Anyone who attended a Netil House rave a couple of years ago would be astonished to see the old office block off London Fields in its current state – with gleaming pilates studio, rooftop bar, sought-after creative studios and thriving adjacent market. Netil House was the work of Leo Lawson-O’Neil, a former life-coach with a vision for the unlovely building that he singlemindedly brought into being on a shoestring. He's given the same treatment to Hackney Downs Studios, a similarly down-at-heel batch of warehouse buildings he acquired in 2011. Trendy businesses and a cute little gym are already in residence, as is the Village Green, a row of indie shops in converted studios overlooking a carpark, with green pastures coming courtesy of Hackney Downs, the park it borders.
Dominic Roup of new bike store and repairers The Hackney Peddler told us, ‘We were inspired a lot by the bikey scene in Portland.’ Their fix-it-yourself workshops and ‘bike porn’ film screenings are lifted from there. Anyone who has seen the hipster send-up show ‘Portlandia’ will recognise a lot of what they find here – retro fashion from Smoking Gun Vintage, stylishly packaged Italian delicacies and accessories from Portamento and affordable art from gallery Atomica, with a weekend market to come this summer.
But to dismiss the development as hipsterdom is to rather miss the point. This is a family-friendly organisation which offers low-rents to start-ups, and attracts communities via sociable and free events – even the cycle store has promised to always stock a bike under £100, in contrast to snobbier specialists.
The site was the location for the hugely popular Street Feast night market last year, and plans are afoot for a bike-parts jumble sale, kids’ craft workshops, pop-ups and a rooftop bar like the one at Netil House in late summer. ‘All of our projects are a bit piecemeal,’ says manager Victoria Mace. ‘Because Hackney Downs Studios have no investors or bank loans, we have to wait till one element is profitable before we can afford to introduce the next one.’ For many residents of this long-neglected area between Dalston and Clapton, that can’t come quickly enough.