Bishopsgate Library is delighted to have recently accepted the Clays Lane Live Archive. Clays Lane Housing Co-operative was the second largest purpose-built, fully mutual, singles co-op in Europe and the largest in the UK. It was an experiment in building close-knit communities as a way of helping vulnerable single people in East London. Initiated by the Borough of Newham, the Housing Corporation and the then North East London Polytechnic (now University of East London) in 1977, the co-op provided its members with low-rent housing and the possibility of self governance otherwise denied in conventional social housing through meetings and committees.
The co-op was a home for up to 500 contracted tenants spread across 2, 4 and 6 bedroom units with communal kitchens and bathrooms, and it housed a café and a community centre on its grounds. In 2006 the co-op received a compulsory purchase order from the London Development Agency. In 2005 the co-op lost its fully mutual status as a result of a Housing Corporation enquiry which transferred its assets to Peabody Trust. This effectively made protecting the co-op (by this time the Clays Lane estate) against the Olympics even harder. At the time of eviction 430 people inhabited the Lane.
The Clays Lane Live Archive was born out of long-lasting and more fleeting relationships between artist Adelita Husni-Bey and a number of ex-Clays Lane co-op members after the demolition of their homes. Each participating ex-member formalized a project according to aptitude and interest, thinking about what was to be ‘retained’ of this space and their particular experience of Clays Lane, swept away to accommodate the 2012 Olympic Games in 2007. Each individual project occupies one or more boxes, and the relative taxonomy developed with each resident is exposed within the catalogue for the collection in the form of a text and a description of contents. Questioning the authoritative practice behind archive-making through participatory projects this collection is ‘live’, and will be able to accommodate new ex-member interactions in the future.
Artist Adelita Husni-Bey explains the origins and aims of the project below.
Archives fascinate me in a very particular way. When I delve into boxes of documents, pages transcribed by hand and bodies I do not recognize in spaces which have changed dramatically over time, I am always struck by how those facets of the past speak to our present collectivity. Salvaged morsels of landscapes and micro-narratives, which do not only represent ‘their’ time but more importantly reflect ‘ours’. It’s at that junction, that break between what is perceived as the political, cultural and economic past and what is perceived as the political, cultural and economic present that the most interesting notions about archives operate. It’s in realizing how ‘progress’ is a very tormented line, far from being straight or forward pointing.
When I came across Clays Lane in 2009 the co-op had long been demolished. Throughout the first 5 years that allowed for this initial collection to be established I met Julian Cheyne, John Sole, Dexter Hoonamansingh and other incredibly generous and committed participants weekly, sometimes monthly and sometimes more sporadically. With their help I began to understand the extremely complex task I had set up for myself: how to represent a space that had now gone, collectively?
No place is ever ‘idyllic’ and Clays Lane certainly was not to be represented as such. It was incredible mix of classes, provenances, genders and age groups which appeared to me unlike any other space I had ever come across. It was both a site for mutual aid and self-governance as well as a site of conflict and transition. When it became clear that the co-op was no longer going to exist many quickly accepted the offer to move on, but others, who had spent 15, 20 and 30 years of their life there, would steadfastly refuse.
While conducting the initial research phases I ran across the only representation the London Development Agency was willing to grant Clays Lane. The image was a carefully constructed photograph, taken after the evictions had occurred and prior to demolition. Litter and an empty shopping trolley conveniently placed in the foreground, the caption below the photograph reads: "A deserted Clays Lane Estate, adjacent to the site of the Olympic Village". There is no mention of the co-op or it’s radical history. No mention of the court-battle. No mention of the Compulsory Purchase Order, the evictions, the delayed (and at times denied) compensation payments or the broken promises and half-truths which drove the ex co-op members out of their homes.
I began to think about collective memory and the type of surgical erasure that mega-projects can generate, a quick and minutely-prepared disappearance from our urban register. An erasure without mourning or acknowledgement, whilst the megaproject advances in its constant ‘urbanalisation’ of the spaces it colonizes. Frequently referred to as ‘waste’ or ‘wasteland’, the inhabitants of Clays Lane were a dent on the pristine surface of new pre-Olympic London. It was clear to me then that producing the archive was going to be more than just ‘the production of an archive’ but it was going to be a political act, aimed at re-establishing a memory purposefully consigned to amnesia.
All of the archival collections at Bishopsgate Institute possess this quality. Allowing the public to perceive social struggle, alternative lifestyles and forms of organization in detail, in their material character. Each collection becomes a testimony to the actual possibility of struggle; for identities, for housing and for work, which is a very powerful tool in understanding how struggle may be articulated in the present. This function and the institute’s focus on radical East London histories immediately appeared to be an ideal home for the Clays Lane Live Archive, making it’s final scope and it’s public availability, a reality.
If you have been a member of the Clays Lane Housing Co-op and would like to contribute to the project please get in touch with Adelita at firstname.lastname@example.org