As ‘people who sit in the dark typing things by themselves’, we are happy to shine a light on the real and marvelous history of The Curious Case of Hej Coffee and The Heygate Photo.
At the start of August we received our usual public relations updates from multinational property developer, profiteer and demolisher of the Heygate Estate, Lend Lease, with exciting ongoing news about their new development Elephant Park. This time there was an Elephant Park video promoting the new Hej Coffee shop on Rodney Rd. Hej Coffee is part of the new blocks where the old Wingrave blocks of Heygate Estate had been. Ok, but that’s how it works? – Lend Lease promote a new café to advertise their new development and the café promo talks about the new development to promote Lend Lease and their cafe. They are joined at the hip. Ok, that’s not sinister. It’s just business doing its thing. Marketing, selling, profiting or hoping to profit. However…
The video is fronted by Joanna, a black barista working at Hej Coffee (pronounced Hey! as in Hey-gate!). At the time we commented that although we had ‘massive respect to Joanna as a local worker’, it was ‘utterly tragic the actual disconnect between the words and the pictures in the promo video and the actual reality of the social cleansing of The Elephant’. By disconnect we meant that the script of the video talks about the customers being ‘diverse’, ‘variety’, ‘all sorts of people’, ‘everyone’s different’ but actually everyone in the video wasn’t different or diverse but were all white 20-somethings. So it’s a typical whitewashing of a local London area that is a massively mixed and great community. In Heygate’s hey day it even had about 3000 working class people living around where the Hej Cafe stands.
This isn’t the first time this goes on locally and probably won’t be the last. In fact, this week Notting Hill Housing who are developing the Manor Place depot site put up hoardings with very much more of the same – a barren but stylishly chic café with only white people in it and yet bearing the text ‘Hola!’ and three spicy chillis! You could argue that these regeneration images are just identikit nonsense, badly thought through or you could argue that’s it’s deliberate. We edge towards the latter.
(Customers from the Hej Coffee promo video)
Of course, it’s not our argument that we want a more inclusive gentrification! Gentrification will only ever be exclusive along class and race lines – that’s how it works. Black people rarely get ‘included’ in these ‘indicative CGI’ pictures of forthcoming developments because images of smug white coffee slurpers are used to sell the new-builds to exactly those smug white coffee slurpers. Creating a terrain of whiteness means that these hoardings are like all those other unsubtle codes that racialise everyday life – white people indicate safety, white people indicate networking and getting on, upward mobility, white people indicate taste and style, beauty and desirability. To be honest, it’s sickening. So, this was our first criticism directed at Hej Coffee.
A few days later we heard that Hej Coffee had put on its wall a large artistic photo of the Heygate Estate as part of the décor. It’s a pretty photo, carefully taken in 2010, a symmetrical presentation of an empty estate. Hej Coffee was very proud of the photo and Tweeted out its installation in the café by the picture’s taker Simon Kennedy, an architectural photographer and lecturer at University College of London’s Bartlett school.
As people who were heavily involved in the last years of the struggles against the demolition of Heygate we wondered what it meant for a new café, an intimate part of the gentrification of the area, to want to display a photo of the Heygate albeit one especially chosen for its abstracted sense of the estate blocks. So we dropped some lines to Hej Coffee about this saying things like ‘don’t think many customers understand the long messy and scandalous history of the demolition of the Heygate. It’s certainly not a good look for the Hej cafe. Bit insensitive given that the Heygate scandal has not gone away for many local people’ and posting up photos we took in 2011 of the old Wingrave blocks.
(Photos – From Heygate Estate to Hej Coffee 2008 – 2018)
Hej Coffee replies were never on the subject of the criticism and only about coming in for a coffee to chat about it. In fact the more we and then other people commented the more they made invites (with cute emojis) – ‘We need more people to come in to drink more coffee and know more things…not to be sitting in the dark typing things by themselves’. Nice one!
Eventually they made a move and placed next to the Heygate photo two texts to try and give the photo some context and some rationale. These were a bit rich really and seemed to us as manly guff and wishful thinking – ‘Reverence for history is paramount at Hej, consequently we are open and honest about Heygate’s past. With your co-operation we would like to facilitate discussion and debate to benefit our community’. They also posted out a link to an article ‘Heygate Abstracted’ about Simon Kennedy’s Heygate photos where various ideas are mooted about what Kennedy’s images mean in relation to social housing and the scandal of the demolition – ‘Kennedy’s photographs emphasise the consequences of the painfully protracted if not perpetual contemporary ‘regeneration’ process which has left homes and shops conspicuously vacant for years on end’. Hej Coffee wrote ‘This should help everyone understand the context of the art we proudly display at our roastery’. (Here, we could be pedantic and ask: is the scandal really that those homes and shops were vacant for a long time, or is it rather that the diverse community that lived and worked there for 35 years were forced to vacate them, for no other reason than desire to sell-off the land and encourage privatised profit and a whiter, richer image for the area?)
Anyhow, then it all becomes a bit confusing. Either Hej Coffee or someone else made a leaflet for a discussion night at Hej Coffee on Friday 7th September about Hej and the Heygate. This then caused another round of online back and forth. Hej Coffee said they hadn’t made the flyer but were happy for a discussion to go ahead.
AND THEN AS IF BY MAGIC – HEY PRESTO!
For us lot, although Simon Kennedy’s picture shows an empty estate and might therefore represent some kind of symbolic commentary on the political processes around the ‘regeneration’ and demolition of the Heygate buildings and community, we thought that there’s something less than sincere in the representation and in its display in a café that is only situated where it is because of that social cleansing process. Despite its neat portrayal of vacancy, at the time the photo was taken in 2010 there were still many households living on the estate and there was a huge range of people doing stuff in the estate’s public spaces to highlight it. We were there too being a part of the allotments, the film screenings, the public exhibitions on the scandal of the decant, the chicken keeping, hosting visits for school kids and students, leading anti-gentrification walks and supporting all the remaining residents in their struggle for decent rehousing or fair compensation.
(Activities on Heygate Estate right up to the final eviction of the last resident, 2013)
So when Hej wants to contextualise their use of the image as a respectful memory we would question whether such an image devoid of the actual real tenants and residents functions in any such way but more appears as a done and dusted and historical artefact removed from any actual painful and still very real context. One Tweeter described Heygate as ‘still an open wound’ which is something we agree with and continue to do the work we do on this basis. We replied to Hej Coffee – ‘your Heygate photograph describes ‘a process that disassociates these buildings from their contentious histories, and any sense of domestic life’ yet when he took those photos residents were still living there and all sorts of public life was still going on for 3 more years. The community never gave up on the public and social side of the estate until the final eviction and enclosure. In fact that enclosure was resisted til the end. The Heygate photo you proudly display is both an abstraction and aestheticised erasure of that long community struggle. It would make more sense if you were genuinely concerned to remember the social housing of the Heygate by framing these displacement maps of where residents went. Displaced so Lend Lease could demolish their homes, build Elephant Park & you could rent a space for your coffee shop’. We also posted a photographs of their site that show the actual material history of what demolition and displacement looks like and how it’s experienced by many locals. Other critics were also piping up. Our friends at Vile Arrogance wrote ‘When posh coffee shops come to your neighbourhood and wanna debate ‘context’ about poor decisions of displaying an arty photo of the council estate they were built on top of…’
Any road up, were were umming and arrrghing about whether to go the event or not. We do not relish liberal dialogues in gentrified spaces where any anger or pointed criticism gets washed out by scene and setting. But on the day of the event, Hej Coffee took down the Heygate photo and wrote ‘whilst we never intended any offence or insensitivity by displaying art, we have listened to your comments and have taken the photo down’. It wasn’t any old ‘art’ that was seen as offensive and serving the politics of gentrification, but Hej Coffee could not at this point seem to bear to name it. Whatever! The Heygate photo was gone, decanted to some other unmapped place.
FINAL HEAVY HEAVY CONTEXT OF OUR OWN
By way of a small finale, we want to add some things in about gentrification, community and coffee shops. It would be a kind of foolishness to equate expensive coffee shops with some kind of enemy. Hej Coffee, like others appearing in the neighbourhood, are the product of gentrification and not the cause. Although we don’t particularly like the kind of expense, vibe and disposition of such places, it would be stupid to centre our entire political life on opposing them. Campaigns against ‘yuppies’ in the 80’s and against ‘hipsters’ now rarely have any potential for actual community organising and they seemingly don’t have much longevity! In the same weeks that this mini-soap opera was playing out with us, Hej Coffee and others, we were more usefully spending our time being part of the local campaigns against the demolition of the Shopping Centre and of the Aylesbury estate, because opposing these is opposing the much larger forces at play – that’s national and local government-supported gentrification dressed up as ‘regeneration’.
(Latin@s from Boyle Heights protesting the Weird Wave Coffee Shop, 2017)
Having said this, there are many communities in the world who are militantly against the arrival of gentrifying businesses as they are part of the signal that it’s okay for developers and speculators to colonise ever greater chunks of our cities for their bloody-minded profit-seeking schemes, while low-income residents get stomped over or cast aside. In Boyle Heights in L.A, a Latin@ neighbourhood with a decades long struggle for public housing and against the social and ethnic cleansing of their area, parts of that community are targeting new business such as cafes or art galleries that are a sign of the violent gentrification of their area. Those struggles are enacted by a community that recognises itself as such – as poor and as Latin@ – and who are fighting from the basis of that self-identification.
We would say that in London the debate and action around these questions has not been so clear. Of course, it’s London and not L.A and each anti-gentrification struggle is different but it would be good to see some discussion here about how to think and link different parts of the ‘regeneration’ process – global development and real estate, investment and construction, demolition and displacement with the ‘uplifting’ of areas, luxury flats and more expensive shops, lifestyle values and displays. But let’s not mistake one for the other. White coffee slurpers have little power over any of this, the same as the rest of us. We need to be clear also that many (but not all) people living in gentrifying areas are likely to be as precarious in their housing situation (low wages and expensive rents), even in new developments like Elephant Park. Then of course, there are the rich folks buying into the area and so what role do they play? So far, locally, they do not really organise as a lobby to boost more ‘regeneration’ although London is seeing a rise of Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) groups who are dubious in their support for more and more new gentrifying developments.
In The Elephant, the community campaigns have not been making clear demands to new more upscale businesses partly because this probably reflects it being an unresolved issue within London’s wider anti-gentrification campaigns. Partly, locally, this is out of sheer tiredness with keeping up with everything going on in the area. Maybe it’s because the carrot of a Labour government dulls a bit the fact that we actually want a whole lot more than just percentage peanuts of social rented homes? Partly again there is still over politeness to politicians, be they councilors or The Mayor. There have been attempts to make a Neighbourhood Plan of our area and that would enable us to make decisions about what kind of things we want to keep and what kind of things we want to see invested in around The Elephant. All good stuff but its slow work! One thing for sure though is that without thinking through and being clear on the above and if we aren’t clear about how to take on gentrifying businesses head on in line with our vision for the area, we will wake up in a whitewashed bland-o-rama!
more LOLZ…on the old Heygate site…and that is why we keep going on about it!!