A journey through the ruins
On 23rd March 2009 a former local resident, Patrick Wright, came back to Dalston. He staggered into Cafe Oto, in the Reeves Printhouse on Ashwin Street, looking pale and shell-shocked. The quirky thriving Georgian terraces of Dalston Lane, which he’d written about in 1991, had been partially demolished. The remainder lay in ruins. Barratt’s towers had risen where Dalston’s old circus buildings, and its music clubs, once stood.
I had invited Patrick, and the writer Iain Sinclair, to talk about their new books at an OPEN event that evening. We were celebrating the publication of Iain’s documentary fiction ‘Hackney, that Red Rose Empire’; and the re-publication of Patrick’s book. Iain had been banned from speaking on Council premises but he had dodged the thought police that evening and slipped quietly into the cafe. “What on earth has happened to Dalston?” Patrick asked him in despair. It was a long story. “Even the title of your book was prophetic”, Iain replied, “A journey though the ruins”.
By the mid-1980s Margaret Thatcher had really hit her stride. In an irrational political fit she had commanded the dissolution of the Greater London Council, thinking she could be rid of Ken Livingstone and socialism forever. And so the GLC’s Hackney property portfolio, its monumental estates of social housing and forgotten historic terraces, landed in a disorganised heap in the Council’s lap. Hackney had little idea of what it had inherited. Let alone its value.
The Dalston Lane terrace was amongst the pile. An ‘unrestored’ group of late Georgian houses, with Victorian shop fronts built over their front gardens after the railway arrived in 1865. But the Council was preoccupied with its estates, and demolishing tower blocks, and so amidst vague talk of a new road though Dalston, it gratefully let the historic houses slip off the agenda. Those which fell vacant were boarded up. Roofs were not repaired. Leases were not renewed. “Time itself lay in broken fragments on Dalston Lane” Patrick had written of the 1980s. The 1990s was an age of neglect and forgotten prosperity.
But in 2002 a £70million Council budget deficit, bailiffs at the door and a letter from the government threatening to intervene changed everything. On 2nd April 2002 Hackney sold its 16 houses in the Dalston terrace to a faceless off-shore corporation, at auction, as one lot, for £1.8million. The controversial auction was one of many. A fire sale of Hackney’s family silver. Its historic houses flooded a market in which fortunes were won by some and livelihoods lost by many.
Then things got worse. The houses, and the few surviving traders in the Dalston terrace, now came under threat from the new owner’s demolition plans. To its credit the Council rejected the “bland and undistinguished” redevelopment proposals. But the landlord appealed. I asked English Heritage to report and a government Planning Inspector agreed, when rejecting the appeal, that the houses were “remarkable survivors of Georgian architecture” which “lent great character to the area” The Dalston Lane (West) Conservation area was born.
Rejection of the planning appeal came too late for those Dalston Lane shopkeepers already evicted for ‘redevelopment’. Others were forced to abandon their tenancies. The interiors of four 1807 houses were destroyed by arson and, with no structural support, three of them were later demolished by the Council. Our architectural heritage and local economy was being destroyed. OPEN members signed petitions, sent deputations and badgered the Council. We received its assurances in return.
As Iain and Patrick reminisced, the evening sun passed behind the Barratt’s new towerblock and a shadow spread across the charming old houses of Ashwin Street. They frame the view from Dalston Lane to the listed Reeves Printhouse building and the Shiloh Church. Despite the best efforts of decades of squatters, the houses had fallen into severe neglect.
On 31 July 2008, a squatter had thrown himself from an upper floor as 8 Ashwin Street was engulfed by flames. The fire came as no suprise. It was the ninth ‘development opportunity’ site to have burnt down in Dalston in recent years. The Council initally denied it had anything to do with it. But it later acknowledged that it did own the whole terrace. The old houses had slipped onto Hackney’s books in 1987 and had remained there barely remembered ever since.
The fire came at a time when the Council was also buying up other sites in Ashwin Street and ominously reporting to its Mayor about “a natural progession of the ongoing development to the south with Dalston Square and the new Dalston Junction station”. Although it has no published plans of its intentions for Ashwin Street it nevertheless intends to demolish the houses without further formality.
But for Dalston Lane there remains a ray of hope. In March this year the Council told OPEN that it had bought back the surviving Dalston Lane houses and the three, now empty, demolition sites. They are, it says, now at the heart of the Conservation Area and will be rebuilt and restored with materials and designs faithful to their antiquity.
The Council has spent more than double, on the demolitions and re-purchases, than what it got for the houses in 2002. Can it now afford to sell on to the tenants who were deprived of their right to bid for their properties in the 2002 auction? Or will it seek to evict them and recoup its investment from converting the upper floors into private flats? Will it seek to purchase the other, privately owned, houses in the terrace to implement a grand municipal regeneration scheme for the whole terrace? As our economy teeters, from a period of recession into the age of austerity, will there be new traders to afford the higher rents? The future of Dalston Lane terrace remains fraught with difficulty and risk.