Dalston Lane’s heritage reaches the end of an age

Partly demolished buildings in Dalston Lane. Pic: Emma Henderson

Partly demolished buildings in Dalston Lane. Pic: Emma Henderson

As London expands and property prices continue to rise, yet more costly private housing spills into the East End, but it won’t be solving London’s housing crisis; instead it’s costing London its heritage and community.

Watching from number 58, Dalston Lane, John Wearn witnessed his old shop being torn down, making way for private apartments. Bright yellow diggers are clearing up the historic rubble, hiding behind barricades plastered with CGI images of the new buildings and the phrase “open as usual”.

John’s cramped temporary shop is only a few doors down from his old and beloved building, home to his family shop Sound and Music for over 30 years. He was the last shopkeeper to leave the Georgian terrace. The buildings, which date from 1807, will be re-built in a “heritage likeness” style – attempting in vain to undo the irreversible damage.

Dalston Lane lost the battle to keep its much-loved heritage despite local protest. Its once grand Georgian houses have now been demolished, resembling ugly shells of their former selves. The insides are now outside, broken and ruined. They will be replaced with modern shops and private flats.

Phase one of the demolitions involved tearing down the most significant and ornate of the terrace buildings. “We were the last ones out. I was in number 66, it was the most beautiful building. Now I’ve been moved into this little shop, there’s no room for everything”.

This architectural loss is not a one of a kind in Dalston. In the past, the area has lost the old station building, the 1920s Gaumont cinema in 2007, which was replaced with housing and other buildings on Ashwin Street in 2010. “Over the last ten years we will now have lost 80 per cent of what was there”, according to Lisa Shell, a local architect, Hackney Society committee member and Save Dalston Lane campaigner.

Lisa said: “I tried to get number 66 listed as a Grade II building with English Heritage, but it didn’t work. It was worth a go. They only list buildings that are of national significance, but these buildings are clearly just of local significance. It doesn’t have to be important to the whole country.”

“They were savable, perfectly repairable”, said Oliver Leigh-Wood, chairman of the Spitalfields Trust, who has 35 years experience saving houses. He got in touch with Lisa, offering a resolution. “We wanted to buy and repair the houses and put them back on the [affordable housing] market”, he said.

John Wearn's family shop, which was over 30 years old. Pic: Emma Henderson.

John Wearn’s family shop, which was over 30 years old. Pic: Emma Henderson.

On a dismal Friday morning in January, John’s bright red shop is bulging at the seams. It’s full of everything that you can imagine musical; from classic guitars to DJ decks. His business now sits at the edge of phase one, next to the demolition. A small pathway winds to the counter, where sound systems, keyboards and other musical paraphernalia pave the way. They are carefully stacked up and occupy every inch available.  The shop is already suffocating inside its new interior. His brother and son tightly squeeze past to maneuver around the shop.

It is so cramped John is worried about storage: “My business has definitely been affected by everything that’s happened and the move. We’ve got to keep going, I’ve got to think of my boys. I can’t just up and move somewhere else. People know us here and we’re part of the community. If I left, I’d have to start from scratch and that’s hard to do these days, especially after a recession”.

John has already been through tough times. There were widespread fires in 2004. He said: “Luckily our building was relatively ok. I mean, the roof was ruined, but others were totally ruined but we made it back from that.” After the fires, the buildings were put into a conservation area and shopkeepers thought that would be the end of it the problem as the buildings wouldn’t be knocked down.

Once recovered from the fires, John and others were told they would have the opportunity to bid at auction to buy their shops. But, the shops were being sold as one lot and not individually.  “No one here could buy them then. It wasn’t fair”, said John.

Shell says: “Very few local people would be able to afford those new flats. It will be investors; it makes perfect sense for investors. What’s horrible is seeing the buildings being harvested for materials.” The old London bricks are being cleaned, packed up and probably sold off again.

It’s not just Hackney that’s suffering. In Tower Hamlets, the old Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital is being turned into private flats, but it will keep its original Grade II listed façade. The Duke of Wellington pub in Spitalfields, which is also in a conservation area, faces developments under the new ownership of Mendoza. These aren’t in keeping with the traditional Victorian design, with a proposal to turn the upper floor into private flats.

Further afield in Newcastle, the historic Grade II Barclays House, where The Beatles wrote their 1963 single “She Loves You”, will be turned into student flats. But Liverpool managed to save its iconic Madryn Street after proving Ringo Starr had lived there, enabling it to be granted Grade II listed status.

Dalston Lane is now a wreckage site, where the history has been turned to rubble, hidden behind the shiny images of the new “heritage likeness” scheme.

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