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HAS-BEAN? It survived the Blitz, but traditional coffee stall is struggling against the City

Published: 19 July, 2012

It stands like an outpost amid a sea of change, a small wooden shack serving teas for 45p in a street where designer handbags sell for hundreds of pounds.

For Jane Tothill, whose family has run Syd’s Coffee Stall in Calvert Avenue, Shoreditch, for almost 100 years it is becoming to a struggle to survive in an area that is undergoing rapid gentrification.

“When I took over from my dad 25 years ago, business was boom­ing. Queues went all the way round the corner and we had to have four people serving. Now it has totally changed.”

What used to be a solidly working-class area that was part of the industrial East End has become a trendy enclave on the edge of the City as galleries, coffee bars and quirky designer shops take over the Victorian warehouses and workshops that once lined its narrow streets.

Ironically, some of the first wave of artists who moved into the area a decade or so ago attracted by cheap rents are now beginning to feel the heat from chain outlets like Tesco and Eat lapping at the edges.

Many firms are being forced to relocate and even the street art, which gave Shoreditch its edgy feel, has become big money. Ben Eine, whose distinctive letterings adorn local brickwork, has made it to the White House after David Cameron gave one of his paintings to President Obama as a present two years ago.

“The City is creeping up on us and all the little businesses are being forced out,” says Jane. “There’s a different type of people coming into the area – they have lots of money but they are not interested in spending it with us.”

Jane is among the local traders taking part in a three-year project that is documenting the changes, using members of the public to become social historians via a series of filmmaking workshops.

“We are in the second year of the project and although the people we filmed are random and varied, it is building into a picture of an area in a state of change,” explained Undocumen­tary artist Shiraz Bayjoo who is overseeing Fluctuating Economies in Shoreditch with Jessica Harrington.

The majority of traders feel they are in the right place at the right time as the cash is rolling in despite the recession. Mainly young creatives specialising in niche designer goods, they see themselves as more cutting edge than nearby Brick Lane and Spitalfieds market, which are now considered “touristy”.  

But in the same breath they acknowledge that gentrification, driven this time by corporate business, is gathering pace, particularly around Shoreditch’s latest hotspot, Redchurch Street.

The arrival of high-end brand names is already pushing up rents and threatening to blunt the area’s prized counter­culture feel.

Shoreditch will one day go the “boring high street way”, predicts Hassan Abdullah of “lifestyle” store Maison Trois Garçons.

Most appear philos­ophical, though, seeing it as an inevitable cycle that has already done the rounds in places like Camden Town and Not­ting Hill and looks to be gearing up in the hitherto virgin territories of New Cross and Clapton.

“Shoreditch is a very energetic area but things change, you move on to another area.

That’s just what happens,” Martin James of the Maurice Einhardt Gallery in Redchurch Street tells filmmakers.

Elements of the old Shoreditch remain alongside Syd’s, including the Community Launderette in Calvert Avenue which forms part of the handsome redbrick Boundary estate, London’s first council housing scheme.

“Before, nobody wanted to live round here,” says Mary who’s been running the laundrette for 19 years, pointing to the various “posh shops” that have moved in. “Now every­one wants a flat here.”

The amateur filmmakers also interviewed Gullam Hussein who started Noble Leather Wear in Redchurch Street 40 years ago when it was full of furniture makers. But with turnover “less and less” he says a move away is inevitable.  

But over at Syd’s, Jane is determined to hang on, at least until the business celebrates its 100th birthday. Since 1919, it has been open from 6am five days a week, serving workers what Jane describes as “good old English grub” from the same mahogany stall.

During that time it has featured in a 1931 film Ebb Tide about East End life and served emergency workers around the clock during the London Blitz. When Syd, Jane’s grandfather, had to take time off following a bomb blast, the War Office released their son from a RAF mission to continue serving the tea.  

“It’s an important part of local social history and we are determined the battle through however precarious the future is,” says Jane.

• Social Archive Two: Fluctuating Economies in Shoreditch is showing at the Institute of International Visual Arts in Rivington Place, EC2, until July 21.

It can also be seen on alongside films from last year’s Social Archive One


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