Battle of Tony's café begins revolt against Olympic site developers

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The bailiffs forced the till shut six months ago and took the tables and chairs. There is no water or electricity and the roof has fallen in. But the regulars at Francesca's Café on Broadway Market in Hackney, east London, keep coming back.

A dozen locals felt so strongly about plans to demolish the Italian diner, known as Tony's, that they broke into the premises on Boxing Day to save it. Protesters now say that they hope to rebuild it. About 60 of them are occupying it in shifts to stop workmen from completing the demolition they began last week.

This battle is not really about Tony's café, however - nice as the pasta and roast dinners may have been. Calogero "Tony" Platia, the burly 55-year-old Sicilian who ran No 34 for three decades, has simply become the popular figurehead for locals fighting against outside property developers keen to cash in on rising prices.

Broadway Market is a trendy corner of an otherwise rundown area. One of the capital's oldest chartered markets, near London Fields, it had stagnated along with the rest of Hackney until a revival five years ago. Grocers and fashionable gallery-boutiques filled empty shop units. A hugely successful organic farmers' market opened on Saturdays last year. Middle-class couples bought their first balconied apartments down the road.

Shopkeepers welcomed old faces and new money - and celebrated the elusive grubby glamour that comes with the tag of being London's "new Portobello Road". With the news in July that the 2012 Olympics would come to east London, they could have been forgiven for checking the skies in case showers of cash were to fall from the clouds.

Instead, increasing numbers find themselves jobless and sometimes homeless. Property developers from as far away as the Bahamas and Moscow, who paid bargain prices for these premises when Hackney Council sold them four years ago to fill a £72m hole in its books, have evicted leaseholders to make way for chain retailers or flats. The East Enders out in the cold see themselves as the first victims of an opportunism that they believe will grip the borough in the run-up to the Olympics.

Mr Platia certainly thinks that way. "It is people like me, local traders who fought very hard to bring Broadway Market back into a proper community, who should be celebrating the Olympics," he said yesterday, as he huddled over an electric heater in the remains of his shop, avoiding the snowflakes coming through a hole in the ceiling. "Instead I lose my business and my home." He added: "I've given 30 years of my life to the people here. All the developers want to do is take money coming into Hackney straight out of the area."

Another shop under threat is the Nutritious Food Gallery, at No 71. The 50-year-old Rastafarian proprietor, Spirit, sells fresh fish and root vegetables to a backdrop of loud reggae, and lives with his children upstairs. "They want me out," he said. "I set up five years ago and tried to buy the property. I even had the highest offer, of £100,000. But they sold it for £85,000 to a developer, after they didn't process my cheque." He has a date at Shoreditch County Court on 27 January where he will find out if his premises will be repossessed.

The council admits "horrendous" financial and political mistakes five years ago, but says it has now changed. One local Tory councillor, Andrew Boff, a former candidate to become London Mayor, said: "I do not believe even Hackney Council can be this incompetent. Local traders' cheques seemed to go missing in the post." He added: "The council say they are not doing this any more but they still are at Dalston Lane near by, where they are allowing demolition."

A spokeswoman for Hackney Council said that the authority had had no choice but to sell the properties to developers. "That was the end of council involvement," she said. "The audit team has looked into it and found no evidence of fraud ... We are doing a lot of consultation with Hackney's people ahead of the Olympics."

But one of the protesters, Arthur Shuter, said: "We are not giving up." Mr Shuter, 48, a breakfast regular at Tony's for 15 years, added: "The reason he has got so much local support is because he has always looked out for us, for example, letting us pay another day if we don't have the money for food.

"We are angry with the council for not selling to him - we don't want Broadway Market to be ruined again."