Urbanist Miracle, Manufactured (in Hackney)

WW$Many say the Royal Wedding Street Party on 29 April 2011 was the turning point. It was then that Wilton Way, this manufactured urban miracle in Hackney, just north of London Fields was declared the coolest place on earth. And ‘the place to go’ for a street party in London. In the Times; no less. By noon the street felt like the Reading-London commuter train at 8.32 on a Wednesday morning. There were street musicians and clowns; and lots and lots of cupcakes courtesy of the street’s brand new artisan, hand-made, organic, ethical (and bleedin’ expensive) bakery, Violet. There was plenty of wine, too, mainly sold in the street’s Borough Wines shop that had opened a week earlier. Allegedly, the singer-superstar Sophie Ellis-Bextor was seen wandering around in a white wedding dress. Though she might as well have been anyone and everyone else… There were no stars on Wilton Way that day, albeit many-many were wearing wedding dresses (and not all of them female, or for that matter, human).

The Royal Wedding Street Party supposed to have been a small gathering for the locals and local businesses. It turned out to be anything but. According to Corinna Pyke, PR and community organiser working with the shops of Wilton Way ”We did not mean to make a big fuss at all. Obviously, we were very surprised that it exploded like that. Literally. We just put out some long tables and benches. All the shops got involved, there was some decoration… Hackney Council did not see the need to help us, they thought it was only going to be a tiny street party of very little consequence. We did not advertise it much, only a few local papers wrote about it. We still don’t know how it happened. Word of mouth, probably.”

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This story is about Wilton Way, a previously crime ridden and derelict shopping street in Hackney, London. According to the locals it has been “sleepy shopping street” for as long as anyone can remember. But as Muriel Chatel, the owner of Borough Wines puts it, Wilton Way “is a magical place”. The trees are well, high, so high and so green, you cannot not notice. You can feel energy floating in the air. Or if this sounds too esoteric, let’s just say for some reason people like it there and want to move there, or the very least go back there as often and stay as long as possible.

The magic is probably due to the stream running under the street. It makes vegetation greener and trees grow high on Wilton Way and in its close proximity. Then one day not too long ago some people saw the magic floating around and opened a few shops that became cool; and more and more people wanted a piece of the action. So property prices that rose by roughly 30% as a result. A few new shops (and a pub and a café) on Wilton Way completely transformed the street and turned it into a cool hipster paradise of sorts. But it also remained a street of harsh contradictions, now more than ever. On the one hand, there are the “fancy shops” as some of the locals like to call them. These shops, like Wilton Cafe where a latte costs £2.20, are frequented by people of ‘certain social background’, mostly people who recently moved to the area. Like it or not, they tend to be white and middle class. They live in Victorian houses and like gardening. Yet there are 2 large council estates housed in concrete blocks on either end of the street. And of course, there is the William Hill betting office visited by the local Caribbean community. There is no two ways about it: miracles might occur on Wilton Way, but it is also a strange mix of social extremes.

Indeed, life in the street has changed beyond recognition in the last 3 years, on that most locals agree. There are a lot more people around (footfall, the shopkeepers call it), visitors coming from as far as westest of West London. The fact that it has happened in this particular locality is by no means an accident. London Fields is just around the corner and it experienced its own similar, albeit larger scale transformation a bit earlier. And Hackney in general, with its ‘hipsters’ and political activists has always attracted those who could turn an area ‘cool’. Never more than of late, either.

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All it took was an idea and half a decade. And lest we forget: a man with a plan. David McHugh had witnessed the rise and rise of Notting Hill in the late 1980s and he also saw its decline. He lived there for decades, took part in a variety of community projects and is still involved in running the Notting Hill Arts Club. He is not happy about what happened. “The film (Notting Hill) was the kiss of death, really. The place became way too cool and as a result too expensive. When an area is proclaimed to be the ‘hottest’ is the end of it all.” – says David. Something similar happened in a number of other areas of London. First a cheap, run-down, but charming area becomes ‘cool’ because interesting businesses and artists move there. In a short while it becomes fashionable and more and more people want to buy property in the area, thus property prices increase. Simultaneously, investors show up, there are renovations and so everything becomes more expensive. Property, food, coffee, rent… Eventually artists and those original “cool” businesses cannot afford the rent anymore.

Several areas in London went trough a similar transformation in the last 2 decades. Islington is a prime example, so is Camden. Notting Hill, according to David is a shadow of its former self. The Notting Hill antiques market is in danger of closing down and all the interesting shops and restaurants closed. “All landlords started seeing were pound signs and became only interested in ‘dolly’. They started charging obscene amounts in rent. – David says – Now there are only big branches of multi-national shops, high fashion and bankers’ wives selling cushions. The character, the fun, the buzz is gone.”

8 years ago David started looking for a new home and a place where he could ‘do’ things differently. He saw a positive example of how things can be done well in Marylebone High Street; which thanks to its landlords, the de Walden family managed to ‘avoid its fate’. The de Walden estate of course, has £2 billion worth of real estate in Central London, but thanks to their vision they managed to revitalise the “tired” shopping street that Marylebone High Street had been. “We wanted to create something that was different.” – Howard de Walden told the Daily Telegraph. Thus they invited businesses that were “different” from what you would see on an average high street. They came from “cool” places: from Borough Market, Notting Hill among others and the de Waldens decidedly preferred independent shops, not chains. They carefully chose their tenants and as the estate owns much of the street, they could guarantee that the rent would stay the same everywhere. The area was reborn and now the estate can charge higher prices for non-commercial property, while managing to keep the high street fresh and interesting. David McHugh had something similar in mind for Wilton Way, only on a smaller scale.

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“It took a while – says David – I moved here 8 years ago and it was a run down ex-shopping street with lots of closed shops. There was a betting shop and a corner shop and that was it.” Many shops were turned into flats, too. Over the years David and his business partner managed to acquire 3 shops on Wilton Way. As a first step two of the shops became pop-up galleries for a year. David asked Corinna Pyke for help; she had taken part in several other similar shop regeneration projects in Hackney. According to Corinna “The pop-ups were very important. They provided a transitional period. The shops were closed for a long time and with the pop-ups we gave them their original ‘meaning’ back. And people from elsewhere started coming here, too. It changed the perception of the street. Without the pop-ups, shops on Wilton Way probably would have been a lot less successful.”

The first “real” shop to open 3 and a half years ago was “The Other Side of the Pillow”, a vintage shop run by Henry Davies, an Australian and his Italian business partner Luciano Fabry. They sell shoes, clothing and all kinds of everyday objects. David also owns a café and a hairdresser in the street. There is a brand new pub, a wine shop and a bakery, all opened in the last two years. They all became success stories, people started flocking to Wilton Way.

This, in essence, is a success story. But obviously, there are many who talk about “segregation” and loaded questions” when it comes to those who do not or cannot take part in this resurrection. People living in the council estates, people who have lived in the area, but feel they have nothing in common with the new way of life represented in the street. “I have no business going there.” – said a local woman who lived in one of the estate blocks (she asked to remain anonymous). A sentiment echoed by many not living the “Hackney cool” lifestyle that now dominates the street.

Wilton Way will continue to shine brighter and brighter, there is little doubt about that. There are plans for more shops, a restaurant. Nuno Mendes, Michelin Star chef and quintessential East London fixture, who lives in a Wilton Way side street set up a supper club and would love to open a restaurant on Wilton Way. There are many others interested.

But, as Henry Davies of Wilton Way vintage shop “The Other Side of the Pillow” said “You can see the cool moving north. In Clapton, the are what was known “The Murder Mile” is the next big thing.” he said. Thus, there we have it. Wise men say every miracle ends after a day. Or a year. Even in Hackney.

Just shoot me

 A man is standing in front of me and he is screaming. At me. I cannot blame him, in his shoes I would be screaming at me, too. Or maybe not… I am way too repressed, and I have never been in his shoes, either. Anyway, he is clearly not repressed, or not today, he probably cannot take it any longer. Again, I do not blame him. It is not my fault, but that is beside the point.
It is your average Tuesday morning, say, 10ish and we are in London, in an office. He is screaming at me because he has been let down and ignored and more or less cheated by the company I work for and because I am the one here, in the office. I work here, apparently. And he is here, too, frustrated having traveled from X (very far), probably not for the first time. He also called multiple times. In vain, we both know that. He will probably go home empty handed today, just like the last time and the time before that. So his patience is… Well, waning, to say the least. And I am representing the company that did this to him and he is screaming at me, because I am the one here and because he can. So, I sit listening to him because it is my job; part of it, that is, albeit a significant part, as it turned out.

I work for a company that runs courses for people who have been unemployed for at least 6 months. Sounds great and charitable, but it isn’t. This is a for profit company and running courses for unemployed people costs money. Running them properly would mean less profit, I presume. The money comes from the government (I think it is wise not to specify how exactly) and some trickery is required. That, and staff and heating and rent etc. have to be paid. So the owner, Mr. X “economizes”. Thus we are severely understaffed, there are no sufficient databases available, there is nobody properly qualified around to set up a system that actually works, either. We are clueless, for the most part.

Ideally, after the unemployed we train finish their respective courses we should be able to give them certificates (in due course), then help them get a badge (which is more or less a piece of plastic proving they are who they are and are not axe murderers, or were not caught, at least), also their many specific pieces of paper are duly checked, they filled out paperwork precisely and correctly etc. All this so Her Majesty’s Government‘s institutions can exercise their rights to come up with more ways to create higher mountains of paperwork and jobs and institutions – to ensure health and safety prevails above all else in this gorgeous country – whatever health and safety should mean exactly. This is, apparently all essential for them to find jobs. I bet in the line of work we train people for 10 years ago they could have just walked in and if the boss liked them they were hired – which is pretty much how I was hired, unfortunately.  Anyway, all this means we work with tons of pieces of paper and we misplace many of them. In the mean time, someone has to make sure learners’ exam papers reach respective exam boards, photos and signatures have to be uploaded onto databases. If they fail the exams they are re-booked and students need to be notified, too. Also, when the certificates arrive, students have to be phoned and asked to collect them. Then badge applications have to be processed. They need to fill in the papers, bring in relevant documents that have to be checked and sent off. And this is the least of it… Most importantly, of course, and above all else, their files have to contain the correct photocopies of specific documents, forms, reviews and the like, so the people allocating the funding get large amounts of (correct and specific) paperwork to play with, too. For some reason that we do manage to achieve somehow. I cannot help but wonder why it is specifically that of all things we manage to always achieve…?

Anyhow, we are doing very badly. We would need at least twice this many people for all the above to happen properly, so it obviously does not. It is mayhem and hell. Hell is a place where I sit behind a desk and people scream at me more or less all day long (either over the phone or in person) and I cannot help. Neither the person, nor the situation. If we had enough staff it would take about 3 months for all the paperwork to go trough – and that includes the course. For us it can take up to 6. Or sometimes more. Or we fail miserably or the clients just give up and stop coming and calling. Many of them do. We suck, I guess I have told you that already.

Yet it is not just us. After all we are talking about people here. Unemployed people, to be precise. Do not get me wrong (and my middle class guilt wants to make sure this is duly recorded, so listen up): there are many here who are absolutely lovely. They are keen on completing the paperwork and the course. They are helpful and kind. But there are some who are not, shall we say, “socially refined” by any means. People who do not show up, when they should or who are very late and then do not understand the fuss over it. People who scream at me because I ask them to bring in something absolutely essential (i.e. some piece of paper or other), they do not have it and it would probably cost money, which they do not have. They are on job seekers allowance, obviously. Of course, there is very little I can do. And there are the people who call in drunk or high or both that they won’t be coming again, ever. People who stink, who are abusive because they are and people who steal the toilet paper and the coffee and the sugar. But there are people who scream at me because they are fed up. With me and the organization. And, as I mentioned earlier, rightly so. They call and it either goes to voice mail, and if they leave a message they do not get a call back. Or if I pick up, I either put them on hold or hang up, or I fiddle about the computer and/or tell them I will get back to them and I rarely do, or I just tell them to call back in a few weeks time. Either way, I mostly lie. When the phone stops ringing for a second and there are no people waiting to scream at me I do try to do something, for instance I go and try to find the certificates or email a colleague about a certain issue. I am rarely successful. My colleagues do roughly 3 people’s work just like I do so very little actually gets done. I am, though, successful 30% of the time (give or take). You see, the phone rings all the time and people come and my boss nags and I get lost and forget things. I do not remember people’s names and faces at all. I have no idea how many people I deal with every day, but lots. So names and faces melt into oblivion. I mostly do not remember what I was doing 2 minutes ago, let alone what day it is or what I had for breakfast. I have a headache, my back hurts, I want to go to the loo and I need a drink of water. But I can’t and I don’t because I have this gentleman here screaming at me and the phone rings off the hook and I should get on with my work, too, checking documents, calling people to bring in documents, or photos or whatever, scanning them and calling people back and following up stuff I should, because I promised I would. Well, I swore, I would. To people coming in, who are about to start screaming and/or people on the phone – likewise. Or they do not scream, because they are too kind, repressed and/or jaded. And because I am convincing they mostly believe me. I think I am convincing because I am scared of people screaming, but mainly because I do mean it. I really do. I would like to help, I really would. I just rarely can and I feel exceedingly frustrated and guilty as a consequence. But unless I turn into the lord almighty to be present at several places simultaneously at any given time, or find a way to clone myself asap, this is not subject to change any time soon.

So I am here and the guy is still screaming. He took the course 7 months ago and no-one called him to tell him what was going on. He failed 2 exams and he had no idea. He could have retaken them and had his certificates by now (wishful thinking, mate, I want to say, but don’t). He called about 20 times and visited twice in the last 6 months. He was told he would be called back, he was promised answers he never got. My mind boggles. It took me roughly 30 seconds to figure out what is wrong (this is the easy part), I have no idea why no-one else managed this much in the last 6 months (staff turnover is rapid here for some reason). The guy stops screaming and says he had enough. No, he does not want to retake the exam. It has all been a colossal waste of time. Yet again, I do not blame him one bit. His face is sad, he gets up and walks out.

I have had this job for less than a month. They say it gets better, I will get used to the abuse and will stop taking it personally. They say it will toughen me up. That, and that I should get drunk if I feel overwhelmed after I go home. I do drink sometimes, but not every day as it just makes it worse. I did try my first week. I was in hell. Hangover is horrible when it accumulates and my life is a nightmare as it is.

I apply to many jobs every day and I pray to God (the one I am not sure I believe in) for something miraculous to happen.

Like waking up one day to not having to do this job ever again.

Ten years

It was horrible. It was truly really bad. I wanted to die and walk out, not necessarily in that order. Every muscle in my body hurt, I hated my job, could not learn the menu and remember the table-cloth sizes, numbers, the wines etc, etc, etc. And I knew I would be fired and/or wait tables for the rest of my life. It was roughly 55 hours a week, the commute at 2 in the morning, the people on my back testing me on everything… Most of the time I felt like an idiot. I had always been a shit waitress (mediocre at best). I had no idea what I was doing in this stellar restaurant, where captains of industry, politicians and celebrities go to feel cool and be seen. Where everyone worked really hard, but got paid well, too. Where everyone was always impeccable and impeccably nice. To me, too, not only to the patrons. But I sucked.

It was that day that I served razor clams to Dustin Hoffman and almost dropped the food into his lap. I stumbled and the silver plate jumped in my hand. Suddenly everyone around the table was looking at me. I just stood there, stupid. Then Mr Hofmann said: “My god, you are like I was. I got fired for stuff like this all the time. Nobody got fired more times from restaurants than I did and I was a waiter for 10 (TEN!) years. I was hopeless. I would stand around staring at people, so I got fired.” My heart missed a beat and I wanted to hug him. I wanted to tell him how much what he said meant to me and how much I respected him and loved his work and it was extraordinarily nice of him to say such things now, when I feel so hopeless and wrenched and he made my day and I feel there is hope for me after all. For a moment he made me feel like a human being, an emotion I forgot I was capable of. But of course I did not say any of those things, you are not supposed to talk to patrons, that I was told more times than was necessary. So, I just swallowed and said:”You are very kind, saying that.” Then got on with my work.

I got fired a week later.

On my knees

He was there in the charity shop, singing “Everlasting Love” (Open up your eyes/Would never realize/Standing by my side/Everlasting love). His voice was coarse (to say the least), he stank, was slightly bent and had greasy blondish-grey hair. It was my lunch break. As I entered the shop the uneasy tension was palpable. I hate scenes, so I turned around and walked out, my head down. He came after me for some reason. He bumped into me (literally) in front of the news agent.

“Sorry” – I said, because I am always sorry.

“What are you sorry about? Have you been sorry all your life?” – he replied smiling with yellow/brown teeth.

“Yes, more or less.” – I answered, still regularly wonder why.

“So you spent your life being sorry, on your knees.” – he was clearly enjoying himself by now.

I straightened out, looked into his eyes and said:

“No” with all the conviction I could muster.

He was taken aback, but would not give up.

“Are you Irish?” – he asked.

“No” – I said and walked away.

Tis high time I re-evaluated my life and shit.

Sean, the Class Struggle and Pollyanna

There are many things I could and should say about what it is like to be an immigrant. Maybe it is best to start roughly 2 years ago, sometime in late summer I was sitting on the Piccadilly line on my way from Uxbridge back to the city. I was with my friend Sean (not his real name), my boss at the time. We went to Uxbridge to test my students, the cleaners of a big office complex, whom I had taught for about 4 months. It was possibly the best and most exhilarating experience of my life as a teacher. They were Indian and Pakistani ladies, from all over and from all kinds of different backgrounds. There was a Nepalese lady, too, I taught her longhand. She spoke and could write in three languages (Nepalese, Hindi and Tibetan), but she was not familiar with the Latin alphabet. So I brought her exercise books and she got to work while I was teaching the others and at the end of the class she showed me how she did. I corrected her mistakes and gave her lots of homework, which she always did diligently. She learned a lot, she could write well by the time we finished the course. Other than that, I was there to tech basic skills (literacy and numeracy), which I did, but we also talked about life, food, their families and what it was like to be an immigrant.

I had been a teacher on and off for almost a decade by then, I had had all kinds of students, most of them middle class and western. But I had never experienced such openness and understanding towards different peoples as I did in that room every Friday. It was not the “touchy-feely, everyone is my friend” kind of openness, no. They would have been against their children marrying into a family whose religious background or even caste differed from theirs. They would not have invited each other to their homes – if the specific colleague’s background was not appropriate, either. Yet I felt they were who they were and saw that everyone is different and they accepted themselves and others despite their differences. It sounds basic, but I find it is by no means self-evident and widespread. And it is where I believe real tolerance lies. Anyway, I loved teaching them and I think learnt a great deal more than they did.

It was the last day of the course, they took the test and afterwards Sean and I took the tube back to the city. It is a rather long commute, an hour or so. So we got to talking about life, our families and well, me and my prospects. Sean, you see, comes from a large Irish family, his mom is Northern Irish and his dad was from County Kerry. His dad came over in the 1950s and worked as a builder all his life. Sean and his brother were both smart and thanks to their very tough Catholic school they both went to Oxford. Where Sean promptly became a Marxist and a keen observer of the Class Struggle, so our conversations always ended up being about that. You see, I did study some Marx at university, but not a whole lot and I did not feel the need, either – as where I am from his reputation is slightly… Tarnished.

I am not sure how whether our conversation had a lot to do with Marx, mind you. Either way, Sean was convinced if you born into a class you will more or less die as such. I did not believe in that. Or at least I very much wanted not to. Sean thought as an immigrant ex-middle class person (from Eastern Europe, of all places) I was worse off than someone British from a lower class (whatever that means). As I am one of the untouchables, a declassé, a nobody, an obscure, non-existent, highly suspicious person. From the point of view of the great British public in general (or so Sean thought). I have very little chance to succeed. And if I did it was because being middle class might translate into a different culture after all and I might have a slight chance. “Shit floats upwards, too. No offense.”  By then I was gasping for air. I had spent chunks of my life in the US, where the complete opposite is drummed into you and I came to Britain with high hopes. But “The American Dream” Sean thought was bullshit. I have to look the part, I have to sound the part, I have to be able to be friends with the right people. None of which is within reach for me, obviously. That and Britain, Sean believed, is less socially mobile now than it was say, in 1965. Top it all with a recession and general suspicion towards immigrants. Plus I am old (well, thanks for that, too). I will succeed, he thought, in the second half of my thirties, when I come to my senses and go back to Hungary.

But I had faith and I told Sean I wanted to write about people, politics and immigrants. I want to work for a newspaper interested in others’ point of view, those from outside the Pale. I could be that. I am an outsider and I have a lot to say. I want to be part of the conversation and I do not want to be invisible, like I am now. Or, I should clarify, I felt thus then. Because if I felt invisible I wonder how those lovely cleaner ladies must have felt? Well, they do not think about such things, that’s how. They are who they are and that’s it. Stuff like that is the opium of the riches (yes, misquoting Marx here, just to hint at my intellect). Wondering about being invisible – bullshit! They just get on with their lives and do what they do and live. And I bloody well should, too.

But then and there I told Sean about my dreams and aspirations and like a real American girl I repeated several times that I refuse to give up. I told him he was dead wrong, he disagreed etc. By the time we got this far, we were in Knightsbridge. And right before the tube stopped a tall, blond, young woman came over to us. “I have been listening to your conversation for some time and it was very interesting. I applaud you –  she said, looking at me, sounding much like Prince Charles – I think you will go far and please, do not give up.” And the train stopped and she got off. I was overwhelmed with feelings, happiness. My American pollyanna deep down was jumping about in her little pink dress and purple mary-janes, her faith in people restored… I almost cried. The wilderness years are over, there is hope, after all. There are nice people, too, people, who say nice things at stuff.

Sean listened to my tirades for a minute then thought it is time he brought me back to earth. “Saw where she got off? It would not have been more obvious if she had got off at Buckingham Palace. She is posh. Real posh. She is the one standing in the queue way in front of you. A queue you could join at the very end, only because you used to be middle class and you are not bad looking. Sh she might be nice to your face now, but would stab you in the back in under a minute if she felt you were a threat to her career.”