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Spotlight on Poplar Union

Spotlight on Poplar Union

Walking along the canal of Limehouse Cut on a sunny day before reaching the E5 café overlooking Bartlett Park, it is striking how peaceful it all feels. London Calling followed an invitation to explore Poplar Union, a community arts centre that opened in 2017 and in just over a year established itself as the beating heart of Poplar and a much-needed hub for creativity in the area.

Poplar is probably not the most loved spot of the city. A historically poor residential district consisting of mostly council estates, the looming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf mean it has been eyed up by real estate investors and turned into an ongoing regeneration project. HARCA is one of the associations transforming East London with community-based projects and an arts centre was at the centre of their plans for Poplar from the very start. Not everybody was happy about this. Beth and Will, who between them shape the programming at Poplar Union, remember a lot of scepticism. “Initially there was a bit of anxiety and concern around it. Poplar is one of those areas that is changing very fast, you can see all those new flats going up and people have fears around that. There were rumours that we were building a night club at some point! That nearly stopped us getting an alcohol licence because of how many people complained.”
But a year in and the art centre is thriving, the programme is constantly growing and Beth and Will have “to-do lists so long, they are always should-have-been-done lists really.”

Women in Focus Festival

Within the building, they have a community gallery always trying to showcase local talent but also international and other London based artists. At the moment Will, the music programmer, is excited about the current Jazz festival Jazz Herstory celebrating female fronted jazz groups whose contributions to the genre have been largely written out of history. In the main hall there is also a book exchange library and cases to display other art work. “We have a weekly crafty kids arts and crafts session, and they later get to display their pieces in the gallery. “ smiles Beth. There are two studios used for all kinds of events and classes from yoga to writing classes and book clubs. The smaller room “Mike” has been named after a community champion and big "Betty” is the main events space used for theatre or dance shows, music gigs, film screenings, dance workshops or health classes. It is a very versatile space that can be opened up all the way to the café or out into the garden, regularly hosting the lunchtime comedy club, zumba fitness and dance classes or percussion classes and acoustic music nights. Both studios can be hired by local businesses and charities in need of space.
Nerija @ Jazz Herstory

To make the most of the fabulous waterfront location, Poplar Union have partnered up with Moo Canoes, so you can rent a kayak and go on a guided paddle tour all the way to Hackney Wick, where the Milk Float café on the water invites for a perfect paddle trip break. Or you can use your paddling energy for the communal good and join one of the Canal litter pick tours cleaning up London’s waterways. The section around Limehouse is London’s oldest canal, and will see major remodelling work beginning this July. Based on the designs from Granary Square at King’s Cross, the pavement will be lowered to open up stairs down to the waterfront, creating more of a social space. Simultaneously, the nearby Bartlett Park will see some rejuvenation with plans for a children’s play area, community gardens and a tennis court.

Moo Canoes

Gentrification is a tricky subject. “This is a very diverse neighbourhood. Tower Hamlet is one of the most disparate boroughs in London, so there are a lot of different people we need to try to include. There is a huge and well established Bengali community around here, and then there is certainly a new demographic of people moving in. We are placed right in the middle of that, we were tasked with trying to serve the community that have been here for generations and are very much the community that make up Poplar, but then also have some kind of offer for the newer people coming in who perhaps have more disposable income.” Says Will. “For me that’s exactly how I program” adds Beth, “We don’t charge more than 10 £ for a ticket, we keep our prices very low, we try to do a lot of things for free. We consult and work with our local community very closely with resident drop in session when staff stay back and we just open the door and invite people in to chat about the program and what people want.”

Celebration of Bengali New Year © Fatima Niemogha

“Places like this exist to make positive change”, explains Will, “People really come for the café, because there isn’t a place like this for miles around. Now we have people come and ask for programmes to hang up in their local community or in their building to spread the word. The community have really embraced us.”
“In terms of programming, the most important things for me is that shows are accessible”, says Beth. The program is a mix of theatre and shows that speak to the community and are relevant to them. “We really try to reflect the community we are in so we do regular Bengali music nights, and we have an event coming up around pride where we will be partnering with a Bengali LGBT group.”
“Initially, there were a lot of people saying ‘oh I don’t like art and culture’. And I think that’s probably not true, you don’t like how art and culture is packaged and how it is sold and offered to you. People look at places like the Barbican, these gigantic intimidating art spaces, we are always really mindful to not use a vocabulary that makes us sound really fancy and off-putting.”

Discover Poplar

A huge part of the audience using the space are people with young children, so there are weekly sessions like the crafty kids, a family karate club for all ages, a drama club and starting soon, a sensory play session for young children. The café is popular with mums and creative freelancers using the cosy space for work. E5 have a big coffee house in London Fields and moved into Poplar Union seven months ago. As a business philosophy they have a strong commitment to asylum seeker communities with 25% of their profit going to Refugee Council. They use the space for training series in bread making and hospitality skills and are committed to then employ one person from each course. “E5 really found their feet here, settling in and making it their home. They are looking for their own ways of getting involved with our programme which is really exciting”, says Will. The food is Levantine inspired, with a lot of Turkish cooking. They also have a pizza oven, make their own flat bread and roast their own coffee on site.

The big green space surrounding Poplar Union is also a favourite with dog owners so to engage that community, Will and Beth also organised a dog show. “We called it ‘Crufts comes to Poplar’, we had 10 or 12 local dogs competing and it was the most popular thing we’ve ever done. We curated a stage with amazing singers and musicians and people just made a beeline for the dog show! So that will definitely come back for our summer celebration in July.”

E5 Roasthouse

As programmers, their job is all about finding that really subtle difference between regeneration and gentrification. “Gentrification has a lot of negative connotations, and quite rightly. It implies forcing groups out, whereas what we are trying to do here is resist that risk while recognising that you can have an art space or a beautiful landscaped park but still in a way that is just improving the lives of people who are already here. It’s not only catering for people who are now moving into the area and saying we will make it really good for them and not for you. The idea is really a space for everyone.”
Poplar Union is at 2 Cotall St, Poplar, London E14 6TL. Check out their programme here.