Nine million people will answer ´yes´ when asked if they are Londoners, while several millions more are continuously visiting the city, swarming like ants over Oxford Circus. Knocking each other over with their selfie-sticks, dragging along their newly purchased stationary emblazoned with Queen Elisabeth’s aloof face in thin plastic bags, they’re desperately ticking off as many tourist attractions as possible before leaving the English capital in need of yet another vacation. But just a few tube stops away, in Hackney Wick, this chaos feels very far away. In fact, I have to remind myself I’m still in the city, and not in a strange and fascinating village.
Wedged between a motorway and a canal, artists and bohemian spirits have, over the last 15 years or so, slowly taken residence in a web of old, closed-down factories. Here, peanuts were once peeled and boxed, synthetic plastic was produced, and delicate silk was spun into long fine threads. Like villagers, they live, share and care for each other, trying to keep their hope for the future lit amid the change creeping into the neighbourhood in the form of hi-vis orange clad men and their suited superiors.
My British boyfriend and I are staying in the former Peanut Factory; where a dozen or so of his friends live with about 100 other people. After a wild, loud and quite magical secret party in the woods at Hackney Marshes on our first night, with many a party-goer around us diving head first into the realm of the psychedelic, and our heads not touching the pillow until 8 in the morning, both he and I feel cut down, chewed up, swallowed and digested. But rumours of a beautiful, sunny evening sneaks into my ear whilst I’m on the mend, tickling my curiosity. Since our room has no windows, and my lungs feel like balloons filled with stale and recycled air, I choose to leave the duvet’s comforting hug and head down to the canal.
I slowly walk through the quiet streets with a can of ready-made Jack and Coke, bought in the convenience store around the corner. It’s a surprising 30 degrees. Surprising, since I’ve visited London ten times, and yet, I have never before been felt up under my skirt by a Barcelona-like heat wave in this manner. (It will leave my feet with no choice but to temporarily move into a pair of pink studded Birkenstocks, and, a couple of days later, I feel compelled to buy a pair of huge, glittery heart-shaped, and overly expensive sunglasses from a vintage store in Dalston, to distract and hypnotise people into not noticing my sweaty complexion. But that’s a different story.)
A skinny man with long brown tresses, and seen-a-lot eyes, leans in the doorframe of the entrance to a large brick building, drowsily plucking on his sticker-adorned guitar. The orange sun curiously peeks around the corner, painting the heavily graffitied old walls in kind, warm colours that cast long and lanky shadows over the sidewalks. Now and then, the man nods, saying: Hi mate to passersby. He gazes with numb ambivalence at the intruding construction workers, follows the odd car slowly driving by with his eyes, and looks in my direction twice whilst I’m creeping on him from a distance, drinking from my can, writing on my phone at a slow pace.
Even as a newcomer, I can’t help but have a halo of sadness whilst closely observing this eccentric neighbourhood. I get an overwhelming feeling of blink, and it’ll be gone, so I look around, trying to take in the entire landscape, whilst focusing on the details at the same time, like someone playing Kim’s game. With a large lifting crane watching from above, I let my nostrils be filled with the smell of heated asphalt mixed with cigarettes, plasterwork, exhaust, the dusty smell of long forgotten memories – and even a tiny, sweet hint of hope I didn’t know I would be able find here.
A few minutes later I’m down by the lively canal, layered by a thin forest of green algae with many pieces of wood and unidentifiable objects lurking on the surface. The houseboats are lined up on both sides. The people leading a floating existence don’t seem to mind. More often than not, the passersby are staring straight into their home, curious about their way of living. The houseboats are loaded with all the things one could need, afloat and ashore. Large plants spread around them, and here and there, a dog lounges. As I hear one of them bark, I imagine it means Ay Ay Captain! I pass by a couple eating supper and drinking wine on deck, the angles of their faces and hands softened by the sun. Further along, a houseboat has been turned into a bar with an eager band of jazz musicians performing on the mooring, making me think of The AristoCats, like I always do when I hear jazz. A crowd of about twenty people enjoy the bar’s kindly priced Gin and Tonics, whilst listening from the comfort of a little grass verge, clicking their fingers in time with the music.
Joining them on the grass I notice one of the major things killing the feeling of being in a small village – The Olympic Stadium towering a dozen of stone throws away in the background.
(When I say: village, by the way, I don’t mean it in the thatched-roofs-and-cricket-on-the-green sense, but rather that there’s a feel of community here: People stop and talk to their neighbours, and the streets are rarely disturbed by cars.)
Before my visit, I read about how the council attempted to strip the neighbourhood of its graffiti and instead let international artists leave their mark on the walls. The construction of the stadium marked a change on the entire surroundings. I’ve seen walls around here quietly commenting on the change, saying: No one here likes the Olympics.
As the horizon starts to eat up the sun, I start walking back to The Peanut Factory. I pass by the man with the guitar, still leaning in the doorframe, now joined by a friend in slippers and a bathrobe singing along. I pass by skaters and people carrying canvases. Peeking into a window I see three little people in colourful and tight gymnastic costumes dancing and throwing each other around. I pass by Crate Brewery & Pizzeria, one of several breweries, burger and pizza places that have popped up here during the last year.
Before heading into the marshes last night, to shake about under the strobe lights, I ate a brilliantly crispy and cheesy pizza there. Joy Division was swimming out of the speakers and the place could just as well have been a convention for vintage Levis jeans-lovers. A man with skiing goggles and a fur boa was smoking cigarettes in front of the entrance, everyone was drinking quirky kinds of beer and we were dining on communal tables. It was textbook hipster-like.
It made me reflect on the part I inevitably play when it comes to the gentrification of places exactly like Hackney Wick. Being a 20-something with hipster-tendencies, I’m subconsciously magnetised by minimal-looking places in what often are former industrial or working-class neighbourhoods, where other creatives also flock. I, like everyone else, adore the contrast between the original surroundings and feel, with the fresh and hip in up-and-coming areas.
But eventually up-and-coming areas attract a far more unwanted lot as well – the housing developers. Ever since they got a whiff of the alluring scent of artistic and industrial from Hackney Wick a few years back, they’ve been buying up more and more of these old factories in order to kick out the current residents, sledgehammer the bricks into pebbles and gravel, and use artist neighbourhood as a selling point for luxury apartments.
As soon as you arrive, it becomes apparent, the gaping wounds scattered around the neighbourhood and the sad shaking of people’s heads when you mention it. I pass another two obvious tags, written on the blue steel fences enclaving one of the construction sites, saying: Save Hackney Wick, destroy corporate power and Don’t kill the community. Another one says: Ur killing the vibes, and I’m pretty sure it’s not Theresa May, Boris Johnson or all the people that voted for Brexit they’re talking about (though they’re no doubt vibe-killers too).
Returning to my temporary home in the Peanut Factory, a huge, roaring, lions head greets me from the mezzanine, created by a set designer who lives in one of the rooms here. A couple of human-sized arrow-lamps, a teddy bear in the size of a real bear, a swing and a small meadow of flowers that she’s also responsible for inviting into this living and dining room, make it quite out of the ordinary and a bit fairytale-like. An unfamiliar person looking like a pirate, walks past me saying: Heya, and four others are drinking tea or wine by a large dining table in the middle of the room, one of them seemingly eager to put his political views on top of the current agenda. I hear the needle of a sewing machine being forced forward by one of the tailors in a studio on the mezzanine, as I step back into our windowless room, eager to digest the things I’ve seen so far and get a chunk of sleep in a warm embrace. Tomorrow we’ll roam the streets here again. Soon Hackney Wick will be cleaned up, cleared out, and vanished altogether.