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conrad armstrong on the destruction of his home, studio and community - vice

Developers Are Gentrifying Vittoria Wharf. Here's How London Artists Are Fighting Back

Performers, musicians, small business owners and neighborhood residents are teaming up to stop gentrification.

For the last ten years, London’s Hackney Wick neighborhood has been a creative epicenter, drawing in array of performers, craftspeople, musicians, illustrators, and many other creatives and artisans who work and cross-pollinate in this area of light industrial units and messy yards. Now, in an all too familiar story, development projects threaten the area’s very existence. But artists in Hackney Wick’s Vittoria Wharf neighborhood, located on Fish Island, are banding together to fight eviction.

As Conrad Armstrong, one of the organizers behind Save Hackney Wick, tells The Creators Project, the eviction grew out of London’s winning 2012 Olympics bid. During this process, the city created the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), an unelected organization charged with economically developing the Hackney borough. Rather predictably, it has triggered a wave of evictions.

Vittoria Wharf Community, proudly holding the tools of their practises. Photo: Kirsten Allen

At the time, LLDC bought half of Vittoria Wharf, committing to building a footbridge across the River Lee from the Olympic stadium to the Wharf. The stated purpose of this bridge is so that new Fish Island residents’ children can make their way to a school being built next to the stadium. As Armstrong explains, the community prevailed upon the LLDC to build a bridge two minutes away from Vittoria Wharf in what he believes is a far better location logistically, with a network of streets that wouldn’t require demolition of their building. Vittoria Wharf residents breathed a sigh of relief, and also got what they thought was LLDC’s full support for the Vittoria Wharf community, including an admission that the original bridge plan was a terrible idea.

But LLDC’s plan to effectively split Vittoria Wharf’s creative studios in half didn't die, despite Vittoria Wharf being listed as an Asset of Community Value in 2014, and other footbridges being within convenient walking distance. Five weeks ago, the bridge plan was officially resurrected, with Vittoria Wharf residents receiving unexpected eviction notices demanding they leave by September 5th.

Conrad Armstrong in the Studio. Photo: Issy Croker

“It’s another hugely pointless and unnecessary cost to the taxpayer, and not one that anyone is asking to be spent as the local community from all backgrounds rallies against its needless development,” Armstrong says. “Considering the LLDC are supposed to legally be obliged to a period of consultation and the last dialogue with the corporation since 2012 had been them expressing full support for Vittoria Wharf as an asset to the community, you can imagine the surprise when eviction notices from them arrived.”

If Vittoria Wharf falls, it won’t just be artists who are displaced. Local council estates and some of the poorest areas in London will be, as Armstrong says, “socially cleansed.” Existing small businesses and creatives, “from fine artists to web designers, virtual reality developers to motor bike customizers, ice sculptors to screen printers and everything in between” will vanish. Also gone will be the Outside Gallery (dedicated to supporting a mental health charity), and recording studios offering free studio time to kids.

Conrad Armstrong, ‘Brexit’ (2016). Oil, melted plastic and electrical cable on linen

“[Receiving] eviction notices without any prior warning or consultation [is] an incredibly short amount of time for these people to relocate their studios and businesses, even though some of them for instance are in the middle of preparing for Fashion Week and this disruption may hugely damage their business,” Armstrong explains. “Gaining support against such ridiculous plans hasn't been difficult though, we only have to tell people and them immediately see how terrible, greedy and incompetent the plans are.”

The community is mobilizing, organizing actions from public awareness events. Part of this is a media campaign designed to put pressure on the LLDC, while also exposing its development failures, including a decline in sports participants for its Olympic Park facilities and a persistent vacuum of affordable housing amidst all of the billions spent in investment.

As part of the campaign, Save Hackney Wick has also met directly with the LLDC. In two open meetings with the organization, Save Hackney Week has asked for a three-month extension on evictions for proper consultation, as well as to give the community more time to, as Armstrong put, “build the case for survival.”

Fly poster for the Save Hackney Wick campaign

“The community is also offering LLDC the unique opportunity of allowing the community to develop itself and become a trust that owns the facility thus preserving it as a flagship for creativity in London for generations, something that is surely beneficial to their plans of creating a 'cultural hub' in the Olympic Park including V&A, LCF and Saddlers Wells,” Armstrong says. “I am sure these institutions won't be happy to know the grassroots and established creative communities famous in the area are being destroyed before they even arrive.”

“[And] because this 10-year established community was given far less than even 10 weeks to prepare for eviction, many of the things that have happened have happened in a hugely small amount of time, boosted by the will and determination of a few key members of the community who have been working tirelessly on the campaign,” he adds.

And if Save Hackney Wick were to fail in its effort? Armstrong says there are always new areas of London where people can move.

Broken Homes image from Hackney Wick by Kirsten Allen from Vittoria Wharf

“Artists have had the chance to build there own kind of utopia here, with all the 'regeneration' coming directly from the community working in the area with the building of cultural centres, theatres, galleries, skate parks and other spaces all enriching an area coming to the end of its life as a centre of industry in London,” he says. “Instead it was becoming a new centre of a different kind of industry.”

“Artists can leave the city, something many want to do particularly post-Brexit. Lisbon, Berlin, Barcelona and further afield all look very tempting with lower rents, better quality of life and generally a far more supportive culture for the arts and artists,” Armstrong adds. “The great exodus from London continues as it become an empty capital of sterile steel boxes.”


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