“When I first came to Hackney Wick there were hardly any street lights, it was so deserted,” says artist Josephine Chime, who’s been living and working in Oslo House for 12 years. Despite finding the area “creepy” on her first visit, it was the huge live-work space that eventually won her over.
“I moved in and it was just chaos, beautiful chaos,” Chime remembers, as we drink tea today in the same communal space, her fellow warehouse dwellers milling around us. “Because the hallway is so wide, it lent itself to people building props and doing photo shoots. We weren’t so bothered if there was drilling or sawing.”
Chime was born in Hackney, and her work spans from textiles to DJing to visual arts, with a focus on subverting what is considered beautiful and desirable. She still loves the Wick in spite of the extreme developments taking place around her.
“Down in Fish Island, there are advertisements on building sites declaring they will be keeping the Fish Island energy alive. But do they know what that was? Fish Island was DIY and anarchism! It was warehouse parties, an abundance of art studios, and making something out of nothing. All the things that are messy, and the opposite of selling desk space.”
People might be moving to Hackney Wick and Fish Island in their droves to be part of that authentic vibe that’s being advertised, but Chime doesn’t think they’ll be getting it. The new people will bring their own culture with them, and the Wick will become something very different.
Hackney Wick is extremely cool these days, but frankly, it used to be a bit dodgy. Before the Overground, people avoided the train because of its reputation as a place you’d get stabbed. “Some people were frightened to be here,” says Kate Terry, who first came to Hackney Wick 12 years ago in search of cheap studio space. “There really wasn’t much around here back then. There was The Wick Café, and the corner shop next to the station. It was the people working in the factories and the artists – that was it.”
Terry’s bright workspace in Bridget Riley Studios is full of the plywood, saws, hammers and soldering tools she uses in her sculpture work – she is interested in geometry and balance. The paintings on the wall are by fellow Wick veteran Gary Colclough, and the couple have shared the Bridget Riley space for three years: “We were really lucky when this came up, says Terry. “It’s hard to get a studio.”
Previously they’d spent seven years at Wallis Road Studios: “Gary saw the bulldozers come in earlier this year. They’ve knocked down the old studios and just left the facade.”
What happened to Wallis Road Studios is happening all over Hackney Wick right now. Artist studios located in historic warehouses – many designated Assets of Community Value – are being torn down to make room for mixed-use developments with flats and shops. A walk through Hackney Wick and Fish Island in the autumn of 2018 is a walk through a building site. Once Europe’s densest arts hub with up to 1000 studios, there’s now maybe a third of them left – it’s happened so fast they’ve lost track. There’s still colourful murals, the Lord Napier pub is still covered in graffiti, and the riverside bars are full of people enjoying locally made brews. But by the time the bulldozers and cranes are gone, about half of the Wick will be brand new.
The Wick is home for Terry and Colclough – it’s where they live and raise their two kids. But the culture that made the Wick unique is disappearing, says Terry: “We keep seeing people photographing and filming by the graffiti on the canal. It’s so trendy now. I just hope it won’t get so generic we get a Bella Pasta.”
No one used to pay much mind to this slice of East London, squeezed between the A12 road and the River Lee Navigation. One of the oldest industrial sites in London, it once produced petroleum, plastics, inks, dyes and confectionery. Later, it became Printers’ Paradise, so named for having the highest concentration of print-related businesses outside Heidelberg. Artists moved in 20 years ago in search of cheap studio space, maintaining the Wick’s unique tradition as a place where people make things.
But change has been brewing ever since London won the bid to host the Olympics in 2005, creating an Olympic Park spanning Stratford, Hackney Wick, Bow and Waltham Forest. The Olympic promise was clear: “The most enduring legacy of the Olympics will be the regeneration of an entire community for the direct benefit of everyone who lives there.”
Some of the Olympic legacy has been positive, such as a new creative hub in Stratford that will home V&A East, Sadler’s Wells East, BBC Music and two universities. But in the Wick, the effect has been rapid, extreme gentrification.
It’s not controversial to say that the promise to look after local interests after the Olympics has been broken. Every artist I spoke to commented that they don’t know anyone who can afford the £400,000 flats that are now advertised all over the area – it’s not the locals who will benefit from this change.
Artists have been priced out of London neighbourhoods before. Some are resigned to it – developers are always looking to cash in on creative areas and anyway, as one artist told me, “there’s loads of crap London left to move to.”
Others are trying to forge a way forward in between all the changes. Folk musician and photographer Kandice Holmes was one of the early advocates in the Save Hackney Wick campaign, which fought passionately for a year and a half to save 19th-century studio warehouse Vittoria Wharf from being demolished to be replaced by a bridge. Half of the building is still standing, for now – but when Holmes takes me around the back she tears up a little, even though she’s seen it many times before: her old studio is now a hole in the ground.
Holmes very much lives her activism: “I’m working on a project called Common Unity,” she tells me as we’re sitting in the Grow Eco Pod, a plywood structure overlooking Main Yard where Holmes has just finished an artist residency which concluded in a community-building festival. “It’s about exploring how art can influence alternative living, and the spaces and systems required for communities to thrive mostly outside of the capitalist framework. This started through the Save Hackney Wick campaign.”
Losing the fight for Vittoria Wharf was a blow not just for Holmes personally, but seemingly to the Wick as a whole; everyone I spoke asked if I knew about “the bridge,” and the fact that there are two existing bridges within mere minutes of it.
Nevertheless, final approval for the bridge, called H16, came in March this year. The organisation overseeing the Olympic area development, the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), had made it non-negotiable in its 2011 area plan. “I have realised there isn’t any chance of preventing these things,” says Holmes. “The LLDC has complete power over that process. We don’t have any real political or citizen way of influencing their decisions… They really have it all sewn up.”
When I walk into Unit G Gallery, William Chamberlain is serving kombucha on tap – it’s by Jarr, a Wick business who sponsored last night’s opening of a show by local artist Jim Jack. Chamberlain is the founder and director of Creative Wick and the Hackney Wick and Fish Island Cultural Interest Group. He tells me that, while he will accept corporate sponsorship at events, in order to be associated with the creative energy of the Wick, companies need to demonstrate a genuine commitment to supporting the local creative economy.
The Cultural Interest Group’s goal is to establish a permanent, sustainable, creative economy for local residents and businesses. There’s some support for the idea that this hub should be protected: the Hackney Wick Central Masterplan states that any demolished, affordable creative workspace has to be re-provided.
But the problem is that “affordable” is becoming more expensive. “If you were to speak to Stour Space, they would tell you that ‘affordable’ is about £12-15 per square foot,” says Chamberlain. “In an old re-purposed live-work building, it might be £18-21. If you talk to the Trampery in Fish Island Village they’re talking about £25-35 for ‘low-cost’ creative workspace as opposed to ‘affordable’, so there’s a new definition creeping in.”
What this means is that the Wick’s fine artists, who make maybe £10,000 a year and need a lot of space, are being priced out by a different kind of creative – often a digital worker who earns more and just needs a desk.
For some Wick locals, the LLDC is a four-letter word. After hearing so much about the organisation overseeing the Olympic legacy, I was curious to meet with Francesca Colloca, Senior Regeneration Manager at the LLDC, who insisted we meet in person.
As we drink locally made Rejuce at Stour Space Café, Colloca starts by making sure I know that there are more people invested in the future of the Wick than just the artists. There are local residents and businesses here who have nothing to do with art, some of who feel disconnected from the creative community, and the LLDC has a duty to take a wide view. But yes, says Colloca: “Land ownership is at the heart of what’s happening in Hackney Wick – who owns land, and what they do with that land. Unfortunately, that is not something the government can really regulate – they can’t outright prevent sale or development.”
Colloca hears about the contentious H16 bridge a lot. I ask her, who wants it? “A lot of people don’t want the bridge because it changes the way it’s been. Fish Island is disconnected and the streets are quiet,” she says, before explaining how the LLDC’s rationale behind the bridge, as well as the upgrade of the nearby Monier Road footbridge to carry motor traffic, is to improve general connectivity into Fish Island. But while the Monier Road bridge will feed buses into the yet-to-come neighbourhoods of East Wick and Sweetwater, the purpose of the H16 footbridge is less obvious.
Colloca acknowledges it can feel alarming to see so much being torn down, but stresses that there’s a pipeline of new things coming, and many of the new developments will contain workspace. “The LLDC point of view is an absolute recognition that this area has an industrial heritage, is currently a very vibrant and active local creative economy and community – and it should always be that,” she says. “You can’t control when things are built, but you can set an overall framework that says there has to be a set amount of workspace, and a set amount has to be low-cost to ensure the community that is here now has an opportunity to stick around.”
Colloca later emails me to confirm the numbers: a total of 18,740sqm of affordable or low-cost workspace is planned across the LLDC area, including 2,000sqm in the immediate area around Hackney Wick station. But there will be a significant amount of market-rate workspace too: “You will get a different mix of businesses here.”
People in the Wick often refer to “the map with all the red”, which shows all the buildings that are being replaced. It’s about half the area, and there’s no doubt that the Hackney Wick and Fish Island of the future will look very different.
Occasionally there’s some positive news: three Wick buildings – Hackney Council’s Trowbridge Centre and The Old Baths, plus LLDC-owned Clarnico Quay – are being turned into creative hubs. “We will have a seven-year lease on the building,” says Hajni Semsei, director of Arbeit Studios which will run about 20 artist studios at the renamed Trowbridge Gardens, which will be Arbeit’s third Wick site. “This is one way that Hackney Council tries to keep things affordable.”
Semsei says Arbeit has had to turn down potential spaces that were offered for just six months at a time. While the ideal would be to own the building, the second best way to ensure stability is to be given a long lease.
The fight to preserve Hackney Wick as an artist hub isn’t just about this slice of East London – the Artists’ Workspace Study from 2014 predicted the loss of 30 per cent of artists’ workspace in London by 2019, leaving over 3,500 creatives without a place to work. This fight is also about who London is for, and what we stand to lose if we don’t ensure a thriving arts community can survive within the city.
Hannah Brown’s paintings grew in scale when she moved into her airy studio space in Britannia Works three years ago – she’s lived and worked in the Wick for 12 years, but this is the first time she’s had this much space. “There’s a real sense of community here. We support each other’s work and go to each others’ shows,” she says. The canvas hanging on her wall the day I visit is a lush, sinister landscape from her hedgerow series; Brown is interested in the idea of the countryside as this magical place where people seem to think things are always better.
Like every Wick artist, Brown has watched artist friends leave for Peckham, Margate, Bristol, and Berlin – she too has considered leaving but she really doesn’t want to go. “I’ve got so many good friends here, I’ve got a daughter who’s just started nursery, my sister and her kids live nearby. My roots here are strong. I just keep trying to find money for the rent.”
While none of the artists like what’s happening around them, most days they talk about work, says Brown: “We are slightly resigned. But we also have to concentrate on our work.”
Across the road, in Bridget Riley Studios, Wilfrid Wood has a similar attitude – he’s not an activist and he’s here to work. He makes drawings and sculpture, usually with cheap materials: “I’m interested in the character of individuals.”
Wood came here ten years ago: “It was cheap, and fine for me. And near my flat.” There was only one place to eat, “the greasiest, greasy spoon”, but the parties were great: “It felt very free, and like you could leave your bag and it wouldn’t get stolen. But that only lasted a few years.”
Right now, the big suspense is whether the Wick will be designated a Creative Enterprise Zone, a new mayoral initiative aimed at halting the loss of artist space in the capital.
“We’ve been fighting all these years to demonstrate the social value of the creative economy,” says Chamberlain, who thinks the key to surviving into the future is retaining the people. “Becoming a Creative Enterprise Zone would be a massive step in the right direction.”
But regardless of the outcome, activists and artists in the Wick will continue to bring people together and use common resources to save what’s left.
“I feel that as a community, it’s our duty to raise each other up and see what we can collectively create,” Holmes tells me as we’re sitting in Vittoria Wharf, surrounded by artwork, instruments, bicycles, people chatting, and music drifting in and out of studios. “Hackney Wick is so special. I’m from London – I’ve never experienced this level of freedom.”
She then points out something incredible – the Wick is in Zone 2 of London, but there are still no billboards anywhere, and not a single chain retailer.
“You’re really allowed to have this peace of mind that’s so different to the mainstream. You’re left to exist in your own created space, and come together and have a shared life.”
Top image: The Lord Napier pub, featuring artwork by Edwin, Mighty Mo, Dscreet, Malarko, Sony, Static, Charice, Stik & Done, from a project curated by Aida Wilde.
Follow Jessica Furseth on Twitter.