"Have you seen it? It's an absolute eyesore," the cockney Asian guy lounging on a sofa in a sunny Shoreditch street is saying. His jeans, as one of his mates delights in telling him, are ripped at the crotch ("Yeah, but I'm wearing cycle shorts underneath, so it’s alright"). "It looks like a massive baked bean tin,” he goes on. “Like a can of deodorant. It doesn't fit with any of the architecture round here."
He’s one of the handful of protestors outside the building that until recently housed the Foundry, the bar-cum-free-gallery that's been the cornerstone of Shoreditch's artistic and drinking communities for the better part of 10 years. The pavement around us is littered with more furniture and tents. Inside the building more squatters have barricaded themselves in, posting signs on the doors outlining their legal rights and warning that the building is always occupied. From the roof, where giant advertising hoardings once hung, there's now a sign reading, “Resist! Occupy!”
The Foundry, it seems, is not going down without a fight.
In theory, the deal's already done. The buildings’ owners have sold up to Park Plaza Hotels, who've been granted planning permission to demolish and replace it with an 18-storey cylindrical building (this is where the baked bean tin comes in), housing a retail complex and “Art'otel”. In a final insult, it's rumoured that the bar in the new hotel will be named the Foundry, although it's pretty unlikely you'll still be able to get two drinks in plastic cups and change from a fiver.
But the inevitable march of progress hasn't put off the protestors, who've been holed up there for over a week now. In that time, they’ve thrown free parties and shown free films, projecting documentary ‘Squat 69’ onto a sheet on the side of the building. The police made one rather half-hearted attempt to move them, but then seem to have decided it's not worth the bother.
As anti-capitalist protestors go, this lot are proving surprisingly popular. This seems to be less to do with the squatters themselves (who look, the woman running a local pop-up gallery tell us, "like they've just been to Glastonbury and don't want to go home"),than to do with the popularity of the Foundry. The bar was a Shoreditch institution for the better part of ten years, a cool and dirty kind of a place where artists got to display their work, bicycle couriers would hang out on a Friday night and everyone else got a chance to feel far hipper than they actually were. It sold its drinks for surprisingly reasonable prices, and offered beers brewed in East End breweries. And it was one of the few bars in London that everyone knew. As a result, this doesn’t just feel like another step towards gentrification. With the Foundry gone, and its owners admitting they may have to go as far afield as Tottenham to find a site for its replacement, the Shoreditch of Banksy and Nathan Barley has pretty much gone entirely.
This, we suspect, is why the local business owners quoted in press reports have been so blasé about an illegal occupation on their doorsteps. Few seem to think the end of the Foundry will be good for business. The public, too, seem to be largely on side, and a string of passers-by stop for a chat, including one respectable looking guy in work clothes, who screeches his bike to a halt and in a thick Middle Eastern accent demands to know, "Why they want to close the Foundry?"
What’s not clear is how the protest is going to end. There's no end game planned, no reprieve expected. "The best case scenario," says one skinny Aussie guy, "is that they reopen the bar. But that's very unlikely. At least we can slow them down."
"Eventually it will happen," admits ripped jeans. "That's just the way the machine works." So what’s the point of the exercise? “To show people that they're destroying the community, and that's not the right way to go.” Holding things up, after all, will generate plenty of bad publicity - and, one assumes, cost the new owners cash. It may not stop things this time; but it could make developers think twice about future schemes that don’t have public backing.
How long they can hold out is an open question. Although someone is on site at all times, a lot of the occupants have their own squats to defend elsewhere, which rather limits the time they can spend at the Foundry. At the moment, with the weather warm and the protest still a novelty, it's easy to keep enough people around to put the police off making a move. If it drags on for weeks, and the weather turns cold, that will get a lot harder.
At the moment, though, the police don't seem quite sure how to handle things. Legally, there's little question that the authorities have every right to evict the protestors. Practically, though, there are enough of them and they're well enough barricaded, that it’s impossible to guarantee no one will get hurt. It doesn't help that the Foundry is sited on a busy road junction: the only place you could park a police van is the expanse of pavement that’s currently buried in furniture. So far, the local police force don't seem inclined to stick their neck out for the site's developers.
So the protestors are quietly confident that they can hold out for a few more days yet. Last week the police did little but occasionally show up and loom. Reports that the cops had broken up an illegal party were just plain wrong, the protestors say. "They made an appearance, but they couldn't do crap," says the Aussie. "We broke it up when we wanted to go to bed."
"It's screwed up tight in there," agrees another. "When they get round to trying something, I really want to be here to watch."