This weekend, the above picture created a furious anti-gentrification firestorm. It appears to be damning evidence that a counselling service for Asian women in the East London borough of Hackney had recently been replaced by a bourgeois café. As it was passed around on Twitter and Facebook, the reaction to it racheted up through the gears of moral indignation – unease ("urgh"), regret ("as if none of you have ever been to a hipster bar"), anger ("dirty hipsters," "what's wrong with you people?", "utter cnuts") and finally the kind of apoplexy that'd make you think an orphanage for blind kids had been turned into a massive toilet for Satan. Or at least that a valuable service for local women had been bought out by a gang of giggling hipsters and turned into a café for their rich interloper friends.
Named The Advisory and selling a sweet potato, halloumi and avocado burger for £6, the café sat below a sign for what had formerly been The Asian Womens Advisory Service on Mare Street. Funding cuts, gentrification, hipsters, East London, Tories; the clarion call of blame discharged across several fronts. And well they might – all of those factors have, undoubtedly, seen the loss and destruction of many worthy, valued and important social services in London.
Stallholders have been priced out of local street markets, the job centre, the tax offices and accommodation services are all moving away from face-to-face assistance, chain supermarkets like Sainsbury's and Tesco have undercut small family grocers and property prices are forcing families further into suburbia. On the banks of the Thames, a much-loved skate park is being shunted aside to make room for yet more Prets and the HS2 rail line will force many families from their homes in North London. All the while, the NHS is being smashed out of existence by the Tories and the sheer number of betting shops that have opened since the recession paints a cynical picture of how the local under and unemployed population are exploited by private business.
However, in the case of The Advisory, the righteous fury may have been a bit misplaced. If you looked closely at the phone number painted on that sign – looked, that is, before the sign was discreetly, even shamefully, removed – you will notice that it has a 0181 area code. As an area code, 0181 became obsolete in June 1999.
When I started to look into how this heinous act had been allowed to happen, it turned out that this particular premises has been empty for at least four years.
A representative from an Asian women’s refuge centre in Hackney explained that they had never dealt with an organisation of that name in the time that she’d been working there. The centre, which is part of the umbrella organisation Refuge, caters for single and married women as well as families, with referrals from Hackney council, health agencies and schools. While the refuge may not offer a social space, they do provide housing for women in distress, and advice and support regarding benefits and housing. The Hackney Council website also provides links to an Asian Women’s Resource Centre, The North London Muslim Community Centre, the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Commission for Racial Equality, as well as a more generalised "Supporting People" section.
Try to call the new number for The Asian Women’s Advisory Service – listed on several websites – and your call will simply go unanswered, ringing through to an answer machine.
Call the Procurement department of Hackney Council and they will tell you that the transaction was a private sale, meaning the Asian Womens Advisory Service was not a council-funded organisation (backed up by its listing as a private company – albeit a dissolved, though not liquidated, one – here).
Photo from The Advisory's Facebook page.
Call the planning department and they will tell you that, while the building was granted A2 status in 1996 – meaning it was the base for a provider of professional and advisory services – a change of use application was made in 2009 to turn the building into a restaurant. The application was granted in August 2010 and would last for three years, which brings us up to this summer when the café did, indeed, open.
Public distaste was undeniably fed by how the café in question appeared to celebrate their sheer distance from such a service. The ironic name, the signage instructing diners to "PLEASE REFER TO CLAUSE 6.4A” for advice on how to eat their onion rings, the menu full of quips like “The Advisory operates within a strict regulation policy: ketchup must be applied to the fries” and the £8.50 fry up that is so clearly beyond the means of many local people. (A fry up at the Number One Café on Well Street, by contrast, costs £3.60). But this is merely an example of some café owners exhibiting bad taste. It's still gentrification, but it's the gentrification of an empty, non-council building.
The Advisory has since posted an apology on their Facebook page, claiming that “We recognise the strength of feeling [the old sign] has generated so took the sign down earlier today. We would like to apologise for the offence caused and assure you that this was never our intention.” Whether this rings entirely true is a matter of opinion. The invaders are coming; whether you swallow their politics, apologies and pancakes is up to you.
So, the Advisory café did not force out the Asian Womens Advisory Service. Instead, it took over an unused building and chose to retain the old sign, branding itself in a way that mocked both its former owners and the process of gentrification, while acting insensitively to a local support facility that may no longer exist due to a lack of private funding. It's never good to see local amenities for local people replaced by smug places for braying dickheads to eat expensive sandwiches, but it pays to look into things a little before smashing the default outrage buttons on your keyboard.
Follow Nell on Twitter: @NellFrizzell
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