The rejuvenation of Broadway Market is one of the success stories of Hackney’s recent history. In the early noughties it was just another road of run-down shops that nobody wanted to walk along, let alone live on. But in the course of only a few years it became home to boutique bookshops, posh cafés and one of the best street markets in London.
Lurking beneath the surface of this apparently perfect tale of community-led regeneration, however, is a tragic injustice. Were it not for one man, Broadway Market would still be a dump – yet the success he created, and the subsequent rise in property prices, ultimately forced him out of his home and his livelihood.
If you go down to Broadway Market this Saturday, you might notice the image of a Rastafarian man decorating the cotton carrier bags for sale on the traders’ association stall. This peaceful face is 63-year-old local hero Lowell Grant, known by his friends simply as Spirit. It was he who single-handedly kick-started the street’s revival when he opened his shop, the Nutritious Food Gallery, in a previously derelict property in 1999.
Sadly, those bags are all you will see of Spirit in London Fields these days.
In 2001, Hackney Council auctioned off the freehold to his flat and his shop to a property company based in the Bahamas for £85,000 – despite the fact that Spirit, who as the long-term leaseholder had first option on the premises, had already delivered a cheque to buy it for £100,000. To his disbelief, the cheque was returned uncashed a few days after the auction with no explanation as to why it had not been accepted.
Spirit’s rent soon rose by 1,200 per cent. He initially refused to pay, but even after later covering most of his arrears, he was eventually evicted in October 2008.
Last Friday, to the disappointment of the market community, he lost his latest appeal against his eviction at the High Court.
The Hackney Post caught up with Spirit a few days later in the place he now calls home, a small, musky flat in Stamford Hill. He had spent his whole life in Hackney since arriving from Jamaica in 1964, but after his eviction was unable to find another place to live in the borough.
Andrew Boff, the former Tory councillor who has closely supported Spirit’s fight since 2004, describes him as a “true gentleman”. He is not wrong: Spirit could hardly be more warm and welcoming. But contemplating the injustice of his fate – which he describes as a “lynching” – the depth of his anger at the council soon begins to show.
“They used me to build that place under their so-called regeneration project, but they didn’t want people like me there,” says Spirit, smoking a roll-up.
“I was blindfolded and taken to the gallows, that’s the way they treated me.”
He looks across at a large photo of himself standing proudly outside his old shop. His wiry grey beard betrays his age but there is still a youthful fire in his eyes.
“It’s tragic but I’m not going to stop fighting,” he says. “I’m going to take it to the European Court of Human Rights. It’s not only my integrity that’s at stake but my whole life, my home. I can’t even live now. I’ve been pensioned off.”
Following his eviction, he had been running a part-time catering business, but that too recently stopped after his van was vandalised.
Now, the only activity left for this proud man to expend his energy on is his occasional DJing.
“It’s the music that keeps me going,” he says. His living room is filled with records, CDs and decks, along with an electronic organ and some bongo drums.
“I describe myself as playing the king’s music,” he adds with a philosophical air. “It’s reggae mostly but with my style of music, if you’re a king – a dignified person – anyone can listen and dance to it. There’s a spiritual unconsciousness throughout it. You won’t be inhibited.”
Spirit has one gig at a Tottenham community centre to look forward to in early April. Beyond that and his determination to take his fight to Europe, however, his future is far from certain.