In The Path Of The Property Boom: East London’s Art Galleries Face An Uncertain Future:

11Have you ever been to Shoreditch, Whitechapel or Bethnal Green? If not, you probably think of this part of the capital as full of take-away kebab & chicken outlets, betting shops, late-night convenience stores, derelict commercial premises, pavements strewn with litter – altogether a bit “rough”, and so best avoided. However, if you live or work in the area, or go there occasionally, you’ll know it’s no longer like that. Instead, its image is undergoing a rapid and dramatic transformation.

Just a few minutes walk from Shoreditch High Street Overground Station, along Bethnal Green Road, is the local branch of Marsh & Parsons estate agents. On the evening of 26th September last year, as reported by the London Evening Standard, their front window was smashed by “anti-gentrification” protesters determined to fight “the onslaught on working class people being forced out of their homes” and opposed to the development of “luxury flats that no-one can afford”.

Twelve months later, the agency is still there, handing out information about current available property in E2: A “generous two bedroom apartment in Florida Street” for £825,000, a freehold house near Victoria Park with a “stunning reception/dining area and a private garden” for £785,000 and (in E1) a “stylish warehouse conversion” for £900,000. Just round the corner from Marsh & Parsons, in Brick Lane, is the “Cereal Killer Café” which was also attacked the same night and was “forced to defend its prices after a Channel 4 interviewer asked whether local people could afford £3.20 for a single bowl”. On its website, the Café declares that it sells “Over a 100 different types of cereal from around the world” and that its customers have a choice of 30 different varieties of milk and 20 different toppings”. The opening of a Pret-A-Manger in Brick Lane a few months earlier had provoked a similar hostile reaction from campaigners who fear that their community is being replaced by an “unrecognisable, bland, yuppie-infested wasteland with gin bars and brioche buns” where there will be no room for “normal people”.

Research conducted by Savills Estate Agency has confirmed that “inner-city areas such as Stratford, Bethnal Green and Canning Town”, sections of which were once “dominated by slums”, have become “newly fashionable among young London professionals”. The Economist magazine has observed that the trend whereby places such as Dalston (in Hackney) and Peckham (Southwark) are becoming “hipster enclaves”  means that “the outer suburbs are getting poorer as people who cannot afford inner-London rents are pushed further out”.

Gentrification is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “the process by which an urban area is rendered middle class”. The Daily Telegraph journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer, although acknowledging that it “heralds higher house prices”, also considers that it brings plenty of economic benefits: “Well-heeled new arrivals need labourers, builders, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, childcare and cleaners. They also have more ready cash to spend in local shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants – and their aspirational children push up standards in local schools”.

 

The “Debrief.co.uk” website takes a somewhat different view: “No matter how many perks gentrification might provide, it eventually ends up hitting the most vulnerable the hardest”. It believes the selling-off of council housing is “eroding London’s socially diverse communities” and quotes the writer Tim Wells’ declaration that “Greed is behind gentrification: Working class people are seen as an obstruction filling up space that could be sold”.

In The Guardian on 30th September, Oliver Wainwright, the newspaper’s architecture and design critic, outlined the sequence that invariably follows when penniless artists move into a run-down neighbourhood and “turn a leaky warehouse into a gallery”: They are, he lamented, “Indirectly responsible for catalysing the forces they are usually determined to prevent. Wherever the creatives go, the developers will follow, rents will rise, the artists will move on, and the pre-existing community will be kicked out with them”.

This is precisely the point that Carlos de Lins, the Brazilian-Italian Director of Espacio Gallery in Bethnal Green Road, made to Julie Caves of Jacksons Art. When he, along with 100 artists originating from (among others), Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Spain, Brazil, Italy and South Africa, took over the space in 2012, they “brought a positive vibe to the area making it more appealing to new tenants” – but also helped make it “too nice”, which now presents a problem for them in terms of affordability. Each member of the group (currently 86) pays £350 per year for the upkeep of Espacio. However, this income doesn’t cover their expenditure of £60,000 – £70,000 pa on rent, rates and other overheads such as electricity – so to raise additional funds they “hire the venue a few times a year to selected external artists or projects.”

Increasing costs present a similar challenge to almost all the 150 or so art galleries in the Whitechapel vicinity. If these start to close down, it could signal an end to the “First Thursday” arrangement organized by the Whitechapel Gallery, founded in 1901 “to bring great art to the people of East London”. As “Broke In London” notes, the Gallery runs a two-hour Art Bus Tour, beginning at 7 pm and visiting a selection of that month’s exhibitions. At each stop, a curator, writer, academic or artist gives a talk on the paintings or artefacts on display. This provides “the impecunious with a great chance to experience east London’s cutting art scene”. There’s also a Walking Tour.

Carlos de Lins again: “The participating galleries agree to stay open until at least 9pm. This allows people who usually cannot visit during daytime working hours to do so in the evening”. Recent exhibitions at “Espacio” have included “HackOff” (19 -25 September) featuring “genres and techniques in-sync with contemporary culture” and “Wide Open” (28 September – 2 October) by Dalston-based artists Tony Coombs and Elsie Philbeam. All their work, they explained, comes out of drawings and paintings made on location. They use oils, watercolours, pastel, charcoal, ink and pencil – but never photographs: They contrast the activity of Dalston with “the wild landscapes of Britain and springtime travels to Italy and Poland”. The current Show at Espacio (4-16 October) is titled “Human Nature” – looking at “the natural world and how it shapes our humanity”.

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Filed under: Society | Posted on October 6th, 2016 by Colin D Gordon

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