A replacement for one of East London’s most legendary LGBTQ+ bars in Tower Hamlets will never be the same, one of the original campaigners against its closure has claimed.
Amy Roberts joined the campaign in 2014 to prevent The Joiners Arms, Tower Hamlets renowned LGBTQ+ bar, from being closed down to make way for a new mixed-use development. The pub on Hackney Road, in Shoreditch, had been central to London’s gay scene since it opened in 1997.
Regal Homes, the developers who initially shut down the bar in 2015 after they bought the site, have now finally been granted a revised planning permission for a new development to include office spaces, a hotel and nine flats.
As part of the permission the developers have agreed with Tower Hamlets Council to build a replacement venue; they have already promised to contribute £138,000 to the replacement venue and charge the bar rent free for the first 18 months. They have also donated an additional £100,000 to fund a pop-up bar whilst construction is underway.
However, Roberts says the new development will not live up to the reputation of the Joiners Arms. She said: “A loss of a queer space is always so tragic – even though we are fighting for a replacement bar, it will of course never be the Joiners again. You can’t replicate it…”
The Joiners Arms opened in 1997 was known for its drag queen events, free entries and staying open till 4am.
Roberts said: “It was horrible to know a space we all loved was being taken away from us due to greed. We were determined to try to fight against it.”
The demolition was part of a decline of LGBTQI+ venues in the capital. In 2017, 21 per cent of closures of venues were due to property development.
Roberts recalled why the former pub was unique: “There was a great liberating energy at the Joiners. Everything was in one room – the bar, the dancefloor, the cloakroom, the queue for the toilets…then there was the smoking area outside where you’d end up talking to strangers for hours.” The pub attracted numerous famous names including the late fashion designer Alexanda McQueen, and actor Sir Ian McKellen.
In 2017, Tower Hamlets council ruled the new development must include an LGBTQ+ nightclub to replace the former one, in order to gain planning permission.
Roberts told ELL it was ‘bittersweet’ when she found out the new development was initially granted planning permission in 2017. She said: “Hackney Road doesn’t need a hotel. This development will not benefit the local residents and does nothing to address the housing crisis in London. There’s definitely the sense that the needs of the local community are being pitted against the need for replacement LGBTQ+ bar.”
Roberts added: “We are excited about the mixed-use space. Though again, this is dependent on the physical work on the development going ahead.”
Despite the initial approval in 2017, Regal Homes have been back and forth with the council amending their initial plans for the development; prolonging the process. Roberts said: “We’ve been through this process once before in 2017 and know that planning approval doesn’t mean the promises come to fruition.”
The campaign argued it was unacceptable that the bar has been empty since January 2015 and appealed to the developers that a temporary space was needed.
Tower Hamlets development planning committee were set to vote on altered planning proposals including the pop-up bar on January 14, however, due to concerns raised by local residents over the proposed six-story hotel they decided to postpone the vote to allow councillors to visit the site. However, planning permission for the pop-up bar was eventually granted last month.
Roberts, a research fellow, said: “For me, the Joiners was a place where I felt free in myself and my body. It allowed me to grow in confidence in my identity. I would feel recharged to face the world again after being in the Joiners. It was really fun and felt different to other queer spaces at the time.”
Roberts said it wasn’t just gay bars in danger: “Definitely, all spaces are under threat from rampant gentrification and capitalistic greed across the city. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic too.”
Financial implications are a main reason for venues closing, Roberts said: “Bars are closing due to external pressures, absurd rent increases and property developers buying the space from breweries in order to redevelop like the Joiners.”
Former Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said the city’s LGBT venues were “in crisis” after launching a new LGBT+ Venues Charter to encourage developers and owners to protect the sites that remain.
ELL approached both Tower Hamlets Council and Regal Homes but neither responded to comment.