Stuart at Clapton's Tram Depot by Tilley Harris & Alex Pielak The Deserted Village, Photomonth 2014 (© Voist Ltd.)
Stuart in the Horse Metal workshop

How do you build a successful community? There are countless organisations across the country (including our own) that are driven towards finding the perfect formula to this cohesive conundrum. Could it be that the most essential factor, time, is the one that is so often overlooked?

Over the course of around 30 years Clapton’s Tram Depot, one of the last remaining Tram Depots in London, incubated and grew a very unique micro-community. Some of its members had set up shop in the then disused space as long as 40 years ago. The Tram Depot consisted of sepia toned workshops that included metal, carpentry, foam cutters, faux fur makes, locksmiths and car mechanics. Tucked away above these tradesmen was an impressive selection of artists’ live/work studios. Not the kind of dime-a-dozen, old office block type of live/work studios that are currently popping up all over London, but studios that were as much a part of the artists creative expression as their work was. Most of the artists had occupied their spaces for as long as 20 years, the sort of tenancy agreement that is now unheard of in the capital. The inhabitants of the Tram Depot had been given the time to apply their craftsmanship to their living space; each studio so unique to the artist and their work it was hard to tell where the studios ended and their work began.

A view over Clapton's Tram Depot
A view over Clapton’s Tram Depot

When Voist arrived at The Depot in 2012 it wasn’t long before this community stuck their heads round our door to see what was going on and who the new neighbours were. The car mechanics in particular were an asset to the renovation work that we carried out in our little corner of the old tram depot. Everyone on the site knew each other by name, working side by side, weaving in and out of each others workshops fulfilling the role of true neighbors; borrowing things off each other, exchanging jokes, favours or unwanted bits of furniture. The sound of Andrew, the Tram Depot’s resident musician, practising his saxophone each evening would drift down into the mechanic’s yard, signifying the working day was drawing to a close. There were the occasional yard sales and pop-up exhibitions, barbeques and parties where family and friends were invited to enjoy the space – just to sit and be – space that is now so hard to find in London.

Of course there was friction here and there, people liked to have a moan every now and then, but overall key ingredients to a successful community were present – trust and respect.

Unfortunately in July of this year all the tenants of the Old Tram Depot were served their eviction notice. The site will soon be redeveloped and turned into flats. Watching this community that had slowly, quietly established itself and its members, over the course of nearly three decades, dismantle itself within a matter of months was an emotional process to witness.

Voist felt it vitally important to document the last months of this micro-community. We made our way around each workshop and studio attempting to capture the character of each space. Interviewing each tenant and asking them to tell the story of their Tram Depot.

Jeff Pine at Clapton's Tram Depot by Tilley Harris & Alex Pielak The Deserted Village, Photomonth 2014 (© Voist Ltd.)
Artist Jeffrey Pine in his studio

The work from the The Deserted Village will be shown at The Depot Studio’s next year as part of Hackney Museums ‘What Is Community’ program. However it will be but a mere substitute for the community that Hackney has just lost. Yes, London needs more homes but London also needs to hang onto the spaces that allow mini enterprises to flourish from generation to generation. There is ample, temporary ‘desk space’ for young struggling creatives around London now. But what about our tradesmen, our car mechanics and our craftsmen? The majority of the Tram Depot residents have now moved their businesses to smaller spaces on the outskirts of London, leaving their local networks far behind. Many didn’t manage to find a space before they left and were having to put their stuff into storage and close their businesses temporarily.

Could there not have been a way to salvage this community and still build new homes, bringing more people into a space that has functioned so successfully for 30 years. Perhaps the new residents might have learnt a thing or two about what makes a successful community? Heavy handed development and little consultation with people on the ground seems to be a giant leap away from the answer that so many of us in society are looking for.