A week ago, Hackney’s Clarence Road (E5) found itself on the front line of the London riots. A week ago, people were being warned to avoid Clarence Road- to stay in their homes, take an alternative route or even seek shelter elsewhere.
A week on, the community did its upmost to reverse this message, inviting local people to come out of hiding, to take a break from their routine and to take back their street – to come to a tea party.
In the words of Jenette Arnold, London Assembly Member, Monday saw “Hackney at its best, reclaiming Clarence Road.”
With images of ransacked shops and burnt out cars still fresh in the minds of everyone present, neighbours stood shoulder to shoulder in the open air and relished an altogether more peaceful scene. Fittingly, the tea party was a joint effort between the Church of St. John at Hackney, the Clapton Square User Group, the Pembury Tenants and Residents Association and the newly formed Help Siva group.
Just four months on from the state occasion that revived the Great British street party and sent revellers out onto nearby Wilton Way in search of bunting and Battenburg, this was a community gathering that felt rather more sombre and infinitely more urgent. Trestle tables boasted a generous spread of pink and white cupcakes laid on by Marks and Spencer of Mare Street, and a sound system pumped out rhythms upbeat enough to get the hula hoopers swinging.
But you didn’t have to look far for reminders of the chaos; the shutters of the Clarence Convenience Store, looted down to its light fittings, stayed firmly shut. Children chalked rainbow hearts and stars over the blackened tarmac that still bore the shadow of arson. With the road closed from the junction at Clarence Place to where Dalston Lane meets Narrow Way, there was a significant police presence; reassuring, yes, but lending an air of surveillance that made it impossible to forget this was not a straightforward celebration.
And yet there was much to be celebrated. Music and laughter were punctuated by the unmistakable jingle of the collection bucket, shaken by dedicated volunteers raising money for the Help Siva campaign, which has so far raised a life changing £20,000 for the shopkeeper who, with no contents insurance, found his livelihood imperilled by the actions of people he once called his customers. The Help Siva website and Twitter hashtag were instigated from afar by two New Yorkers, former residents of Clapton Square.
The digital philanthropy of Mark Pytlik and Jess Greenwood now rings with irony in the wake of the Prime Minister’s suggestion to pull the plug on such networks, in the event of future disorder. The appeal was inspired by the e-grassroots sites Keep Aaron Cutting and Let’s Do Something Nice For Ashraf that have rallied around Aaron Biber and Ashraf Haziq who, like Siva Kandiah, have become accidental icons of the wave of consumer-driven crime that hit individuals and small businesses hardest.
When asked if the online response had taken him by surprise, Siva admitted: “I don’t have time to look – people tell me but I’m trying to fix my shop. I’m going to reopen as soon as possible, probably by the end of this week.”
His determination was clearly buoyed by the event: “You can see the community spirit, you can see every people, every colour, come together to support. I’m one of them, local, proud of it. It’s made a big difference.”
Ingrid Francis, a lifelong Hackney resident, was less optimistic: “This guy here (Siva), he was rioted but now he’s out and he’s mixing with the community, he’s not isolated, he’s not angry any more. I think it’s made a difference in terms of shopkeepers, but I’m not sure about the youth. We can’t see much of our young people today, at this party, don’t see much of them. Because of course they’re still angry….”
The anger of the establishment in the aftermath is also a concern, said Reverend Rob Wickham, Rector of Hackney: “What’s not right it seems to me is the language of war on gangs, broken families, broken Britain. That’s not very helpful for the community of Hackney- right at its heart it needs to be loved. That’s what we’ve been doing here today.”
He also spoke of people welcoming the chance to have “a breather” and the importance of listening. Expressions of hope and frustration were scribbled on post-it notes stuck to message boards for the occasion, one read: “There is a future for Hackney and all the youths, all we need is unity”, alongside another asking: “Why don’t Cameron come to Hackney and talk directly to poor people?”
Cllr Ian Rathbone, Chair of the Friends of Siva group, said: “I think we all felt that this was a reclaiming of the street for all parts of the community to move about freely. This is the first stage of ensuring that people do feel safe, and that they also feel listened to and have some ownership over what happens in their area.”
He added: “We will now be looking to further events to help us move on from the situation and begin to discuss and explore how we feel, what the issues are and how we can tackle them. We are looking to the future with hope for this area. Lots of Hackney people are coming forward to help. ”
Steve Lord, Chair of Pembury Tenants and Residents Association, said: “We welcome the street party. We have already had events this week on the estate to help people talk to one another and share problems. This will help us to build up better relationships in the wider area and support our local shops. They’re the place where people meet and they’re important. Let’s have more street parties!”
It will take more than tea and sympathy to right the wrongs of the unrest that has forced our country to take a long hard look at itself; but as cases are heard, inquiries launched and souls searched, it’s a very good place to start.
How riots start, and how they can be stopped: Edward Glaeser (external site)