Today in London’s anti-gentrification history: Tony’s Cafe re-occupied, Broadway Market, 2005 

In the rolling juggernaut that is gentrification, in London, we are mostly losing. Since the 1970s, the middle class who once fled the capital and left the inner city to decline and collapse, have been returning, sometimes singly, sometimes en masse, and transforming neighbourhoods to resemble themselves. Behind them comes big money, for this is not an individual process, though individuals are crucial to it – it is a colonisation, with ideological aims, and economic imperatives.

In the last few years many local groups and campaigns have arisen to combat the process of being forced out of areas they or their families have lived in so that a better class of persons can bump up property values. On inspirational campaign that had an impact on some that followed was the Broadway market fight in 2005-6 which centred around Tony’s Café and Spirit’s shop.

On Boxing Day 2005, early in the morning, Café Francesca in Broadway Market, Hackney, was re-occupied, after being evicted a few days before. Local residents, protesting against gentrification and the cut-price selling of publicly-owned property in the area to developers, had been occupying the cafe since November, holding many protests and public meetings and generating support and interest in London and beyond.

Sicilian-born Tony Platia had been evicted from the cafe he had run for 31 years, having tried to buy the property from Hackney Council, but been shut out, as the Council was working in collusion with property developer Roger Wratten to guarantee that Wratten would get the building. Multi-millionaire Wratten, who had bought up several properties in the street, and evicted other long-term traders, had plans to develop the café site and neighbouring buildings… Evicted in July 2005, he had re-occupied the café with supporters in November.

Similarly Lowell ‘Spirit’ Grant had been threatened with the same treatment. Rastafarian Spirit built up his Nutritious Food Gallery from 1993, selling fresh fish and veg. Like Tony, he tried to buy the shop he had rented from Hackney Council, in December 2001, presenting the council’s estate agents with a deposit cheque for £10,000. Mysteriously, it was later sent back to him, unused. He turned up at the auction the same day. In a spectacular coup for Hackney’s Equal Opportunities policy, the only black Rastafarian to have attended the sale was summarily barred, due to ‘concerns’ that he may not have been able to pay.

Tony & Spirit were popular local figures who ran shops used by local working people who couldn’t afford to use the new boutiques and upmarket cafes that were springing up in Broadway Market. Their situation was the consequence of Hackney Council’s pro-big business policies – over the previous decade the council has been selling off its commercial properties to rich investors at knock down prices often leaving long term leaseholders in the lurch.

Aiming to get out of the red in the second half of the 90s, Hackney flogged £30 million of its own property, in keeping with a series of privatisations among London councils at the time. Nurseries and libraries tumbled to the ground, swimming pools evaporated, and all manner of voluntary advice and advocacy groups shut up shop.

But still the council wasted cash. A botched attempt to outsource social security benefits left it £36 million out of pocket. And its failed ‘Transforming Hackney’ programme of institutional change led to an accounting cock-up which, we’re led to believe, meant that when the auditors arrived in 2001, they found a financial ‘black hole’ of £72 million.

From then on, central government turned the screw, the funding cuts got deeper, the sell-offs accelerated At the same time, with a still burgeoning London population, newly-extended underground line and the 2012 London Olympics shimmering lucratively on the horizon, Hackney’s streets began to seem paved with gold.

The effects of this – still continuing -process can also be seen across Hackney as former public buildings have become reborn as yuppie flats.

Sheriffs and Police had broken into Tony’s Café on December 21st, injuring one of the occupiers and allowed Wratten’s men to start demolishing the building immediately. However, campaign supporters squatted the half-trashed café on Boxing Day, and began rebuilding and reinforcing it (your blog editor/typist did some plumbing…)

On re-taking the café, the occupiers stated: “We have now undertaken an ambitious reconstruction scheme and are rebuilding the cafe almost as fast the wreckers smashed it down. (We plan not one but two floors – but no exclusive penthouse apartments or concierge on this development!).

“We are loath to describe this as regeneration but it’s probably closer to it than anything Wratten or Hackney Council have been capable of so far.

“We still have lots of work to do, so if you have building skills or just would like to help out, we’d be glad to see you. We urgently need more bedding, food, heat, and other provisions. Anything you got for christmas and don’t want would be gratefully received. Please come down if you would like to help out keeping the place occupied.

“As promised, we are going to go on fighting for Tony to get his place back and to defend Spirit’s shop. The fact that new people were willing to come forward and carry on this community occupation only shows how strongly many in this area feel about the sell off of Tony’s and Spirit’s places and the wider process of social cleansing affecting long-term working class areas like Broadway Market.”

The astonishing re-building of the cafe on Boxing Day after the developer evicted protesters and tore it apart demonstrated the power of collective action. This defiant act strengthened the resolve of those involved and made them more confident.

Locals also organised two public meetings where Councillors were exposed to people’s anger about the sell-offs in Broadway Market. These well attended, highly charged events were a long way from the meaningless ‘consultation’ sessions that New Labour love to talk about.

This popular pressure forced Hackney Council to re-open investigations into its commercial property sales… the campaigners also visited Wratten’s home village in Kent to leaflet his neighbours…

What was most powerful about the occupation of Tony’s Cafe was that ordinary working people have been central to its success – not just the ‘activist’ types usually associated with this kind of protest. Some people involved spoke about what moved them to act.

“I’ve lived in Hackney all my life. Tony’s was a place I used around here. Loads of pensioners liked using the place. Tony was pushed out as he didn’t fit in with the ‘new’ Broadway Market. I’ve made real friends in this group who are working together for something they believe in.” Betty, Grandmother, aged 76, Regents Estate

“Before I just existed where ever I was and not been conscious of what’s been going on around me. This has expanded my social awareness and I’ve made so many new friends in the area. It’s also been a great experience, fighting against property development and corruption. I’ve never been involved with anything like this before”. Mother of 3, aged 42, Regents Estate

“I’d been really unhappy about the changes in Broadway Market for ages. When I kept meeting Tony in the street and saw how his life had been messed up I felt like enough
was enough and it was time that people took a stand against the developers and the council. It’s been brilliant and we’ve been amazed by what we accomplished” John, aged 34, Ada Street

“This is where I was born, I’ve seen the changes going around. People have come in and taken over everything and local people are moving out. My family has been pushed out right and left. What those people did to Tony & Spirit is totally out of order. If all of us had got together in the first place this would never have happened. If you don’t like whats happening around you have to stand up and be counted. It’s been nice to see those responsible having to look over their shoulders as everyday people take over”
Floyd, aged 45, Broadway Market

Tony’s Café was in the end evicted again, a few weeks later, and despite a long and complex legal and public battle, Spirit’s shop was also taken away from him. Although the campaign was a bright and inspiring episode, it is worth noting that Broadway market today is very much lost to the middle classes, a haven of artisan olivery and poncy boutiques, including the repulsively expensive Donlon Books, where you can spend £50 on superficially alternative DIY self-published pap; and the posh fish shop which replaced Spirit, from where the stink of money wafts like gone-off dover sole…

Ironically Broadway Market would very likely not have survived into the 21st century to be gentrified, if it wasn’t for the mass squatting of houses around the surrounding streets in the 1970s-80s. The Greater London Council (GLC) and London Borough of Hackney (LBH) had plans in the 70s, to develop the Broadway Market and London Fields east side areas respectively to preserve local employment. But they proceeded so slowly that the areas were blighted and many properties were left empty. Squatters moved in, created new communities, and campaigned to prevent demolition and development. Otherwise, the majority of the 19th century houses and shops would have been replaced by more modern blocks and maybe a mall, which would have left them much less attractive to the Hegemonising Borg[eois] Swarm. Many of these squats became co-ops and tenancies over the years… For a brief glance into this area’s squatting past check out this walk past tense took part in.

and there is there any truth to the muttered aside that in many cases, anti-gentrification campaigns in London represent one wave of the middle class takeover resisting the next wave? Ho hum… a discussion for another post…

Since 2005, Hackney has in many ways been utterly transformed… Broadway market was only one of a number of entering wedges… Tis fucking mad to see Dalston now, of an eve, white bourgy hipster central, if Ridley Road market is still resolutely diverse and unrepentant in the daytime. LIke Brixton, a few years further down the sanitising/respectable/business-friendly road, Hackney remains a battleground… We still live here and we’re not going quietly. 

Read: Some posts relating to the campaign from the time.

and more info here

Yez can also watch a film made about the struggle


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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