Today in London squatting history: Vortex jazz club squatted, Stoke Newington, 2007

“On Sat 6th Jan a group of local people, along with others, occupied 139-141 Church Street with the intention of opening it up as a social centre. Previously the home of the famous Vortex jazz club the building is set to be demolished by notorious landlord Richard Midda to make way for a Starbucks on the ground floor with luxury apartments above.”

A new squatted social centre opened up in January 2007, in Stoke Newington, North London, in the empty building formerly used by the Vortex jazz club. The new space featured a daily cafe, radical cinema, club nights, talks, workshops and meeting space for various groups (the club proving especially popular). The centre garnered some support from some local folk, particularly as plans for the vacant building mainly featured demolition and redevelopment for the (oh yes of course) obligatory luxury flats and a branch of Starbucks. Thousands signed a petition to keep the building reserved for community use…

“The Vortex Jazz Club had had its origins in an art gallery set up in 1984, which became a secondhand record and bookshop and then started outing on live jazz. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s Vortex established itself as an essential destination for contemporary music in London, noted for its community atmosphere and groundbreaking performances, with music every night of the week. David programmed all the music himself, with the exception of nights run by musicians or friends of Vortex. In the early 1990s saxophonist Elton Dean (1954-2006) started Rumours, a weekly Avant-garde music night. At around the same time, Jazz Umbrella also started as another regular night to help promote young musicians, fostering talent such as Christine Tobin and Julian Siegel.

Programming at Vortex also diversified in the early ‘90s with the arrival of Pirate Jenny, a weekly night of opera, cabaret and song, featuring the works of composers such as Gilbert & Sullivan and Kurt Wile. When it came to programming music, David said the best nights would come from musicians who had projects they were really excited about. “These great musicians would come to me with ideas and I’d let them do anything they liked, and it was always brilliant . . . I’d tell them there was no money in it, but they’d say that was fine.” In 1996 Derek Drescher, who then worked as a producer at the BBC, began to record sessions at Vortex for the program Impressions on Radio 3.

However, by 2000 there was trouble on the horizon. The lease for the building on Church Street was approaching expiry, and given the burgeoning competition for property in the increasingly fashionable area, it became apparent that Vortex might need to move to a new location. A large-scale new development, Ocean, was in the planning stages nearby at 270 Mare Street. The Ocean project proposed to build a vast new arts centre housing three live music venues, however the developers lacked the local community networks required by Arts Council funding application criteria. A marriage of Ocean and Vortex seemed like an ideal solution to secure a future for both organisations. In the discussions that followed Vortex was offered full-time usage of one of the three venue spaces and with the help of Vortex team the Ocean project managed to secure funding from the Arts Council. But differences between the two organisations led them to part ways and for the time being Vortex remained on Church Street.

The Vortex Jazz Foundation was set up in November 2001 to protect the Church Street venue, and the initial plan was to raise funds to purchase the building. Efforts included a comedy fundraiser in 2002, which included performances by prominent comedians like Jenny Eclair and Johnny Vegas. The fundraiser was held for free at the Union Chapel in nearby Islington. However, in the end the building was purchased by another buyer in what was perhaps a blessing in disguise, for in 2003 Vortex began discussions with Hackney Co-Operative Developments, who were seeking tenants for their new Dalston Culture House development.

The club took a one year hiatus while the Dalston location was being completed and in 2005 Vortex moved into its current location in Gillett Square where it has been at the heart of Dalston community and culture through the Gillett Square partnership.”

Meanwhile, the prospect of the now abandoned building being replaced by the dreaded Starbucks had not only outraged Stoke Newington’s keenly localist middle classes; also woke up the slumbering local squatting scene, a long standing feature of the area. Admittedly by that time squatting was seriously dwindling as the well-to-do had long bought up all the old run-down victorian houses and were well underway with turning Church Street into the sheeshy and hideously expensive boutique/coffee bar heavy tedium it is today (with a couple of exceptions).

With the support of locals, they managed to repel an eviction attempt by private goons on Jan 26th (photos and video at indymedia.org.uk)… 

Despite several attempted (unlawful) repossession attempts being seen off, the Vortex was of course evicted:

“The Vortex social centre in Stoke Newington, London, was evicted earlier this week. First thing in the morning high court bailiffs and police moved in and turfed everyone out, eventually removing the one enterprising soul who’d hid in the attic and begrudgingly allowing most of the equipment inside to be removed.”

Around 40 people protested later that week on Church Street in solidarity with the ex-Vortex Social Centre. Many of the ex-residents and local supporters were present, as leaflets were handed out to the community explaining the reasons for the occupation and the plans for the future. Church Street was closed to traffic for at least five minutes (maybe 10) whilst those present took to the road to walk from the meeting point to outside the (now well and truly) ex-Vortex.

The chant of “What do we want … free space” was the call of the day and discussions were rife about plans for the future.

The Vortex occupation in some marked what to date seems like a possible final hurrah for the Stoke Newington squatting community – once a massive part of the area’s culture, a reflection of a collision of a long dissident ethos and lots of run-down housing…

For many centuries an area populated by religious non-conformists, due to being outside City parishes and jurisdiction, Stokey developed a dissident ethos. From defeated republicans and rebels after the English Civil War, radicals and Unitarians…

The area’s religious dissidence lasted into the nineteenth century; hence Abney Park cemetery, where large numbers of non-Anglicans were buried, including Chartist socialist Bronterre O’Brien… (On the other hand, also interred here are the repulsive William Booth and his family, founders of those vultures on the vulnerable, the Salvation Army).

Run-down houses and council near-collapse in housing, led to mass squatting here from the late 1960s. Hundreds of houses were occupied, and many larger buildings used as social centres, music venues, artspaces, and much more. Squatting not only offered people cheap places to live when times were hard, but lots of the local culture, music, creativity was built on squatting.

Another development also characterised Stokey: a growing afro-Caribbean community, which faced battles with racism, especially from the police. Stoke Newington police became notorious for racially motivated arrests, beatings, and killings, and later for fitting people up for drug-dealing, either planting substances, or dealing themselves through protected sources. The local community resisted in many ways – there were riots in 1981, and the organised resistance against racist murders, police harassment…

Local poverty, police attacks and resistance, hand in hand with an alternative and counter-cultural vibe, persisted into the 1990s. But in common with many other areas of London, this has been changing, for decades now.

The process generally labeled gentrification covers a number of different, if linked, processes. In Stokey, the area’s bohemian ethos attracted middle class dropouts, some of who in turn helped change the area into the kind of place they wanted to live in. Gradually this attracted less boho middle class people, and so on in turn. If middle class people had broadly wanted to leave the city for decades, from the 70s on this went into reverse; by 2007 much of the area was virtually unrecognisable.

So in recent decades, the neighbourhood has slowly filled up with media types and green petty-bourgeois social workers with pinched, locally-sourced eating-disorder faces. And Church Street with artisan bakers, extortionate kids clothes boutiques and chain-store wholefood porn like ‘fresh and wild’. Which is neither fresh nor wild, but has fooled the muesli belt into imagining themselves radical alternative and right-on.

Mind you, the rest of Hackney, which until recently had remained largely working class, is now facing an invasion of the bistro snatchers; hipsters, artists and rising rents are spreading like piss in a pool, while older communities face gradual eviction and dispersal under new benefit rules.

Interestingly in Dalston’s Gillett Square, where the original Vortex moved to, regeneration is broadly substantially more genuinely based in the local black community than much of what usually passes for cultural regeneration projects, which can often often be mere window dressing for gentrification; and the square does have some independent character, though how long that will remain as the area is being rapidly colonised by new developments for young trendy white things…

After the Vortex squat eviction – did the building’s owner. parasitic property developer Richard Midda keep his promise to locals to that any new tenant in the property would reflect the character of Church Street, a busy shopping area made up almost entirely of independent traders?

Er, no. As a local commentator pointed out:

“To be fair the writing was on the wall after he tore down the building to rebuild it, without planning and breaking his other promise to keep the original facade of the place in tact.

And now, to howls of outrage from the genteel residents, battery chicken peddlars Nandos have opened up.

…one blogger repeatedly lied about the social centre, needlessly and repeatedly called the old bill and generally made a tit out of herself.  Strangely enough the very same blogger then went on to whinge about Nandos moving in, when she was so helpful to Midda whilst the building was occupied.  Seems some people want it both ways.

But that’s by the bye, you can read about the whole ex-Vortex saga here.

Back to Nandos, a local campaign established to oppose the corporate take over of Church Street.  Nevertheless Richard Midda ran roughshod over local sentiment in the name of making a quick buck.

Now the plight of Hackney’s middle classes is hard to get too upset over, the latte slurpers took over that part of Stoke Newington a long time ago and even the Angry Brigade couldn’t save it now.

But it does offer a timely warning to the ciabatta munching chinless ones.  The final stage of gentrification is that the big corporations move in and that lovely little deli becomes a Tescos and the simply wonderful Thai restaurant turns into Pizza Express.

That’s capitalism folks.”

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Follow past tense on twitter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.