It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon and Finsbury Park is alive with the infectious sound of drumming. More than 25 people are sitting in a circle holding their instruments and jamming along to the lively rhythms. The session in front of Finsbury Park Art Club, on the Seven Sisters Road side of this wonderful 110-acre green space in north London opened in 1869, is boosted by a saxophonist and others dancing while playing percussion on a variety of shakers.
Nearby, at the Park Theatre in Clifton Crescent, the audience is pouring out of the auditorium of a matinee and into the adjoining trendy café and restaurant space. The arts centre, which opened in 2012, not only has a packed programme of plays and other live performances, but it’s also a nice place to meet friends and enjoy great coffee and tasty food. In neighbouring Morris Place, the John Jones Arts Building opened earlier this year with exhibition and gallery space, with a particular emphasis on supporting emerging artists.
For many, the idea of Finsbury Park becoming known as a centre for arts is something hard to contemplate. Indeed, when I first moved to north London several years ago and mentioned the name to friends, more often than not it was radical preaching they they associated with the place. Finsbury Park Mosque (now North London Central Mosque) gained notoriety in the 1990s for extremist Islamic teaching under the leadership of the infamous Islamist preacher Abu Hamza. Installed as Inman in 1996, he regularly held sermons in the open air in St Thomas’ Road and was said by one MI5 informer to run “an al-Qa’ida camp in the heart of London.”
Hamza earlier this year gained a life sentence in the US for supporting and promoting terrorism. Countless young Muslim men, including the 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay and “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid participated in the mosque’s teaching. The Observer reported back in 2002 that Kalashnikov AK-47 training had taken place in the red-brick building.
But long before the arrival of Hamza, Finsbury Park – and Holloway in general – was a place that was held in low regard by the outside world. What had started off as a desirable area for lower middle class clerks and artisans wanting to escaping the central London fumes quickly grew into somewhere better known for its slums. Campbell Road, just a few minutes walk from the Tube and mainline train station was said by social reformer Charles Booth and others to be the “worst street in north London.” Campbell Bunk, as it was called, suffered from property speculators over-building in the area in the three decades from the 1860s and so properties were divided up to house labourers, navvies and others in the building trades.
Jerry White, the author of a book on Campbell Bunk, said that from 1880s to when the slum was cleared in the 1950s it had “a notorious reputation for violence, for breeding thieves and prostitutes, and for an enthusiastic disregard for law and order. A street where strangers never went and where police were afraid to go alone….” As families migrated to new properties further from the centre of London, rents were lowered – more so in Campbell Road than other places it seems – and “the very people poor who did not know where their next week’s rent – even their next Sunday dinner – was coming from” moved in. The local vicar said in the 1870s that “it was little better than an open sewer… People threw their slops and garbage out of the windows into the streets…” Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London (1902-3) provided a snapshot of the street in the early 20th century:
“A street fairly broad, with houses of three storeys, not ill-built, many being occupied as common lodging-houses; broken windows, dirty curtains, doors open, a litter of paper, old meat tins, heads of fish and stalks of vegetables. It is a street where thieves and prostitutes congregate. The thieves live in common lodging-houses, paying fourpence a night, and the prostitutes, generally two together, in a single furnished room, which they rent at four or five shillings a week. They are the lowest class of back-street prostitute, and an hour or two after midnight they may be seen returning home.”
Campbell Road is a name that no longer appears on maps and the area has been transformed in recent years, with pleasant looking council-looking apartment blocks built around courtyards and gardens. But the history of this place can never be wiped out, something White found looking through medical officers’ health reports, poor law records and police press cuttings – and from speaking to people who once lived there. The historian found people “street selling, making money from other people’s rubbish, ducking and diving – and others who lived for a part of their time outside the law.”
Fast-forward to the Sixties and Seventies – after Campbell Bunk had been demolished – and music fans flocked to Finsbury Park for the Rainbow Theatre (now occupied by the United Church of the Kingdom of God) for rock concerts. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd all played there before the last gig in 1981. It then lay empty for many years before the Pentecostal church bought it in the mid-1990s and restored the splendid foyer and auditorium to its former glory (it had been built as a magnificent cinema in the 1930s that could hold over 4,000 people).
But while Finsbury Park is a creative and pleasant place to explore these days, there is still more work to be done. Visitors arriving the station are greeted by dingy railway arches (which are set to be transformed through an art project). And there are some tatty post Second World War office buildings and rowdy pubs. Opposite the station is a sprawling, unsitely derelict pub. City North is currently a building site, but once complete it will have more than 300 apartments, plus shops and a cinema – it’s the biggest construction project in Islington borough since the Emirates stadium was built.
Back at North London Central Mosque, the leadership changed long ago (in 2005), with extremist elements removed, and it is now seen as a community hub with inter-faith meetings and it has received awards from Islington council. “We take [young people] away from the street, from gangs, from drugs and from extremism, as well as creating an atmosphere where they can debate and play table tennis and snooker in a relaxed atmosphere,” Mohammed Kozbar, chairman of trustees at Finsbury Park mosque told the Independent newspaper earlier this year.
But despite the progress Kozbar admits the mosque still faces challenges. “We still receive some hate messages. One day there was a pig’s head placed outside the entrance, we received an envelope with white powder inside… we’ve had some attempts to drop fire-bombs here at the mosque.” And recently the mosque was back in the news when HSBC closed its bank account without, trustees say, explaining why. Hundreds protested at the decision outside the branch in Severn Sisters Road. Finsbury Park – and its mosque – is emerging from the shadows, but the transformation is not complete yet.