- Tower Hamlets
First impressions of the ‘Departure’, as you walk through the tall glass doors, are that it’s some kind of converted library. Books are stacked upon shelves, weird and wonderful instruments cover the walls (including a battered vintage acoustic guitar and what looks like an exotic harp of some sort) and everyone from your grandma to twenty-something hipsters lounge around on comfy sofas reading and chatting.
The soft colors of the décor coupled with the sky window beaming in lots of natural light, juxtaposed with bustling Commercial Road, mean you instantly feel transported from your surroundings.
The business has been running for 5 years and is owned by London City Mission, originally setting out to offer: “a positive expression of the Christian faith to the community,” team leader Adam Gage tells me.
The Salvation Army often teaches a gospel choir group here and last month it was used by an Islamic domestic violence charity that have held art exhibitions in the gallery space to raise awareness for women.
There is a café at the centre with friendly welcoming staff, many of whom are volunteers with a casual ‘first day’ vibe about them. The spacious red-bricked room with high ceilings (actually a converted chapel, complete with church organ) is currently being used by latte-suppers frantically typing away on their laptops.
There is a vast projector screen on the wall at the far end, used for film screenings and on Friday nights you’ll find it decked out with beach chairs and a real cinema ambience, showing the crème de le crème of non-mainstream movies, free of charge.
So is it a café, an arts centre or a community space? It’s a bit of a head-scratcher at first. Adam, 31, explains that for different customers the business represents different things. Not merely an arts café, the space is also used to run a number of community classes. He explains that playwrights and graphic designers often use the café as an office space; students sometimes use it as a study space, stripped back live music performances are occasionally put on whilst the Imam of one of the local mosques attends the English classes held here.
“People learn new things from each other,” Adam tells me, “They connect. We have communities forming in knitting groups, in oil painting classes, in the sculpting classes… Friendships are formed.”
The prices reflect the socio-economic mix of the community. Tea is 60p whilst refills are 30p. A cappuccino however is the standard price you’d expect of most coffee shops. For meals, a round of toast is 50p whilst a curry will set you back a fiver.
“We try to make it from cheap end to high end and everything in between,” he explains, reiterating that it’s not about making profits from one section of the community “We’re trying to do something that will bring everyone together, where everyone can learn and be enriched from each other”
Forty-five per cent of people who live in the area are Bangladeshi Muslim. Though there are a number of greasy spoons on this side of town, it is the one of the only cafés to include a Halal menu as well as a wide range of vegetarian options.
As I wonder around looking at the works of aspiring Bankys hung upon the walls, an Arabic class has been taking place. Amongst its students, there is a Scottish widow, a Pakistani girl, a Swiss trader and the teacher herself is from Jordan. People from a variety of different backgrounds have joined together in this place for a common goal, to learn a language. In the process, cultural barriers are being eradicated as friendships are cemented. This perhaps best personifies the ethos of the business, a space where people from all walks of life can socialize and be brought together using the arts. This is a point that Adam frequently returns to.
In the city it can be difficult to make connections with people and Departure is perhaps best defined as a place where people come to connect.
Find ‘Departure’ at: 649/651 Commercial Road, London, E14 7LW
By Craig Maloney