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Caribbean elders strive to keep east London cultural hub alive after noise bans

A decade after the London 2012 Olympics, when gentrification swept across much of Newham, the future of the Hibiscus Community Centre is under threat.

31 Aug 2022

Outside Stratford station, crowds wait for buses stacked between the looming Westfield shopping centre and its older, smaller sibling, the Stratford centre; people in Armani suits (both business and track) stand together beside evangelicals, buskers and influencers. Despite the masses, a sense of abandonment hangs heavy in the east London borough of Newham. Derelict factories turned into unaffordable housing, deserted docks, stadiums that sat unused for so long – and the council’s abandonment of its residents. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Hibiscus Community Centre. 

For decades, the centre, part of Hibiscus Caribbean Elderly Association, was alive with sounds of the community – colourful ensembles of Caribbean accents harmoniously bleeding into the hearty laughter of elderly men playing dominoes. Situated on a sidestreet not far from Maryland station, Hibiscus aimed to serve hot meals and exercise classes tailored for its elderly users, and acted as an event space for celebrations of all kinds. It was a community of Caribbean elders in pork pie hats, mingling with their Rastafarian successors. 

“It was really quite a vibrant, lively place. But now we have many people who are no longer here,” says James, who’s been a regular at the centre for over 20 years. 

Since 1984, Hibiscus has stood as a reminder that in Newham, no one should be left alone. But now the building is hollow in comparison to what it once was, as residents fight to keep their cultural space alive. A decade after the 2012 Olympics, when Newham’s communities were promised the benefits of regeneration, unemployment rates stand at 14% and gentrification has displaced many. It’s a common story across the capital, reflected in cultural institutions serving minoritised communities being stripped away. Just last year, the West Indian Cultural Centre was forced to close after decades of neglect from Haringey council in north London. 

“Our perception is, over the past nine years specifically, there has been a concentrated attempt to get rid of Hibiscus,” Clifford Headley, the company secretary explains.

In November 2020, Newham council stripped the centre of its premises licence, banning events past 11pm. The council claimed they received 24 complaints of noise and antisocial behaviour since 2018, with local news sites reporting stories of residents accusing Hibiscus of being “neighbours from hell” with “screeching guests”. Clifford says the council’s decision came after only “nine complaints from an alleged four different households”. Though the amount of complaints may be unclear, many believe it is a direct attempt to silence the Caribbean community here.

Though Hibiscus is in the process of appealing the council’s decision, in the meantime they have to apply for a temporary event notice (TEN) anytime they wish to provide entertainment or serve food and drink between the hours of 11pm and 5am. As the police and the environmental health team have the power to refuse such notices, residents feel the centre is at the mercy of the same people who want them out. 

“It’s so gentrified now. You can’t stop and talk to people you don’t know, they get offended”

Elle

“What they’re doing is not justified. We’ve said to them clearly, well that’s your decision, we’re not going to abide by that. We’re done playing that game,” Clifford says. “What I do know is they can’t throw us out. We’re going to go to court.” 

According to a 2012 report from the London School of Economics, the Olympic Games brought over £9bn worth of investments into east London, but that money “bypassed” most of the area’s residents. Most people gal-dem spoke to about the future of Hibiscus say gentrification is the reason the council has taken away the premises licence. 

Longtime Newham inhabitants like Elle feel that it is the new wave of young families and business professionals who take issue with places like Hibiscus. “It’s so gentrified now, there’s so many middle-class people. You can’t stop and talk to people that you don’t know, they get offended,” she says. “There’s a lot more undercover police. It just doesn’t feel as nice and safe as it did before.”

“The family who lives closest to the centre have lived there for over 30 years, longer than the centre has been there and have never complained,” Clifford adds. 

‘They don’t want us here’

Visiting Hibiscus now, the place is dimly lit and the narrow corridors boast ceilings so high you’re reminded that this building was once a church. The walls are lined with Caribbean artwork, set up for a fundraiser the following day.

People of all ages are dotted around the hall, elderly Caribbean men sway to the reggae sounds I grew up on in Peckham, south-east London. As soon as the door to the hall closes, nothing can be heard but the lively debates of the members who’ve congregated by the back door for a quick smoke. 

“It’s a place used by people of faith, for big community gatherings; it’s used to socialise, to exercise. It’s important as it’s the only space we’ve got here in this borough that I know of,” says Simba, a resident and Hibiscus member.  

In response to the licence issues, and two years of lockdowns, Hibiscus has been able to move some services online. But as Hibiscus is a charity, they make the bulk of their income – used for building maintenance and the cost for providing services – from the late night events. For Clifford, the message is clear. 

“They don’t want us here. They’ve tried to revoke the licence because they know that much of our income is dependent upon us delivering the services at the times we do. That is a major income generator for us. When that’s not coming in, the cash flow becomes – well, it’s like knitting with fog,” Clifford says. 

“We’re trying to maintain what we have to make sure there’s something for the next generation to build on”

Clifford Headley

But he refuses to stop providing culturally sensitive services for the people of Newham. “When they [the council] determined they were going to revoke our licence [in 2020] they invited us to a meeting. And we said, ‘no, we’re not going to participate in any meeting with you’,” he says. “As far as we’re concerned that’s just us going to our own lynching and assisting you in lynching us. There is no longer a relationship between us and the council.”

A Newham council spokesperson told gal-dem: “The premises license for the Hibiscus Community Centre was revoked on 12 November 2020. This was due to a failure to adhere to the licence terms following 24 reported noise and anti-social behaviour complaints from local residents since 2018.

“The Centre has appealed the decision and the case is currently ongoing. The court could uphold the council’s decision, or it could overturn the decision or add conditions too. Pending the appeal, the premises can continue trading under the licence.

“Should the court uphold the decision of members to revoke the licence, this will only affect the late night activity that causes a nuisance. Daytime community activities will not be affected. Newham council continues to support residents with a social care need who attend the centre.”

Yet community members believe the council hasn’t been doing its duty in referring Black elderly people to the centre – Hibiscus is paid an undisclosed amount per elderly person that is directly referred to the centre by Newham council. Clifford says not a single person has been referred to use the daycare services since they reopened in October 2021. 

Simba fears there may be a lot of elders stuck in their houses. “Nobody to communicate with, no socialising, no free meals,” he says. “These things are important for some elders who maybe [have] families in distant places. They need people they can relate to, who listen to their music, who can cook their food, who understand them.”

People here feel vital services are being lost. Since 2009, local authority spending in the UK on social care for the elderly dropped 17%, while the number of people aged over 85 has risen by almost 9% in the same period, according to the Kings Fund

“What we don’t want – and this is the problem in our community – is that most of our secular structures have been destroyed. Look for Black organisations, you won’t find them anywhere,” says Clifford. “At one point they were very plentiful on the ground but all the major organisations have disappeared.”

“We’re trying to maintain what we have to make sure there’s something for the next generation to build on,” he adds. “We called our campaign ‘Defend the Legacy’ because that’s what we’re fighting for. We just want to hold on to this place for as long as possible, for our future generations.” 

To support Hibiscus sign this petition, donate to the centre’s gofundme page or donate directly to the centre itself.  

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