Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Squatall Street

Got a job? Lucky you. But is it a good one, or one of those tedious ones that don't take you anywhere useful? A means to pay the bills and nothing more? One where you gain no social life, your boss treats you like a lab rat, you travel an hour and half to get to and from the restaurant / bar / office / salon that swallows half your life and gives you nothing back... I mean, do you resent your working days and think you should be spending your time doing more personally fulfilling stuff? You know, like hanging out with new people and strumming a guitar and that.
If this sounds like you, then you are one of many who sound like they should sort it out and get involved with squatting.

Ah, squats- the world of the grimy floor and the Eternal Laze. Where everyone is high while the atmosphere is low. Or it's buzzing with speed junkies listening to hardcore who keep borrowing your laptop and forgetting to give it back. Is that a familiar impression?

It's probably not and maybe you feel patronised but reading such nonsense. But in case you don't already know- it isn't like that. Rather, it doesn't have to be like that. I've just had a refreshing cuppa from a nice clean electric kettle that sits on a tidy work surface in a hygenic kitchen with a working fridge and cooker and everything and the kitchen is next to two smart and spacious bedrooms with another down the hall, just next to the flushing toilet that has a bathroom next door. And it's all behind a secured locked door in the fine location of Bethnal Green. And it's all free. So there.

Whether you already know it or not, squatting can be an ideal solution. And you get to learn stuff about fuse boxes and plumbing that, if you're a guy makes you look like a real guy and if you're a lady makes you look feckin' hardcore cool. Knowing your DIY is well attractive to the opposite sex. It's a fact and I read it.

There are loads of squats in London. In fact the capitol is a haven for them due to the many "emptys" and the relatively relaxed laws about inhabiting them that date back hundreds of years. In the eyes of the law, there is no difference between some people who have made an empty property their home and a tenant who refuses to pay the rent. A landlord must go through a legal procedure which may take some weeks before forcing anybody out of their building. The law was made to prevent landlords from bashing the door down and getting the heavies involved to move on problem tenants.

Back in January there was that £30m mansion squat on Park Lane. It made the national press and also probably made a lot of people very jealous. In the 70s heyday of squatting there were roads blocked at either end by buses and every house was a squat. St Agnes Place in Kennington was a street first squatted in 1969 that managed to stay fortified until 2005.

Cotall Street, just south of Mile End and next to the canal, has a block of flats that look out across a spacious park to the rigid, linear form of Canary Wharf. Every flat in the block of 97 has now been squatted by English, Hungarian, Polish, South African, Spanish etc men, women, kids, babies and dogs and cats. Some people have been there since the end of last year.

Andreas, a resident on Cotall Street said: "There were just a few of us to begin with. A group of about 10 needed a place to go after being evicted from another place. We opened three of the empties. There were still a lot of tenants here then but they all moved out over the weeks."

The reason the whole block had been made empty is the Olympics. The area has been swept up in the gentrification push that is aiming towards hundreds of plush new homes. Tower Hamlets council is moving on residents in the blocks that they plan to knock down. To deter squatters, the council smash many of the empties up.

Frank has been on the estate since January. He said: "Loads of the flats had been totally gutted- the electricity cables ripped out, doors ripped off their hinges and windows smashed, the plumbing all pulled apart and the toilets hammered into pieces. Some of the flats were a real project to get sorted, but it's been fun because everybody here mucks in and helps each other out. A couple of days working on a place and it becomes totally hospitable."

The majority of the flats on Squatall Street have fridges and cookers but if they don't , the residents just go to their neighbours. Most of them cook and eat with friends from other flats.

Frank said: "The vibe here is really friendly. Pretty much everyone gets on well. We're having more and more communal barbeques and we're starting to screen films in the communal flat. Now that the weather's picking up people hang out on the roof, just sharing stories and learning from each other."

Natalya from Hungary stays in a ground floor flat with Tractor, her rottweiler puppy. She came to London last year but didn't know what she was going to do once she arrived.

"I knew a couple of people here before I came but I lost my phone and their numbers before flying. I didn't have a place to stay but wasn't too worried about it. I know other people who had managed to do the same thing. I just wanted to be in London and thought I'd figure out the details as I went along. On the 'plane I started talking to the girl next to me. She asked me what I was going to do in London and when I told her she immediately said, "Well you can stay with me." It was so sweet of her! We became good friends and I ended up staying at her squat for weeks. Then we were all evicted and came here and we still live together. The very first person I spoke to on arriving in London and we still live together over a year later!"

It does not look as if the Cotall Street squatters will be moved out anytime soon. There is a block currently being built across the canal and the council are not planning to knock down the squatted flats until construction is complete. Judging by the rate of progress on the building work that won't be until around the winter.

And when the council do start proceedings to get the flats empty again they are going to be in for an absolute nightmare. Each flat will have to be dealt with individually. The process of issuing eviction, going to court and finalising a date to get people out of a home takes time. Sometimes it takes a few weeks and with 97 flats to deal with, the courts are going to be very busy.

Frank said: "We are prepared to put up a fight, should we need to. Hopefully most of us will have a new place sorted for when we have to leave here, but if we don't then we're gong to do our best to buy us some time. It's never fun being homeless, especially if it's wintertime

The East End is peppered with empties. Walk five minutes from Squattal Street towards Langdon Park and you will find whole blocks of empties. They are probably going to get opened into squats soon because many squatters are being evicted from the Ocean Estate in Stepney. If you open one and it is not in the best condition then take your pick and simply open another.

It's quite straight forward to make an empty your home. Once you've found a place that looks abandoned (i.e. it's got boarded up windows, cobwebs over the door, no furniture inside etc) just find a way in. Sometimes a window can be forced open. If the doors and windows are boarded up you may need to get physical with a crowbar and bolt cutters. Make sure you don't get caught though- you could get done for burglary or criminal damage.

Once inside, make sure the place is secure so no unwanted company can join you. Hang your Section 6 on the door to show you're clued up with the law and then sit on the floor and eat some fish and chips. Lovely.

Furthur info. about squatting can be found at the Advisory Service for Squatters on the Whitechapel Road. They are on 020 3216 0099.

No comments:

Post a Comment