The view from Brèche de Roland in the Pyrenees is a far cry from the one on the streets of east London’s Hackney Wick. The former, one of the highest peaks in France, boasts views of cloud-enveloped peaks, verdant valleys and glassy lakes, while the latter is a low-slung landscape of old warehouses and overground train trestles that was for centuries swamped by overflow from the River Lea.
But when Joanna Hughes reached the top of Brèche seven years ago, she made a resolution that led her inexorably to the Wick.
Hughes, a figurative painter, had spent the previous six years, like many London-based artists and designers, living in the borough of Hackney and bouncing from one studio to another as gentrification swept across the city’s eastern edge. She was forced out of her Brick Lane digs when developers and businesses began warming to the area, converting flats, opening trendy new stores and restaurants and convincing landlords they could ratchet up rents. She moved to a garret behind Shoreditch Church but found it too small.
That’s when she travelled to France and had her mountain-top revelation. “I thought I’d never be able to do that – get to the top – and when I did I realised there was nothing I couldn’t do,” she says. “That’s when I said ‘I’m going to stick my neck out’.”
Her plan was to find a large space where she could build a business working alongside fellow artists and designers. Studios in the Brick Lane, Shoreditch, Hoxton and Kingsland Road areas were too expensive. Her solution? Hackney Wick.
At the far-eastern corner of Hackney, the Wick saw its heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries when it mixed industry with housing. Canals relieved residents of fears of flooding and Victoria Park, a two-minute walk from the heart of the neighbourhood, offered easy recreation and a breath of fresh air. Post industrialisation, however, the area fell on hard times and by the 1970s it was little lived in and less often visited by those who didn’t need to.
A somewhat desolate atmosphere remains today. But that didn’t put off Hughes. Nor has it deterred a flock of painters, ceramicists, furniture designers, graphic artists and students from choosing to live and work in the area as property further west becomes increasingly unaffordable. “Part of the reason I went to Hackney Wick was because of the huge boom in housing and renovation,” Hughes says. “There are more options to live-work than in any of the other local areas and it’s really cheap. Suddenly warehouses that weren’t deemed habitable seemed like a good idea.”
Using personal bank loans, she rented out the top three floors of a five-storey red brick warehouse built in 1910. “I had put up one wall and spray painted lines on the ground where studios were going to be,” she recalls. She put one advert into Art News magazine and one notice online, saying she would be showing spaces on Saturday. When the weekend came, the applicants flooded in. “It was like a jumble sale,” she says.
Anthony Hossack and Clive Gray of Hossack & Gray, a company specialising in inventive upholstery and furniture restoration projects, were two of the designers who joined the newly named Mother Studios. Gray was living in another studio nearby when the two were “hand-to-mouth” starting their business and now has a place near Victoria Park. Hossack, meanwhile, bought a 16th-floor flat in a refurbished 1960s building near the Homerton-Hackney Wick border four years ago. “I quite like where I am,” he says. “You have beautiful parks and dazzling views and you have these buildings of restorers, artists, sculptors that are real creative hubs.”
The Wick is still a hard sell as a residential neighbourhood for many. It has one grocery store, one bar and two cafés but none of the restaurants, boutiques, bookshops and other amenities now in Shoreditch or Hoxton. “One sculptor eventually left. She said that when she arrived at the studio and discovered she had forgotten something, she couldn’t just pop out and get it, she had to go all the way back west,” Hughes acknowledges.
But others say they enjoy the quiet, undeveloped environment. “What you have is industrial and I think that for a lot of people here it’s perfect,” Hossack says.
Many more newcomers are moving in. Townhouses built a few years ago now occupy the centre of the neighbourhood and a modern block of luxury apartments has been erected south of Mother Studios. There is no Underground service but the overground Silverlink train stops at a centrally located station and an abundance of buses navigate the area’s streets.
Jesse Wade, a recent graduate from Ruskin College of Art, shares a two-storey, four-bedroom loft in Hackney Wick with four friends, all artists or designers. He says the neighbourhood was a “junkie wasteland” for some time but that there is a growing camaraderie among residents and business owners. His roommate, Simon, whom he met at school, has painted signs for the Sweet Love café, their favourite coffee joint. “The owner, a Brazilian woman, came home one night and found Simon’s signs there and was really happy,” Wade says.
His own work – oils of the slanting rooftops, moonlight-blanched streets and cranes digging into modern ruins – betrays a fixation with the area. “Towards the end of last summer I got a little obsessed with Hackney Wick,” he explains.
The rent on his flat is £1,500 a month, much less than equivalent spaces elsewhere in London. Property for sale can also be had at big discounts. According to Alan Dantes of estate agent Felicity J. Lord, one-bedrooms now sell for about £180,000, compared with £350,000 for the equivalent in Shoreditch. Hossack, who purchased his flat for £138,000, would see a pre-tax gain of 30 per cent if he sold today.
“It’s so near [the finance hub of] the City it makes sense,” he says. “Everything’s being gentrified, some of which is good and some of which is bad. A lot of the area is quite trashed, with spaces lying dormant that haven’t been used for ages, and it needs investment . . . But you don’t want it to be all flats and Starbucks [cafés].”
Nicki Verdi of the Keatons agency also sees better value for money in Hackney Wick than neighbourhoods a mile or two west. But she expects the gap to close in coming years, thanks in part to the art- and design-led gentrification. “You’re starting to see a new clientele move in,” she says.
This isn’t an exact replica of what has happened in other parts of east London, however, because, as 2012 approaches, Hackney Wick’s development will be less about trend-setting creative types than about the Olympic Games, the grounds for which will abut the area.
New construction will displace some existing businesses and residents. It will also, argues Dantes, bring better infrastructure and amenities and a corresponding rise in property values. After the past 10 Olympics, prices in surrounding areas rose by an average of at least 33 per cent – in Athens – and by as much as 166 per cent – in Sydney.
But not everyone sees this as positive. “I’ve always loved the Olympics but I’ve found no evidence to support the idea that they’re treating people they’re displacing humanely,” Hughes says. On a more personal level, she’s worried about the future of Mother Studios since her landlord is trying to turn her building into a residential one – presumably in a bid to find more lucrative tenants as the area’s fortune rises.
“It’s a shame because the creative community is here and the developers are coming in but usually these things grow up organically. Because of the Olympics it’s going to be pushed along at an artificial speed and I think it will [end up] fairly plastic.”
Hossack agrees. “We’re waiting to see what will happen,” he says. “Is the area going to be maintained properly as they put all those new developments up? There are people who have been here for years now. And where will they go next?”
■Felicity J. Lord, +44 0845-338 6458; www.fjlord.co.uk
■Keatons, +44 0845-8525 7788; www.keatons.co.uk