email descriptions 
of where it was. For the first show, Umit – who ended up running Bardens – stacked up a load of bricks during the soundtrack, and started selling bottles of beer. He was very entrepreneurial. His family own most of that street, and they run a 99p store, a fish-and-chip shop and the pub on the corner. I think he saw a lot of promise in these silly kids coming to ask him to use his furniture store. There were a lot of reviews that said things like, ‘We’re in the badlands.’ Since then it has changed considerably, but it was never really that bad.”

Flyposting artist and zine-maker Laura Oldfield Ford moved into a Dalston squat from Leeds in the early 90s, and has become a swaggering, black-leather-clad embodiment of east London’s sub-cultural past. “There was an overwhelming sense of excitement,” she says, “of being immersed in this labyrinth and going on all these walks, with all these centres, and these swathes of ruins.” The haunted, pencil-drawn art that appears in her Savage Messiah zines and exhibitions embodies an anger felt by many, the perception that, as a site of the underground, east London is now dead. Dalston was once militant, filled with the sounds of dub reggae and jungle; Stoke Newington has a former life as an anarchist stronghold; and Shoreditch was full of squatted buildings used for acid house and jungle parties. Mark Fisher has suggested that Ford’s work, like that of Burial, “invokes 
a sense of London after the rave.”

I meet Ford at the corner of Great Eastern Street where the Foundry once stood. She used the place to launch issues of Savage Messiah, which she started in 2005. Each issue is a Ballard-fuelled, pulp-inspired wander through London, triggering two decades of intoxicating urban memory. Drifting through the city is the source of her work, so we decide to walk to Stratford, the epicentre of the imminent Olympic Games, passing the warehouses and estates that she has lived or partied in. During the walk, she springs into life at the sight of each building that is undergoing a process of demolition, commenting on its beauty as a ruin, while periodically sticking Savage Messiah stickers on lampposts and fences. We comment on the moorhens padding on the frozen canal, in the shade of newly erected apartment blocks. The towpath bends and a John Lewis logo appears on the horizon, screaming for attention from the side of the gigantic grey box that is the enormous shopping mall Westfield Stratford City. Once this walk was an appealing detour from the aggression of consumerism that dominates parts of the city. Now, it has become yet another thoroughfare to a shopping experience, a route whose final destination is a purchase. It seemed fitting that, ahead of its opening in September last year, Westfield drafted in one of east London’s most famous artists – Tracey Emin – to form part of its “cultural team”.

Sipping a cocktail during happy hour at a South American theme bar that overlooks the Olympic Stadium in Westfield, Ford’s vision of the Olympic legacy in Stratford and Leyton is the opposite of the “Tech City” that David Cameron has talked of. “I genuinely think it will end up overgrown and we will get it back. After the Olympics, where is the money going to come from to maintain and energise it? The whole thing is a stage set ready to be activated for those two weeks. It already looks like a burned-out theme park; that Amish Kapoor sculpture looks like a melted fairground ride. Can you imagine it when it is covered in ivy?”

We had entered Stratford along the A12, surveying a grey building – the Rex music venue, which has now closed down. The Rex was where MCs like Dizzee Rascal did the hard work before they got noticed. “Before grime crossed over and everybody in the suburbs or Hoxton got into it, the Rex was really street with a proper council-estate buzz,” Diz said in 2007. But the venue has had a troubled life since its grime days, and closed in 2010. Looking back, grime is surely the one truly trailblazing genre of music to have come out of east London in recent times. It is said that the Rex will reopen, but is planning to hold only “indie and pop” nights.

“I moved to Hackney seven years ago, which isn’t that much time, but there has been so much change,” says Gary Budden, who set up Influx Press with his friend and fellow writer, Kit Caless, to document the changes taking place in Hackney. Its first publication, Acquired for Development By…, is an anthology of responses to a changing borough, featuring writing from Lee Rourke (who won the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize for his debut novel, The Canal), Molly Naylor, Siddhartha Bose and myself. “Businesses have come and gone, the Dalston Lane redevelopment went up. I learned retrospectively about (reggae and rave venue) the Four Aces, which used to be there. It made the area interesting but was destroyed by the interest it created. It happens throughout history. But you realise that you are part of that change.”

Artists are drawn to the gaps found in the forgotten parts of the city. The cheap rents, the romance of ruins, the sense of unending possibility… All of it overwhelms, and when the end approaches, it’s painful. “I don’t actually think gentrification is a problem,” says Eddy Frankel, who plays in Fair Ohs and runs his record label Dream Beach from a converted warehouse on Fish Island in Hackney Wick. “Cities evolve, and creativity is fostered by the upheaval of gentrification. It’s just important to remember that what the gentrifiers are doing to the creatives, the creatives did to the local communities in the first place.”

These days, cash-strapped artists, musicians, writers and the like look further afield. It is no longer inevitable that a south-London art-student will make the traditional journey north of the river after graduating from Camberwell or Goldsmiths. Spaces such as Auto Italia and the Bussey Building in Peckham, where Upset the Rhythm put on shows, are testament to the fact that it is now a more distinct possibility to invigorate new creative spaces there rather than in Shoreditch or Dalston. Pockets of Leyton and Walthamstow further out of the city are now filling up with young artists as rents rise nearer the centre. “There will be another outpouring of creativity, and it’s just going to pop up somewhere unexpected I think,” says Christopher Tipton. “But that’s why we do shows all over London. You can always do something unexpected if you have an audience out there willing to 
go on the trip with you. It is just part of what makes this city 
so interesting.”

Photo by Jamie Hawkesworth

Get involved with our interactive project, A Secret History of East London, HERE. Post a memory on the timeline, mapping the development of the area