Sunday 2 December 2012

Dalston - another look

Dalston has never really been one of my regular haunts. I once worked in this part of London and in those days it was very run down, more or less forgotten and not on most people's list of places to visit. More recently friends, Time Out (what a disaster that is since it went free) and a couple of really good arts venues have persuaded me to give it another try.

Dalston now boasts an excellent jazz venue (The Vortex), a really good theatre with an interesting programme (The Arcola) - and more of those later, but the real jewel in the crown for me is the elegant art deco Rio Cinema on Kingsland High Street. Opened in 1937, the Rio has been entertaining Dalston residents since then, not only with Hollywood hits, but also with a range of less mainstream movies. It also boasts annual Turkish and Kurdish film festivals, fitting nicely with the very substantial Turkish and Kurdish speaking communities in and around Dalston.

The Rio replaced an earlier cinema - the Kingsland Palace established by one Sarah Ludski. Ms. Ludski was the proprietor of an auction hall which she had turned into a 175 seater cinema in 1913. The current building has seen mixed fortunes over the years, with periods of closure, periods of serving as an "adult movie" venue and even a brief time operating as a strip club (!) before a group of local people formed to rescue the cinema, raise money to refurbish it and opened it in its current form in 1997. The Rio is grade 2 listed. And it's lovely.

Entrance to the Rio Cinema, Kingsland High Street.

Dalston, London by Yekkes

Gillett Square lies just off Kingsland High Street. It is home to the Dalston Culture House, originally planned as a vibrant arts centre and at one point discussed as a possible location for a new library. I am not sure that the Culture House has fulfilled its original purpose, but it is home to the Vortex Jazz Club, which once "lived" in nearby Stoke Newington. The Vortex is an intimate space with an excellent programme of high profile jazz artists including Ian Shaw, Norma Winstone and a plethora of other UK jazz stars. There are also specialist nights with "world music" performances including a regular gypsy/ Eastern European gig.

 I saw the excellent Ms. Winstone perform there earlier this year as well as enjoying Daphna Sadeh and the Voyagers at one of the world music evenings. This is a little diamond for jazz lovers in this part of London. The crowd is quite mixed with a solid local base but also with people travelling from across London due to the quality of the programme. It is also a bit "old Dalston" and you can sometimes see the occasional person with short hair, dungarees and the de rigeur keffiyeh (yawn) asking for people to sign a petition against the Council before the concert starts!

The Vortex, Gillet Square

Dalston, London by Yekkes

Dalston Lane is a an area showing real signs of improvement. Much of this is driven by the fact that the new Dalston Junction London Overground station is located here - ending once and for all the pleas for the London Borough of Hackney to have a tube station. It has more than one now as there are other stations on this line that fall within the borough boundaries. Actually, Hackney always did have a tube station - one of the exits of Manor House station on the Piccadilly Line is on the Hackney side of the road. Admittedly not terribly useful to most Hackney residents, but Hackney nonetheless - I suppose it spoiled the story to admit to its existence.

Dalston Lane also boasts a new library - the replaced CLR James (the cricket and political writer - not Councillor James as many people seem to think) library, which is about 100 times better than the building it replaced and which has a good cafe. A little further along the road is an independent cafe that lacks a name (or at least a name sign - pictured below). Good coffee, great home made cakes and a nice atmosphere. Recommended.

Cafe without a name, Dalston Lane

Dalston, London by Yekkes

Just across the road from the library, you can see one of Dalston's best known and most iconic images - the Peace mural. Painted by Ray Walker and Mike Jones and unveiled by the former (and now deceased) MP, and one time GLC member, Tony Banks in October 1985, it is based on an image from the 1983 Hackney Peace Carnival. It depicts the Soviet Union - United States nuclear stand off and is very much of its time, even boasting a "nuclear free zone" sign. Of course as there were no nuclear bombs in Hackney, then  Hackney would have been OK should the Russians ever have turned up. However, it has given a much needed touch of colour and brightness to a part of Dalston that was blighted for many years. A narrow passage beside the mural leads into the Dalston Curve Garden - an open space with a small cafe, stone pizza making and open garden, providing a quiet and green oasis in this most urban of areas.

Detail from the peace mural

Dalston, London by Yekkes

Ashwin Street lies just off Dalston Lane. It is really a back lane that has become the focus of much of the arts driven activity of the new Dalston. The catalyst for this was the renovation of the old "Reeves and Sons ltd, artists colour manufacturers" founded in 1766. Lovingly restored, it draws visitors from Dalston Lane with its exquisite external decorative detail including blue and gold mosaic lettering and backgrounds. The building now houses a range of small businesses, a bohemian cafe and the Arcola Theatre. Interestingly, this building was also once considered as a possible new home for the library...its good to see something eventually came of all those discussions and that the two sites previously considered are also thriving.

Cafe Oto attracts a diverse clientele, with a fair share of plum voiced folk on the day I visited - sipping various types of coffee and pushing the very tasty cakes and cookies from one side of their plate to the other whilst speaking just loudly enough to let neighbours known they had "done the fringe" this year. Perhaps evidence of a changing community in the new Dalston or adventures staying close to the station - just in case. As I was getting ready to leave a lunchtime menu of Persian themed food was being distributed. It looked good and the prices seemed OK too. Might come back to try it. They also have a programme of performances and occasional exhibitions.

The Reeves building, Ashwin Street

Dalston, London by Yekkes

The Arcola Theatre is the main occupant of the old building, having moved from further up Dalston Lane. It has a good programme, often featuring new material as well as revivals, workshops and a small cafe-bar. I have seen two performances there this year Purge and The Smell of Sweet Success which I saw this weekend - and may yet write about. The theatre has undergone more renovation recently and the new auditorium is comfortable and worked well for what should really be a larger stage performance. In December, they are helping Kali Theatre celebrate their 21st birthday with two productions- Kabaddi Kabaddi, a new drama about sport and a revival of Shelley Silas' Calcutta Kosher which I saw a few years ago at Stratford East and liked very much. Both are scheduled for short runs - go and see at least one of them!

So has my opinion of Dalston changed? I went there a few days ago to take some photographs. I was enjoying myself until I stopped for a moment to take some pictures of the Rio Cinema. Within a minute I had been approached by an aggressive beggar who was so drunk he couldn't string a sentence together and he was followed by a young man who accused me of taking his photograph - despite being somewhat un-photogenic. Yes, things are much better than they once were...but still a little rough around the edges.


  1. Ha Adrian, you have obviously forgotten your sojourn at my place in Stamford Hill many moons ago - house-sitting. You must have done a bit of exploring in Dalston then when you weren't contending with the bathroom ceiling falling in? T x

    1. I certainly do remember that brief sojourn - which was ten years ago now! Mmm, might need to do one on Stamford Hill too! Hope its not too cold where you are now! Adrian. x