diamond geezer

 Thursday, May 28, 2020

Hackney Wick was once known for its edgy creative vibe, a neighbourhood of studios and warehouses where things got done but hardly anybody lived. Times are changing.

This is The Wallis, a new residential development on the corner of Wallis Road and Berkshire Road. It's famous as the site of the factory where the world's first synthetic plastic - Parkesine - was developed. It's going to be flats with a Sainsbury's underneath.

To be fair, the warehouse the developers knocked down was thrown up in the 1950s, whereas Parkesine was invented in the 1860s, so nothing of significant heritage value was lost. To be further fair, the four buildings that do survive from the original Parkesine Works are being retained and restored and hemmed into a yard round the back. But all that passers-by will see is a modern brick apartment building looking like any other modern brick apartment building, and that's pretty much how Hackney Wick is going.

Only one building at the Wallis Road crossroads will survive, a 1920s social centre for local workers, but on the other three corners everything will be modern flats. Further along Wallis Road expect further apartment blocks replacing every building that isn't an 'individual heritage asset', which is most of them. Telford Homes are well underway building Stone Studios, a dense wodge of 110 flats "ideal for investors", while planning applications are already in to replace the variety of warehouses on the northern side. The Olympic effect is very real round here, just somewhat delayed.

I've been for a walk around Hackney Wick to try to survey what's gone, what's going and what's likely to survive.

The red zones are 21st century flats, already complete.
The orange zones are flats under construction (The Wallis is the top one).
The yellow zones are cleared and vacant, awaiting development.
Pink shows where development will, or may, take place.

The largest red zone is also the most recent. It's The Bagel Factory, like so many developments named after the building destroyed to create it. Five years ago gorgeous smells still wafted across the area from Mr Bagels, two years ago construction was well underway, and today 140 households are enjoying German-engineered kitchens with a 'renovated warehouse' feel. It's not a bad development of its type but a tad monolithic, and with concierge desks that look far too luxurious for anything here to be affordable.

Across White Post Lane is a long thin parcel of contaminated land surrounded by a ten foot high brick wall - one of the yellow zones on my map. This is the site of the Hope Chemical Works, importers of American crude oil and at one time the UK's main crude petroleum distillery. In 1893 the owners coined the word 'petrol' to describe their main product, which is one heck of a linguistic claim to fame. But since 1971 the site's been empty, and its unbroken wall is increasingly a canvas for some of Hackney Wick's famous graffiti. I'm amazed to see that what's planned here is a 240-room hotel comprising two six-storey blocks linked by a skybridge, plus workspace and foodiespace at ground level. The 150 year-old wall will not survive, summarily dismissed as "a non-designated heritage asset".

The other yellow zone on my map, between Trego Road and the Hertford Union Canal, is enormous. Formerly it was the McGrath waste transfer station, a smelly business few will have been sad to see the back of, and one day it'll be a Galliard Homes development called Wickside. Another 500 homes are pencilled in across seven acres, plus a linear canalside strip amusingly called a park. But redevelopment is moving at a glacial pace, and at present the site is littered with piles of rubble, the occasional mothballed warehouse and a noisy guard dog in the back of a van surprised that anyone's walked anywhere near.

Not everything's disappearing. Lion Works' eclectic warehouse cluster will survive, the Eton Mission boathouse is secure and the shell of the Lord Napier pub remains a centrepiece. But for the time being Hackney Wick is very much a chequerboard mix of old and new. Walk some streets and an air of dereliction still pervades, walk others and you could be in the middle of an estate agent's brochure.

Yesterday I watched one young couple pose for a professional photographer in front of sun-drenched graffiti, while on the other side of the wall a driver manhandled a mattress out of his van into a crumbling warehouse. Incomers waited patiently for a latte from the pop-up hipster joint by the station, while mechanics from the vehicle bodyworks on Chapman Road were content with another cuppa outside Mapps caff. The cramped grocery store on Wallis Road still sells own brand comestibles to members of the studio collective nextdoor, whereas three of the shops in Felstead Street are called Béton Brut, Vinyl Pimp and Frankenbike, suggesting the gentrification battle is already over.
"Victorian and Edwardian buildings coalesce with former industrial warehouses covered top to toe in street art, rivalling the oise stone walls of Belleville, Paris for aesthetic edginess. From the boundaries of Victoria Park to the Lee Navigation Canal, you’ll find wall-to-wall art collectives, with creative activity taking place in every nook and cranny." [The Wallis, sales website]
We need new places to live, and Hackney Wick has the potential to furnish thousands more. But with every block redeveloped and every wall demolished, any reason to make a special visit ebbs away. The developers taking advantage of Hackney Wick's edgy vibe are inexorably destroying it, like moths nibbling at a favourite blanket.

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