In the Britain of Saint Jamie of Oliver, every right-minded person (or at least every right-minded person who can afford to spend three quid on a lettuce) dreams of having somewhere like Broadway Market on their doorstep. It is one of London's oldest chartered markets, located on the ancient drovers' road from Essex to the slaughterhouses of Smithfield. After years of decline, which saw this part of Hackney slide into decrepitude, the little shopping street had become a ghost of its former bustling self. All the through-traffic had moved to the nearby main road. All the business had vanished. Though some remained optimistic (a locally famous piece of 80s graffiti read "Broadway Market is not a sinking ship - it's a submarine"), this was, not to put too fine a point on it, a place where you were more likely to get your phone nicked than find a bottle of single-estate extra-virgin olive oil.
However, in 21st-century London, one man's ghetto is another man's prime development opportunity. Broadway Market lies just north of that new heartland of the media-entertainment complex, Hoxton: the pulsating Day-Glo zone of the ironic haircut, the ironic cocktail, the ironic back-to-the-90s warehouse rave and the ironic White Cube gallery. So this is officially part of the New East End, a place where, for the past decade or two, young gentrifiers who don't mind stepping over the odd crackhead have been carving out a cut-price paradise of canal-side walks, hole-in-the wall pubs and fresh galangal root. Thus it was no surprise when Broadway Market found lifestyle. Last year, under the slogan "Quality, speciality, variety", the local traders and residents association launched a "farmers'-style market". And it was very popular. As in, it totally kicked off. As in, every Saturday the place is now chock-full of people pushing whatever the pram equivalent is of a Mitsubishi Shogun, stocking up on chanterelles, wooden toys and the interesting cheeses of the Haut-Pyrenées, before heading back home to spread something organic on a bit of artisanal toast and sack out in front of the telly.
At this point I have to hold my hands up. I'm not even going to start playing the authenticity game because I'm the least authentic person I know. I grew up in the Essex suburbs a few miles east of here and though I have lived all over London (most recently New Cross Gate), I came to Hackney for reasons that I guess are not dissimilar to a lot of the bike-riders, creative slackers, live-workers and thrift-store princesses I nod to on the street: because it is full of weird places and eccentric people and has a grubby glamour to it that has not yet been stamped out and flattened into the same cloned corporate hell-hole as the rest of Britain.
But the thing is, I am partial to a nice piece of raclette. I like hanging out at the new street market. And I know the significance of all the high-end prams, the sudden appearance of a yoga parlour, the almost-palpable whiff of testosterone emanating from the shiny new estate agencies full of shiny blokes with big, shiny ties and shiny Mini Coopers sprayed in the company colours. The technical term is regeneration. In other words, the next phase of the takeover is underway. People like me - writers and artists - have softened Hackney up. Now comes the real money. And the thing about money is that some people have it and others don't.
So there I was last Wednesday afternoon, cycling up Broadway Market on my way to rent another depressing German art movie from the Film Shop, when I saw a sign on the front of one of the greasy-spoon caffs, a place called Francesca's which shut its doors a few months ago. "OCCUPATION BY THE LOCAL COMMUNITY. AGAINST CORRUPT DEVELOPERS. WE WANT OUR CAFE NOT YUPPIE FLATS!"
I knocked on the door and ended up ditching fiction-writing for the rest of the week to think about the connection between interesting cheeses, international finance, local government impotence and the impending tsunami of upward-mobility that is the 2012 Olympic games. What has really been going down in my neighbourhood? What happens when Britain's third-poorest borough gets a taste of regeneration?
Tony Platia is a stocky, bluntly-spoken Sicilian who ran Francesca's cafe at No 34 for 30 years. It was known as the best place on the street for a fried breakfast or a plate of lasagna. Platia had always leased the place from Hackney council, but in 2001 Hackney audited its books and discovered a £72m hole in its finances. At the time the Guardian was running headlines such as, "Is this the worst-run place in Britain?": the borough was a byword for scandal and mismanagement. So central government refused to bale it out and John Prescott's office ordered it to plug the gap by selling off its considerable commercial property portfolio. With financial crisis looming, this had to happen fast. All along Broadway Market, traders suddenly received 28 days' notice that their premises (and, in some cases, their homes) were to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The buzzword was "best value". And that is precisely what the activists occupying Francesca's believe the people of Hackney did not get, either financially or socially.
Platia says he had tried for years to buy his place, but every time he made a bid, something would go wrong at the council offices: paperwork was lost; memos went astray. In the meantime, a property developer called Roger Wratten bought the buildings on either side of him, as well as the land to the rear. Finally, in a process which seems, like many in Hackney's chequered recent history, to have been less than transparent, Wratten paid £186,000 for Francesca's and told Platia that he had to leave. Platia is the pugnacious type. He is also very popular locally. It took a long legal row, two failed evictions, 50 policemen and 10 bailiffs to get him out.
Last Monday, Francesca's was supposed to be demolished. Wratten, a former Citbank broker, wanted to start work on a block of luxury flats and (a weird, slightly Citizen Kane touch, this) a theatre where his wife would be able to direct plays, bringing Shakespeare to us culture-starved Hackney folk. Instead, it seems the people of Hackney prefer Tony's penne and the cafe has now become the front line in a battle for Broadway Market. The occupiers are determined to shine a light on what has happened in the community as a result of the sell-offs, and what may happen in the future as Olympic redevelopment gathers pace. Hackney is, after all, at the very centre of the 2012 games, and the property market here is in overdrive. Everyone is trying to get a slice of the action. Down my street, people talk openly about the money they hope to earn by renting their houses to visitors. Every day, more estate agents' letters come through the door.
Regeneration sounds like one of those unproblematically good ideas. It is a term you hear a lot from government ministers. One imagines love and attention being poured into a neglected place. But, as Patrick, one of the people who took over Francesca's, puts it, "when local people hear the word, they feel afraid. They feel attacked." The arrival of money into an area always leaves winners and losers, but the more I discover about what has really been happening here, the more I have come to feel angry about the callous way in which the process is being handled. Is this regeneration or degeneration?
The people occupying Francesca's come from all walks of life. They are local residents: one or two seasoned political activists, most simply angry about what has been happening to their street, their neighbourhood. I meet a teacher from a local community college, a mother, a freelance translator. As many as 50 are actively involved in the protest. They have organised a rota so that the building is occupied day and night, and are subsisting on donations from well-wishers. They point out that the result of the council's scrabble to clear its debt has been to put the vast majority of this little street, not into the hands of the people who live and work in it, but of just three big property developers - Wratten and two off-shore firms: one registered in the Bahamas, another set up by a businessman currently based in Moscow. Welcome to the globalised Hackney street market.
There is something disconcerting about discovering that half your local shops are run out of a PO box in Nassau. Like Tony at Francesca's, the small business people on Broadway Market had first refusal to buy the places they were leasing. So why didn't they? Disconcerting stories abound about leaseholders trying to exercise their rights only to find that, at the end of the day, these same three developers came out as the new owners.
No 71 is the Nutritious Food Galley, where the proprietor, Spirit, plays dub through satisfyingly large speakers and sells fresh fish, fruit, vegetables and Caribbean spices. Spirit arrived in Broadway Market in 1993 and spent six years and around £40,000 renovating an entirely derelict building and turning it into a place where he could live and do business. In the process he has become a much-loved figure up and down the market. He features on a lot of the street's publicity material, a symbol of how jolly and diverse we all are round these parts. "I've had a lot of help from the community here," he says. He is pleased at the growth of the farmers' market. "When I first came here, there was nothing going on, day or night. Now there's a good atmosphere. I like the people that come to the Saturday market. Yuppies can be nice people."
When Spirit received a letter that No 71 was going to go to auction and was valued at £100,000, he understood that if he went to the auctioneers beforehand with a deposit, he would be allowed to buy it. What happened next is a matter of intense dispute. The council's audit and anti-fraud department has completed an investigation and says it has "no evidence of any fraud" because "it is unclear what happened". No one disputes that Spirit went into the auctioneers, Nelson Bakewell, with a cheque for £10,000. Nor is it disputed that his cheque was taken from him. Spirit says he signed a contract, but did not take a copy away with him. As far as the council and the auctioneers are concerned, there never was any contract, the cheque was not accepted as payment for anything in particular and thus it was perfectly legal that No 71 was sold that afternoon to Broadway Investments Hackney (of Bank Lane, Nassau, the Bahamas) for £85,000, £15,000 less than Spirit was willing to pay.
As it happened, Spirit was present at the auction. He did not think that he needed to be there. "I'd just never had the experience of going to an auction before," he says. He could not believe it when he heard his home and livelihood come up as one of the lots. "I felt sick to my stomach." He stood up and protested that he had already bought the place, and was made to leave. I asked if he was physically ejected from the room. "No," he told me. "I didn't want to give them the chance of that. Then there would have been the police and everything. As a black man, you don't want to be fooling around inside a police station." How did he feel when he realised that he had lost his property? "Stupid. So stupid. I had no power to stop them." Six days later, his cheque was sent back with a compliment slip. No one seems to have an explanation of why it was retained at all, if no sale had been agreed. According to the council anti-fraud investigators, Spirit's bid was discounted in part because the auctioneers had "concerns that the money wasn't available". Which is to say, they made a unilateral judgment that Spirit might not be able to pay. On what basis does the guy from the auctioneer size up the middle-aged Rasta ("not a man of words", as Spirit himself puts it) and decide that he is not worth taking seriously? What does "best value" for the community mean in this context?
For Spirit it meant that instead of dignity and security he had a new landlord who immediately put his rent up 1,200%. He has refused to pay. As he puts it, "my blood and sweat are in this place". A while back, the bailiffs put new locks on his shop. He took them off. A court appeal date is approaching. What will he do if he is forced to leave? "I don't know," he says simply. I believe him. He does not seem to have made any kind of plan.
Judging by the atmosphere at last Saturday's market, the occupiers of Francesca's have a huge amount of support. Stallholders were delivering cakes and coffee, shoppers were putting money into a bucket and people were knocking on the door, volunteering to take sheaves of leaflets and distribute them around the local estates. As the strength of local resentment becomes apparent, they are even getting the support of mainstream local politicians.
A Conservative councillor and a one-time candidate for London Mayor, Andrew Boff is prepared to go on record with what, to me, is a breathtaking allegation. "Everyone's angry about what they've done to Spirit," he says. "Really, they should be falling over themselves to keep him. Quite frankly, the troubles at Broadway Market are due to council corruption, opaqueness and an unreasonable set of demands from the office of the deputy prime minister." When elected officials start using the c-word in public, you have to worry that something serious may be afoot. Not that the Labour deputy mayor, Jessica Crowe, would agree. "He's made these allegations before," she says. "If he's got any evidence whatsoever he needs to give it to the police or to the district auditor. Constant repetition of allegations doesn't make them true." When I ask whether she worries about the way the Broadway Market sell-offs have been handled, she tells me: "That is done now. We're working to improve things for the future. Three or four years ago, the planning service provided by the council was dreadful. Our latest audit commission report shows that we've made a marked improvement."
Boff's reference to Prescott brings the whole thing back to the notion of "best value". When I phoned the worried-sounding Hackney PR woman, it was a phrase she used several times. I had, she told me, to understand that the council was under a legal obligation to get "best value" for the properties it was selling. It was easy to be sentimental, but it had no choice. The council's understanding of the term is straightforward - best value equals highest bid. Under its interpretation of the rules, it is not allowed to take into account any factors except price in deciding who gets to own Broadway Market.
But best value is not, as you might imagine, a simple phrase. It is actually a quintessential bit of political newspeak, a highly technical term. On the local government performance website (www.bvpi.gov.uk) there is a helpful glossary which tells anyone who has not fainted from the sheer tedium of being there in the first place that best value can be defined as "the duty of continuous improvement for local authorities as set by the Local Government Act 1999". The possible interpretations set out by the act are many and various. Boff says categorically that "best-value does not mean the highest possible bid. When they [Hackney council] say they're not allowed to take into account other factors, that's just not true."
At the very least, it seems that my local council has acted in a way that has made it very hard for the small-business people of Broadway Market to exercise their rights. For all the talk of a level playing field, it is hard to dispel the unpleasant image of Spirit having his livelihood whisked away by some fast-talking suits. When I ask Tony Platia why he thinks he did not get to buy Francesca's, he slaps the table. "I think it wasn't meant for me," he says. "It was meant for him [Wratten]."
There is a callousness about all this which makes it hard for me to feel comfortable about the new buzz in my neighbourhood, the good times that seem to be on their way. The occupiers of Francesca's have a court date on Friday. On one level, it is a small matter, a tiny local property dispute. On another, it goes to the heart of what we think we are doing as a nation as we charge bravely into the new century. What kind of community do we want to see? What the hell is "best value" anyway?
This piece was a cover story for Guardian G2 in December 2005. A month later, I wrote an update for the paper:
Though my corner of Hackney has yet to attain a Middle-Earth level of cosmic grandeur, the ongoing battle between local people and the forces of regeneration has been growing in stature. We've got our very own Dark Lord, in the shape of a property developer called Dr Roger Wratten, who has an underground island base in Tunbridge Wells and a henchman with a glass eye. Ranged against him is a hobbit-like band of local people, who since late November have been barricaded inside Francesca's cafe at 34 Broadway Market, blocking Wratten from pulling it down to build a block of flats.
Since G2 first covered the occupation a month ago, No 34 has seen everything from espionage to battering rams. There was a large and rowdy public meeting, at which a (presumably heavily-sedated) council official played the role of ritual sacrifice and was duly mauled by the local furies. Wratten's wife went undercover into the cafe, where she posed as a supporter, stuck 20 quid into the collection bucket and even signed the petition. When she bragged about her mission to the London Evening Standard, the occupiers (who until then had no idea she'd been there) mounted a cheeky legal defence, claiming that as a director of her husband's property company, her actions could constitute a licence for them to remain on the premises. The judge took the best part of a day to decide the matter, eventually concluding that though Mrs Wratten's actions had been "foolish" they didn't actually imply she wanted the protesters to stay.
Just before Christmas, filled with festive cheer and armed with a court order, a van-load of Wratten's men arrived at the cafe. They broke down the front door and immediately set about ejecting the occupants. Within the hour they'd taken off the roof and were well on the way to collapsing the whole structure into the basement, watched sullenly by a group of heckling locals.
Unfortunately for Wratten, his men were so eager that they didn't follow basic safety procedures and by mid-morning the demolition had been halted by the Health and Safety Executive. It was then discovered they hadn't even bothered to disconnect gas bottles from stoves and heaters, risking blowing much of Broadway Market sky high.
The cafe's destruction was undoubtedly a low point for the protesters, but demonstrating the sort of perverse determination usually only seen in old war movies, a group of volunteers got up on Boxing Day morning, went into the demolished cafe, cleared away the rubble and rebuilt it. By that evening the occupation was back on. By New Year's Eve there was a two-storey structure with a back wall and a reinforced anti-bailiff frontage. Francesca's was reborn.
Since the story broke, journalists from around the world have started to appear at the cafe. The other day I found Der Spiegel taking tea behind the barricades and TV crews from as far away as Australia have filmed the battered site. On New Year's Day a sermon was even preached at St Paul's Cathedral, which took No 34 (and Isaiah 35) as its text. "So, if this is our city," asked Father William Taylor, "where the High Way is not so much a Holy Way but a prime development opportunity for international capital investment, where does that leave us today?"
The battle even seems to be taking on the contours of an international diplomatic incident. The mayor of Naro, the home town in Sicily of Tony Platia, who has run Francesca's for 30 years, has written to Ken Livingstone, demanding to know how he could allow the demolition of "this famous Italian premises". La Repubblica and Rai Uno are building the story up into a pan-European grudge match.
Meanwhile Wratten has got court authorisation for another eviction. By the time you read this Francesca's might be a hole in the ground. Or not.
[The occupation grew in strength and scope, generating more international media attention and much local sympathy. The Mayor of Naro turned up in person. The occupiers were evicted a second time on February 23rd 2006. After that the focus of the protest turned to protecting Spirit from eviction. Sadly, the occupiers weren't successful in their bid to force an enquiry into Hackney Commercial Property sales. As of January 2009 number 34 is just a vacant lot with a metal shutter in front. With a lot of local financial help, Spirit stayed in his place until November 2008, when he too was evicted. The Broadway Market campaign brought a lot of people together, but eventually fell apart. It remains to be seen what the long term legacy of this moment of social solidarity will be. Presumably Roger Wratten's development plans will be affected by the property market crash. Emily James made a good documentary about the first phase, first ten minutes embedded below, rest available on youtube and elsewhere].