It was fall. I had just moved from Warsaw back to London, completing the cycle of getting sick of those cities and then missing them again. Loving them and hating them. Leaving, only to come back. Again and again. I had started working in one well-known bike shop – considered to be fancy but in reality rather disorganized and crazy – but it was fine for me at the time. I have always avoided paying rent in London (okay, except for two months in a cool bike house on Webber Street). I’ve always lived in squats, which makes me fit the stereotype of a Polish immigrant in London even more.
It was always my choice though, ’cause I couldn’t imagine paying more than half of my monthly salary to some landlord when there are so many sad, empty buildings in the city that could easily be inhabited and brought back to life. The bringing back to life thing is important. This time my friends invited me to stay with them at a squatted house in East London, which turned out to be partof something very special, something built around bikes.
The house was situated on Swaton Road. But this wasn’t just a squatted house and it wasn’t just any street in east London. It was something more.
There were three more squatted houses on Swaton Road, almost next to each other, and together with all the people inhabiting them they created a community, something that is talked about a lot these days but is actually pretty hard to come across. All four houses were really old and needed a lot of hard graft and dedication to change them from just empty buildings to cosy places you could call home. Our house had lots of holes, so it was hard to keep the warmth inside during the winter. When everyone came home from work we’d cook dinners together and spend a lot of the time in the warmest room, the kitchen.
People from each house had keys to the other three, in case of an emergency, or if we just needed to borrow some tools, a cargo bike, a ladder, a sewing machine or a lightbox. And we all shared a communal bike workshop in one of the houses.
All the people living in those four Victorian houses on the street knew each other. Some were close friends, some were workmates, others collaborated on projects. Everybody shared two things though: mutual trust and a love for bicycles. Almost everyone living in one of the four houses had worked as a bike messenger at some point, and most of them worked in bike shops, raced, sewed bike bags, built frames, were involved with the London Courier Emergency Fund, constructed tallbikes, played bike polo, went bike touring or just got around on two wheels. But even though we had so much in common, we also had other projects: drawing, making music, photography, or travelling. Swaton Road was an example of dozens of totally different people from different countries and different backgrounds drawn together by bikes, helping each other out and creating a common place to share space, things, lives and ideas. We were there because of this one thing we had in common: bikes were the hub of pretty much everything.
All four houses on Swaton Road were evicted in the spring of 2011. But what we had before then lives on in our memories. A world that revolved around bikes, that included bikes as a matter of course, as a default, infused into every aspect of our freewheeling existence. Maybe for some people it might seem utopian. But we didn’t see it like that, it was just our life. The bike scene and the sense of community went hand in hand – and the eviction couldn’t end that. Community is an idea, and that idea can live on anywhere.
Words by Daria Bogdanska / Pictures by David McCaig (davidmccaig.com)