Sunday, 17 July 2011

Hackney Mona Lisa

When I was a young lawyer, green as glass, the building opposite the Town Hall in Hackney was empty for months, then years.

Then it was occupied for 3 months by a couple of dozen people who wished to set up a youth and cultural centre. A building that had been empty for a long time was suddenly full of hippies doing creative projects. A young idealist met weekly with the Council to lobby for emergency cultural funding that was never going to materialise, or a peppercorn rent for the space.

They lined the grim concrete with blankets, cooked lentils, grumbled about the future of the nation, and snarled at a sinister man who wished to buy a bride to sort his immigration problems. It was 94, and the young people knew the economy was crap then, as it's crap now.

In the fullness of time they were evicted. Yet before they left they did organise an exhibition of artwork, and a mural appeared on the north wall facing the Narrow Way of a woman traced in white on old dark London brick; is she screaming; speaking, laughing? We did not know.

For years she was allowed to remain and enigmatically question us, Hackney's own Mona Lisa.

Years passed and the building lay empty. Then the Ocean Centre was launched, and a sound studio, performance space and a decent cafe opened up. The moneys were European regeneration, to do up the Town Hall square, but also ate up sums that had previously been earmarked for charities. How we moaned.

There was a bright side however. I well remember steaming down on a weekend in my goth clothes (velvet coat-tails, doc martens and a bit of mascara, since you ask). A Pop were singing, I was dancing, and love never dies urged me on.

The idealists of yesteryear would have been proud. This, it seemed, was the project they had wanted 10 years previously, when nobody else was interested. Sadly it didn't last long. Somehow the Ocean ran out of cash, and before we knew it had closed again.

Mona Lisa is gone now, with the squatters and artists. The building was empty a few years more. Now its a Weatherspoon's.

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