If you have walked down the ramp at the back of Kingsland shopping centre in Dalston, you have probably seen a man soulfully singing while strumming his guitar.
And if you have walked there on more than a few occasions you probably know the man by name – Mike ‘Down Dalston Lane’.
For nine years Mike has been busking at the same spot, on the wide ramp that curves down to the underground car parks.
But if you take a walk down the ramp tomorrow you probably wont see Mike.
Two months ago the shopping centre management told him he had to leave.
Not wanting to kick up a fuss, he obliged. But local residents, many of whom have grown close to Mike, were angered by what happened and came to his support.
Kieron Jecchinis, a local actor, set up an online petition to allow Mike to stay.
“Mike is one of the torchbearers for what Hackney is about. The varied people and characters, the absolute cross-mix of people,” says Jecchinis.
We meet at Mike’s spot. He still tries to play, but only at times when it seems to be ‘safe’.
In fear of making it worse, Mike has been hesitant about speaking of the situation but feels now he owes it to “all the people behind” him. The petition, which is online and on paper, has reached almost 400 signatures.
“I am overwhelmed by the support. I don’t want to cause trouble, all I want to do is play guitar and hang on – we’re all just trying to survive.”
Having always loved music, Mike had a successful career as a sound-engineer, but after a failed relationship, he became homeless. With no belongings and nowhere to go, he ended up at a hostel by Dalston lane.
He tells of how he opened the fridge the first night – only to find it full of cockroaches. “I slept with the lights on. It was so horrible to have ended up there.”
His only possession was the guitar, so he decided to come out and play.
“When it all fell apart this is where I came. At first I could only play three songs, ‘Knocking on heavens door,’ ‘You can’t always get what you want’ and one of my own called ‘Bags’.
But while slowly getting to know his local audience he realised he needed to widen his repertoire.
“What happens when you’re busking is that people always ask for songs, and I kept getting: “Can you do Bob Marley”? It is terrible when someone asks you and you can’t do it, so I just had to learn.”
The most popular request is still Bob Marley, but for Mike the busking grew into something more. Living in a hostel, playing on the ramp was a welcome routine, and the steady stream of people passing by became his friends.
From a man who asks to hear ‘Jingle Bells’ in every season, to the constant argument whether or not to play ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis – it is all part of his life. He has seen kids growing up, who he knew: “Even before they were born”. Today, an elderly couple stopped by with tomatoes from their allotment, apparently a regular routine.
For many, Mike is also a part of their lives.
“People tell me I make their experience here nicer. One lady told me that every night when she hears me across the car park she thinks, “Thank God he’s there”.
“Some say it makes them feel safe. I am here with the trolley boys and the last cab drivers at the end of the day.”
Used to the routine, he quickly moves as the ‘trolley boys’ approach. The sound of them pushing stacked trolleys up the curve drowns out our conversation as they exchange smiles.
“I know all I do is play a few tunes, but for me it has become so much more than that. It is about this area and the community.”
A little girl approaches. “Hello Michael,” she greets him politely. He knows her by name, and her parents too. Her father gives him a friendly pat on the shoulder as they pass by.
“I don’t have a family, I am 50 years old and don’t have kids or anything like that. I have put in my seven days a week for nine years and through the winter, and the tough times.”
“This is my social life as well. I’ve met so many great people here. Some days in life are worse than others but singing here – I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Busking is also a way to get by. And for Mike, the location is ideal.
“I am out of the way here, people are walking up or down so no crowds are gathering. I can play when it rains and what is most important is that I am not intruding.
“People say to me “Why don’t you go to the west-end?” but this is where I want to play. I don’t want to play for a bunch of suits in Holborn.”
He strums a chord on the guitar. A man with long blonde hair rushes by, waving as he sprints: “I haven’t seen you for ages mate!”
“He is a local teacher, from Finland actually,” Mike explains.
“There is such community spirit around here. People talk to me and share their stories; I find out and pass on what is going on and what people are up to. That’s what a community is about.”
Last year, EastLondonLines reported that under the ‘Dalston Action Plan’ the Kingsland shopping centre was seen as a suitable site for a 15-storey tower. The aim was for developers to get planning permission in return for regenerating the area and increasing retail and business opportunities.
Mike does not want to speculate about who ordered for him to leave but thinks the problem has to do with investments in the centre.
“We’re always in danger of losing things because of the amount of money that is being pumped into this area. There is this idea that people like Mike don’t belong in that,” says Jecchinis.
“Out of respect for the support I’ve had I am now talking about this,” Mike says, but emphasises he does not want to “make a scene”.
“I don’t want to antagonise or humiliate anyone. The whole situation is kind of laughable if it wasn’t for the fact that this is what I do.”
Pointing at the newly built flats behind us, Mike says that the more recent residents of Hackney are not necessarily a negative side of gentrification. He gives an account of a new friendship with a media worker who shares his music interest.
“The guys putting their investment in here they think that I am not appropriate to the new image of the city but I find it being the opposite.
“When you come to a new place you want to see real things, and it shouldn’t be swept under the carpet, I don’t know where they get that from. They’re not losing money over me. What do they see when they see me?”
At St Mungo’s hostel, where Mike currently resides, the manager has persuaded him to start recording in a studio. He plays music whenever he can, but wishes he could come back full-time to his old spot.
The petition is to be delivered to management soon. Mike hopes the recording will be finished by Christmas, but what the future holds for him, he doesn’t know.
“I know people here personally, deeply personally in some cases. Singing here has meant so much to me. But like everything that starts to disappear around here; once I am gone, I am gone.”
Kingsland shopping centre is managed by Criterion capital. EastLondonLines spoke to the shopping centre management who said they were unaware of the petition and would not “give any comments.”
You can find the petition here.