“Warehouse living” is a term that’s become synonymous with cheap living, non-stop partying and the gritty occupation of tumbledown buildings in the more industrial corners of town. A myth? Errr, not really…
In a failed effort to debunk the notion that living in a converted warehouse space isn’t just a decadent free-for-all, we spoke to Roost community member Francie Hickinbotham, an ex-resident of 98 Wallace Road – now a hip canal-side bar/restaurant – about an eventful, chilly two years in Hackney Wick.
“The space was set up by my friend’s brother,” she says. “I don’t know how they found it, but they decided they wanted a warehouse space. It was completely empty – they built all the partition walls and put in a bathroom and a kitchen. They were the first wave, a few of them had obviously grown out of it and moved out when I moved in, in January 2009.”
Francie admits that moving in to the rudimentary, if impressively re-purposed, building was a decision made mostly out of desperation. “I had just started interning in London and had been staying with fiends but was wearing out my welcome. I had a few friends from uni, who weren’t particularly good friends, but i knew them well enough. They were living there and had a couple of rooms come up.”
Sharing initially with a core group of six people (though this increased to nine with a transient flow-through of extra tenants found via Gumtree, who, in Francie’s words, “tended to be artists and more into hippy living”), details such as rent, the legality of the space (though it was technically above-board) and the erratic nature of amenities remained niggling details.
It was cheap – £450 a month, all-in– and the landlord was, in Francie’s words “a wheeler dealer who only [co-housemate and brother of one of the original builder/founders of the space] Jack really dealt with”, but the sheer size of the space – the central living area being about the dimensions of a tennis court, with each bedroom comprising about a third of that – presented unforeseen problems with heating that she cites as a key flaw with living there.
“The space was really roomy, and really cool in the summer when it was hot outside. But in the winter it was freezing and really quite unpleasant.”
She may be quietly disparaging of those looking to live in re-purposed industrial buildings as a way of circumventing a 9–5 lifestyle, but the party potential of living in such an expansive, non-residentially located space was one of the main draws of 98 Wallace Road.
“It was so great for parties,” she explains. “The first time I visited was a year before I moved in. It was a New Year’s Eve party, the biggest I ever went to there. It went over two floors and there were queues down the road to get in. There was a promoter doing that one. Quite often, when we were there, they’d get in touch with Jack, or he’d get in touch with them. Generally, they’d take all the money on the door, and we’d take all the money on the bar. We once managed to buy a new washing machine with the bar money!”
Though the nature of such staged social events generally took the form of raucous parties, teh ‘blank-slate’ nature of the space allowed for a variety of uses, not least exhibitions –”we once had one where James Franco turned up” she says, nonplussed – and immersive art installations, the apex of which was constructed for 2011’s Hackney Wicked, a local open-studio and arts festival that takes place every year along the canal.
“That was fun. Jack’s brother Rory was a student at Camberwell College of Arts, so they came along and wanted to do something for it. They built a fake church out of cardboard, with a fake graveyard, and a village fete selling tea and cake.
“We once had an art exhibition where James Franco turned up.”
As well as that, we had a mountain scene projected on to the wall with easels set up, so people could come and do a Watercolour Challenge, next to a ‘Best In Show’ produce stall – with courgettes with rosettes and stuff on them.”
“The church got left up for months. In October we had a halloween party and our friends’ band played in it as their stage. Later, we had a friend who needed a place to stay for a couple weeks. We didn’t have any windows left to build a bedroom onto, as we wanted to keep some natural light in the main space.
“So we said he could stay for a couple of weeks on a mattress in the church. But he ended up staying there for six months! It wasn’t that much worse than our bedrooms! The only person who had a good one was our friend Tim, because he bothered to polish the concrete floor, plaster his walls and put shelves up.”
Security, inevitably, wasn’t of a high standard, though the warehouse avoided any (major) break-ins. “There was a printing press below us, and another floor of art students above. It wasn’t very secure – there was only one Yale lock to get into our floor. We didn’t get robbed, but some people once came and stole a load of the copper piping, so the downstairs flooded.”
But the fun couldn’t last. Preceding a mass vacation of the building in September 2011, issues with the property’s ownership cropped up, specifically in relation to the then forthcoming London Olympics.
“The warehouse had always been under a compulsory purchase order due to the Olympics. They wanted to demolish a third of the building, to build an emergency services bridge. Obviously you can’t do that! But the idea was that the landlord would sell the rest of it. But he refused, and wouldn’t budge. After a while, no one could work out who the hell owned it, so we had about nine months without paying rent at all. We were constantly on edge, as we could have been kicked out within a month at any time. It was low level stress really though.”
In the end, the final straw was far more banal than the heady drama it proceeded. “It was just something to do with fire regulations,” Francie explains. “After all [the Olympic] stuff happened, the council became wise to the fact that people were living there, and it wasn’t really a live space. We had to leave because there were too many people for the amount of fire exits, or something like that. We were sad to leave, but it was really cold and dirty, and the winters were punishing.” A pause. “We had a great last party though.”
(All images courtesy Anna Lucas.)