Geographically my childhood was contained within London’s W postcode. I never went East – mainly because of the prospect of sitting restlessly on the tube (with changes..) and also because I saw no need, my only knowledge of the East End stemming from exagerrated TV dramas and my mum warning me over a Brick Road curry (“too spicy for you!”). Without making myself sound old or too Dalston-esque, how much has changed. I now love the East End for its vibrancy, style mavericks, individual shops and smells – the alternative, unpredictable cousin to its refined and placid West London relative.
On Saturday I visited Broadway market in London Fields/Haggerston – an area that I had not only not heard of, but went to unwittingly without cash. Nutritionally, the latter error proved to be a good move as I was able to show financial restraint towards the mix of foods that greeted me – stall upon stall of brownies, wraps, bread and home-made spreads. It was a foodie’s heaven with some charming gift and vintage stores thrown in, and I left without taking any photos (second error of the day), my mind and stomach being focused on other things.
On the return, my friends and I, undoubtedly seduced by the sun and sugar, decided to walk along Regent’s Canal to Angel. This waterside path being the M25 equivalent for bikes and pedestrians on the warm day of 12th May, to the point that I developed walker’s rage – a rather senile aversion to cyclists without bells. As such, in this heated/happy fashion, I came across the “I am here” art project on the Haggerston Estate. In contrast to its more gentrified surroundings, the Haggerston estate looks uninviting – largely defunct of fancy pot plants, pastel coloured doors or even a converted-warehouse-chic minimalism. Instead, the estate has endured years of poor maintenance and stigma attached to modernist apartment block that, as “I am here” so aptly describes it, Haggerston Estate has “come to function as projection screens for collective fears and fantasies of troubled and dangerous environments that may lurk behind”. Ominous indeed. However, fortunately Fugitive Images (the artist collaboration behind “I am here”) is here to do something about it – Hackney’s very own camera-wielding heroes.
The Haggerston estate is due an East End makeover – local residents voting in favour of the demolition and rebuild of the estate in 2007 on the condition of their subsequent rehousing. Consequently, the estate has experienced a gradual emptying of its population as premises are made vacant in anticipation of the urban renewal process ahead – bright orange window boards promptly showcasing their absence. This is where Fugititive Images stepped in, putting a human face on the residents’ experiences. Initiated by artists who are themselves long-term residents of Haggerston Estate – they often overheard passersby speculating on reasons for the building’s demise and its current state – speculating perhaps being a overly positive description, critiquing or a “wish you were not here” being more likely. The “I am here” project subsequently aimed to disturb this one-way interrogation by replacing the 67 bright orange boards with large-scale photographs of residents on the estate.
In other words, those like me fleetingly glancing at the estate with a superficial Grand Designs-like authority are challenged, “their gaze met and returned by a multitude of faces consisting of current and former residents on the estate”. It sounds alarming and unfortunately it is – the photos are deliberately harsh and uncompromising. A diversity of people undergoing a mountain of change, if only walls could speak.