On Google Street View, Gentrification, and London Street Art
The permanently closed Lord Napier pub in Hackney is a never-ending piece of community art, but how long can it stay that way?
The Lord Napier in 2018, photo via Google Street View.
I first saw the Lord Napier in Hackney Wick ten years ago, walking down White Post Lane when I happened upon this closed-down, derelict East London pub. In the picture my friend Matt took of me I’m standing in front of an orange, yellow and pink splash of graffiti, which is how the building looked that day. But the Lord Napier is a living piece of street art, and chances are it will look different on any given day.
On Google Street View, the default image shows the Lord Napier as of March 2018, covered head to toe in bold color. But if you click on the little clock in the top left corner you’ll find all the previous Street View photos of that spot captured through time, back to 2008 when Street View was launched. A decade later, this technology has become a surprising treasure trove: the time shifting feature lets us open up the history of a place with a simple slide of the finger.
The decorated Lord Napier has become a symbol of Hackney Wick and Fish Island, once an unappealing patch of inner London where artists moved in at the start of the millennium, attracted by warehouses and cheap rent. But the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics changed everything, as the event was held right on the Wick’s doorstep. The Olympics triggered a rapid and aggressive gentrification that continues to price out artists and other locals in this run-down urban area, threatening the very survival of what was once Europe’s densest arts hub.
Cities are constantly evolving, but gentrification has hit East London hard in the past two decades and Hackney Wick could soon be beyond recognition. But in Street View, the city exists in all states at once. The archival pictures of the Lord Napier show a relatively modest level of graffiti at the front of the building in the early years of Street View, spreading out to the side facing Hepscott Road. After 2012 is when things start to get really interesting, as street artists start taking to the Lord Napier as a canvas to display their craft - not just on a corner, but covering the whole damn thing. In 2014, Street View captures the Lord Napier washed in a pastel rain, the work of an artist by the name of HRS. In 2015, it’s covered in three giant black and white faces looking down from the wall as if in horror, painted by street artist Nemos.
The Street View photos of the Lord Napier reveal not just the changing graffiti on the building itself, but also the evolving cityscape around it: the old factory buildings are torn down one by one, replaced with flats that few of the locals can afford to live in. And yet the Lord Napier remains, increasingly as a symbol of what Hackney Wick used to be: a fantastic explosion of mad, noisy creativity built by misfits and underdogs. The Lord Napier, like the WIck, is grotty, insistent, and glorious - the phrase written across the top of the building puts it perfectly: [From] Shithouse to Penthouse.
The most recent Street View picture is a year old, but it’s reasonably similar to what the Lord Napier looks like today. A lot of the art, especially the top section of the building, is from a project that took place in July 2016, the last time the pub received a major artistic overhaul. This was when local artist Aida Wilde curated a 48-hour art takeover, inviting local street artists whose work was known across East London if not also even further afield, including Sweet Toof, Mighty Mo, Mobstr, Dscreet, Malarky, Donk, Static, Teddy Baden, Sony, Xenz, Charice, Stik and Done.
“It was like a last blowout before for the party fizzled out,” Wilde tells me over the phone. “After that, about 70% of the people who’d worked on the pub were gone within the year.” ‘Save Yourselves’ was a true community effort, with local organizations providing paint and equipment: “The experience was so intense!” Wilde laughs. The phrase across the top - Shithouse to Penthouse - was the first thing they did: “That’s Edwin - I think he’d done it a year or so prior on another wall in the area. We started with that because we thought, if anyone stops us before we’re finished, at least that’s done.”
The Lord Napier has become a symbol of Hackney Wick - something that the locals who resent the changes can look to for reassurance that some things still remain the same. The first record of the Lord Napier pub is from 1863, and by all accounts it was a standard English pub serving area factory workers. Graffiti appeared not long after the pub closed in 1995, but it’s prime real estate now - how much longer will it stay the same?
When I first discovered that plans were underway to refurbish the pub, I assumed the worst: more unaffordable flats. But that was before I’d met Stewart Schwartz, the owner of the Lord Napier and the man who decides what happens next. “We're just going to clean it up and refurbish it, to its original style,” Schwartz tells me as we sit down for coffee at the White Post Café. It’s going to become a pub again! “It's an iconic building, and hopefully it will be a central hub.”
Born in Hackney, Schwartz started a printing business in the Wick in 1984 before expanding into property. He owns several buildings in the area and is landlord to many artist studios, and no, he asserts, he doesn’t want to build any flats. Schwartz bought the Lord Napier about 14 years ago. “At first we didn’t do much with it. There were a few raves in there, and as time went on it got into a worse state,” says Schwartz. His initial plans to extend the building into an artist complex fell apart due to planning issues, and when the Wick became a Conservation Area the pub was listed as a “heritage asset”. So now, Schwartz has decided to restore the 1920s exterior with the two-tone green glazed tiles, and he’ll be adding an upstairs fine dining room as well as a also roof garden.
But what about the street art? “It's a bit Vivienne Westwood, isn’t it. A bit Malcolm McLaren!” Schwartz laughs. Aida Wilde sought permission in 2016, but most of the time, artists have taken matters into their own hands. “People have come along and done graffiti - they just do it. What can you say? If it becomes a feature, fine. Let's get on the bandwagon, lets ride with it.”
While Schwartz doesn’t seem too concerned about whether or not the refurbished Lord Napier has a street art element, the heritage statement from ZCD Architects says the graffiti represent “an important part of the pub’s history” and that it should indeed be represented “in some form” in the next iteration of the Lord Napier. In the planning statement, the architects suggest that maybe local graffiti artists could be invited to create custom work on the brickwork of the pub: “We propose to repeat this process annually in order that the facade retain a freshness, as well as allowing the pub to become a ‘living artwork’.”
These are the last days of organic, spontaneous graffiti on the Lord Napier - the building work has just started. For those who see the pub as a symbol of resistance in Hackney Wick, it’s a strange feeling: it won’t be the same, but the next iteration of the Lord Napier will hopefully be a place where the people can gather and admire local street art. Even if it’s a lot cleaner, it’s a nod to what was once here. “People need to know what kind of creative artists lived here,” says Aida Wilde. “I really don't think anywhere else exists like Hackney Wick.”