Rummaging around in a pile of newspapers at home I came across an old copy of G2 contain a brilliant article by Hari Kunzru on the fight to save Francesca’s Cafe on Broadway Market. There was a wider battle against rent rises and an attempt to gentrify the market out of all recognition.
In the light of the discussion with ‘Curious’ Rainbow George on Saturday and the attempt to talk about a successful squatted campaign by George, I thought I’d post Kunzru’s follow-up article about the occupation of the cafe that lasted 4 months. Sadly they were evicted but it demonstrates that the smallest thing, such as the closure of a cafe, can sparked a strong and spirited campaign. It also gives a bit of context to the Class War march through Notting Hill on 3rd November.
A dispatch from Tony’s cafe
Thursday January 5, 2006
Though my corner of Hackney has yet to attain a Middle-Earth level of cosmic grandeur, the ongoing battle between local people and the forces of regeneration has been growing in stature. We’ve got our very own Dark Lord, in the shape of a property developer called Dr Roger Wratten, who has an underground island base in Tunbridge Wells and a henchman with a glass eye. Ranged against him is a hobbit-like band of local people, who since late November have been barricaded inside Francesca’s cafe at 34 Broadway Market, blocking Wratten from pulling it down to build a block of flats.
Since G2 first covered the occupation a month ago, No 34 has seen everything from espionage to battering rams. There was a large and rowdy public meeting, at which a (presumably heavily-sedated) council official played the role of ritual sacrifice and was duly mauled by the local furies. Wratten’s wife went undercover into the cafe, where she posed as a supporter, stuck 20 quid into the collection bucket and even signed the petition. When she bragged about her mission to the London Evening Standard, the occupiers (who until then had no idea she’d been there) mounted a cheeky legal defence, claiming that as a director of her husband’s property company, her actions could constitute a licence for them to remain on the premises. The judge took the best part of a day to decide the matter, eventually concluding that though Mrs Wratten’s actions had been “foolish” they didn’t actually imply she wanted the protesters to stay.
Just before Christmas, filled with festive cheer and armed with a court order, a van-load of Wratten’s men arrived at the cafe. They broke down the front door and immediately set about ejecting the occupants. Within the hour they’d taken off the roof and were well on the way to collapsing the whole structure into the basement, watched sullenly by a group of heckling locals.
Unfortunately for Wratten, his men were so eager that they didn’t follow basic safety procedures and by mid-morning the demolition had been halted by the Health and Safety Executive. It was then discovered they hadn’t even bothered to disconnect gas bottles from stoves and heaters, risking blowing much of Broadway Market sky high.
The cafe’s destruction was undoubtedly a low point for the protesters, but demonstrating the sort of perverse determination usually only seen in old war movies, a group of volunteers got up on Boxing Day morning, went into the demolished cafe, cleared away the rubble and rebuilt it. By that evening the occupation was back on. By New Year’s Eve there was a two-storey structure with a back wall and a reinforced anti-bailiff frontage. Francesca’s was reborn.
Since the story broke, journalists from around the world have started to appear at the cafe. The other day I found Der Spiegel taking tea behind the barricades and TV crews from as far away as Australia have filmed the battered site. On New Year’s Day a sermon was even preached at St Paul’s Cathedral, which took No 34 (and Isaiah 35) as its text. “So, if this is our city,” asked Father William Taylor, “where the High Way is not so much a Holy Way but a prime development opportunity for international capital investment, where does that leave us today?”
The battle even seems to be taking on the contours of an international diplomatic incident. The mayor of Naro, the home town in Sicily of Tony Platia, who has run Francesca’s for 30 years, has written to Ken Livingstone, demanding to know how he could allow the demolition of “this famous Italian premises”. La Repubblica and Rai Uno are building the story up into a pan-European grudge match.
Meanwhile Wratten has got court authorisation for another eviction. By the time you read this Francesca’s might be a hole in the ground. Or not …
Fore more on the market have a gander at ‘The Battle of Broadway Market’
To see how the battle for the soul of Hackney continues have a look at The Hackney Independent