The Cleansing of Hackney
Jellied eels versus skinny lattes, 31-year-old formica
vs polished steel, offroad child buggies vs donkey jackets
... Hackney is fighting for its identity.
The Ecologist, March 2006
'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
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
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
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
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
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
'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
'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
'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
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
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.