Harassed hounded and marginalised in Hackney: St Marys of Zion church claims

The exterior as it currently is Photo: Laura Mackenzie

The new owners of 229 Lower Clapton Road, are not receiving the same ecstatic and warm welcome the pub next door which opened on Thursday has.  Much of Clapton and afar have been quite giddy about the prospect of  the Clapton Hart opening.  By Thursday morning it reached fever pitch and judging by the twitter feeds, folks could just about contain themselves. By the cocktail hour, people were spilled out onto the pavement, drinking late into the evening.

In stark contrast, from the moment word got out about who had purchased the former night club, the parish council of  St Marys Zion Church claim they have been relentlessly hounded by Julia Lafferty, founder of the Friends of Clapton Cinematograph Theatre (FCCT) and Clapton Arts Trust (CAT), in an effort to gain access to the building interior.

The intention was to allow FCCT access, but the property was later discovered to contain asbestos, so on health and safety grounds could not give access to the public.  Soon after, talks broke down and the church admin withdrew from talks and made it clear.

But the church is not a “sexy” or viable project that attracts the younger, white upwardly mobile professionals FCCT’s goals attract.  For them, a trendy picture house to screen indy or obscure films would be more their style, and that is what many were advocating before it was bought.

The architecture of external facia is based on St Mary of Zion Church in Axum, Ethiopia

A spokes person for the St Mary’s Zion Church told me: “We acquired the site on May 17, 2011 after 38 years of no permanent building. Our purchase was without any applications for grants or funding, but through parishioners, public donations and hard saving.

“We bought the building on the understanding that it was not listed nor a building of town scape merit. This was confirmed via the Borough of Hackneys Conservation area map for Clapton Pond, which confirmed the former nightclub as being a building within this zone, but not identified with any heritage significance.

He added:  “Members of the administration attended a public meeting in June 2011, where we were informed of local interest in our building. We conveyed through various local Councillors, our intentions to convert the former night club into a church, youth and community centre”.

Once the pride and joy of the Black community, the site over time, had a turbulent history which included a shooting death outside the club and other violent crimes, which led Hackney Council to revoke it’s license in 2007.  It lay empty until it was bought in May 2011 and has been a nightmare for the new owners, who have been hampered every step of the way,  by the demands of the FCCT aided by Hackney Council Councillors.

The FCCT is just one of a number of special interest groups that have been set up over the years, by local residents who share the same interests.  But more worrying,  is how these groups all cross pollinate, and in some cases are chaired by local Councillors who appear to have an unfair influence on decisions and representation, of the groups pet projects.

For the Parish council of St Marys of Zion, their parishioners and the community at large, this type of undue influence of  local councilors has been a hindrance in the progression of the renovation of the building, depriving many of us in Hackney from usage of this much needed positive force in our community. The spokesperson said: “We finally purchase our own property and have since had to contend with unfair treatment over a building we are paying a mortgage on”. The church has been using St James on Lower Clapton Road, for worship.  He added: “The current objections to our application is said to be based on heritage grounds, but it has been proven and established that this property is not listed and has been rejected by both English Heritage and the Department of Culture Media and Sports(DCMS).”The site on 229 Lower Clapton Road was formally a brewery and an assembly/function room for the adjacent pub.  It wasn’t  reconstructed as a cinema until 1910 and then converted into a nightclub,  which was the buildings prominent use over the past 3 decades”.

The launch of Clapton Arts Trust. Cllr Ian Rathbone has his fist raised (in strippy sweater) David White is the bearded suited and booted gentleman, Cllr Linda Kelly carrying a child on her lap and Julia Lafferty with scarf and mouth agape. Photo: claptonartstrust.org

Fear and Loathing

It appears the delays in giving planning permission, stems from a calculated move by the FCCT and other groups involved with the aid of local councillors. Asked why the church was still waiting for planning permission following it’s submission in February, I received the following response from Hackney Council:

“The site contains a former cinema which was under review for listing as a listed building by the English Heritage.  The application for the change of use of the building to a place of worship including internal and external alterations, was submitted at the same time as English Heritage listing review was taking place.  Officers were mindful of the implications of the application should English Heritage decided to enlist the building as a statutory listed building and decided to wait for the decision.   The English Heritage decision not to list the building was recently made and officers and the applicant have been negotiating on an acceptable scheme.  Given the level of objections received, the application will be considered and determined by the Planning Sub-Committee in June 2012”.

The church council also say FCCT and CAT have not been truthful with the community in their effort to gain support and signatures.  They have even attempted to re-write history.  229 Lower Clapton  Road was a purpose built brewery and NOT a cinema. It has since had various incarnations.

One disturbing  element of the FCCT crusade,  is to play on the fears and prejudices of their supporters which is evident in a recent email sent by David White,  who along with Julia Lafferty is a trustee and founding member of CAT and other local groups. The email was sent to supporters  and members of various Neighbourhood groups:

 Hi Everyone,

As promised, a rare appeal for help on a local matter.
An Ethiopian church group, based in Jamaica (I believe), have put in a planning application (no. 2011/3486) to turn the rare, early
“Clapton Cinematograph Theatre”, at 229 Lower Clapton Road – in the Clapton Pond Conservation Area – into a replica of their “home”church in Jamaica.

Ominously there is no mention of the fate of the building’s many historic features in the planning application…..which would sub-divide the building’s auditorium and create a battery of rooflights along the top of the building.

The facade of the building would be rendered unrecognisable with a coloured polycarbonate arch and dome, tinted glazed units and aluminium windows.

To destroy local social history and an important and rare early survivor is incredibly insulting to the local community and shows such a breathtaking lack of sensitivity, let alone knowledge of how to treat heritage buildings, it is hard to believe, especially as they originally stated they were well aware it was in a conservation zone and wanted to “restore” it to its former glory.

That was in a dialogue initiated by them at the NE Neighbourhood committee meeting last year though.
Since then they have rather changed their tune.

The Hackney Society have nominated the building for inclusion in the Council’s list of local heritage buildings as one of the country’s earliest purpose-built cinemas and a listing review is being carried out by the Department of Culture Media and Sport.

In his defense, David White claims  “I sent a very badly worded campaign, which I sent out very late at night without asking for approval. I’m afraid I wasn’t thinking clearly when I sent it either”.

Since David Whites email was brought to his attention, Cllr Ian Rathbone has resigned as chair of  Clapton Arts Trust, where Cllr Linda Kelly remains as vice-chair. Their website mysteriously vanished earlier this week after I made comments, but I found it parked elsewhere.

Circa late 1880's: 229 Lower Clapton Road before its first reconstruction to become a cinema. Contrary to what FCCT have maintained, the site is not a purpose built cinema.

Following the email fiasco, the parish council sent an email to Cllr Rathbone and CC’d it to other concerned parties, informing them they no longer wanted a dialogue with FCCT and CAT. It read in part: “The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, St. Marys of Zion, is the first of its kind to be established in Hackney, which should be representative of the diverse tolerance for which the Borough of Hackney is widely known.

“Many of our parishioners have lived and grown up in the area and are familiar with the crime and underachievement, which influences much of our youth.  What is not highlighted enough are the achievements  and large number of  educated and professional black and ethnic minority role models emerging from the borough local and wider community. we are working on our community programme upon the understanding that our property although with in a conservation zone, falls within a Trident area.

“Our particular branch make up is a mixture of African Caribbean, Ethiopian and other nationals. The expression local community is not representative unless it is confined within this context.

“In particular but not exclusively, we aim to tackle the issues affecting our young disaffected black and ethnic minority youth within the area. To this end, we hope the church community centre some means of sanctuary for those who are underachieving and or influenced by postcode and gang related crime by providing positive role models to tackle these issues. We intend to work with other organizations to achieve a common goal.

“We have not rolled out our community programme but through communications with FCCT and Clapton Arts Trust,  heritage and conservation walks, take precedence over the issues impacting on people and lifestyle this administration seeks to focus on.  No discussion has been had on this point”.

Julia Lafferty’s arrogance and total disregard is breath taking, still failing to recognise St Mary’s as the rightful legitimate owners of 229 Lower Clapton Road. The FCCT petition website has been gathering petitions since the club was closed in 2007, yet Lafferty has being passing them off and presented them to Hackney Council as signatures against the more recent planning issue as well as calling for the old cinema to be restored.

St Marys of Zion website

About Remi

Remi Hackney Hive founder, publisher and contributor. Hackneyite and all round Girl Friday, who couldn't wait to leave Hackney and London behind her. After hitching her wagon in California, Texas, New Orleans, Louisiana for 18 years, with a brief spell in Mexico, the prodigal daughter returned, happy to put an unconventional and risqué past behind her. She is owned by her two dogs Deffer(a Jack Russell & Darcy a Jack Russell/Pomeranian mix) and runs a London based pet sitting business. The big smoke is home for the moment, but she desperately yearns wide open spaces, where she hopes to call home in the near future.

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