politics

I Watched the Neighbourhood I Grew Up in Get Gentrified

In this extract from "Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain's Youth", Malakaï Sargeant describes how gentrification destroyed Hackney.

by Malakaï Sargeant
12 July 2019, 11:57am

London Fields in summer. Photo by Jenny Matthews / Alamy Stock Photo

Jobs are drying up. University is getting more expensive by the year. And forget about ever owning your own place. It's harder than ever to be a young person in the UK, but you're more likely to hear a columnist over the age of 50 in the mainstream media than someone under the age of 21.

The latest anthology from Bristol-based Rife Magazine aims to change that. Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Sammy Jones, is a piercingly insightful look into what it means to be young and British today.

In this excerpt originally titled The Latte Drinker That Spilled the Tea, writer and theatre-maker Malakaï Sargeant gives an eyewitness account of how gentrification radically altered his experience of growing up in Hackney.

I remember a time not so long ago when the utterance of the place-name ‘Hackney’ drew looks of sympathetic concern, coinciding with a false smile that read, "I’m so sorry you have to go through that," as if living in the borough was synonymous with suffering from continuous traumatic stress.

Largely, this was true. The Hackney I knew was enveloped in crime, violence, poverty and postcode wars, and growing up, the constant suspicious stares and blaring sounds of sirens increasingly became synonymous with home.

I lived on one of the few "Murder Miles" in Hackney; it acted as a border, with one half of it being in north London and the other half in east. As you may be able to guess, the geographical location meant that this no man’s land of a road was a catalyst for criminal activity, perpetuating the divisions between north and east London while simultaneously strengthening the alliances of troops on either side, ready to defend their territory. The damp-infested flat I shared with my mum was smack bang in the middle of the road, and thus became a fantastic viewing point for spectating and commenting on the hotbed of crime that plagued the area.

In short: the block was always hot. Life was a lottery for those who were engulfed in this way of life, and the proliferating figures of knife and gun crimes in the borough as a whole at this time meant that many on my estate – including my childhood self – lived in constant fear. The road played host to a plethora of stabbings, drive-bys and shootouts throughout much of the 2000s, with many such instances going unreported and many innocent lives lost. My block was nestled in the jaws of the estate, barking at passers-by who looked at it the wrong way, nuzzled by the flimsy mesh wired gate, dividing me from all that I wanted to be. The estate itself was cornered by a railway line, sat shoulder to shoulder with a rival estate on the other side, and on the very edge was an abandoned warehouse, one that now houses middle-class dreams that’ve been trust-funded into fruition.

For a long time, the turmoil and chaos that Hackney played host to clouded the beauty that lay beneath it. There’s no hiding the fact that throughout much of the 1950s onwards, Hackney was regarded as a slum, and in 2010 it was the most deprived borough in London, and overall the sixth most deprived local authority in the country. But, for many, economic deprivation wasn’t the be-all and end-all of their existence. Despite differences in aspirations, culture and class, Hackney has long been a community. It completely encapsulates the positivity of multiculturalism – Hackney is diversity, and has been so long before that buzzword got thrown around by every corporate and creative organisation that needs more brown people in their offices.

Even today, just by walking through a park such as Clissold or London Fields, you will see families and friends making use of facilities and interacting with one another in complete harmony, like every liberal’s utopian fantasy. You can almost see it in a nostalgic, sepia hue: the clammy hand of one toddler in another’s, bumbling with joy through the play park, zigzagging from the sandbox to the slide, both from completely different backgrounds but brought together simply by the innocence of youth and sharing the same borough.

Hackney was no idyll, but in the era I grew up in, it almost was. The number of opportunities and facilities that were, and are still, available, if at a cost, were ample; from rowing and canoe clubs on the River Lea to the Boxing Academy to support young people’s education outside of the traditional school setting, Hackney accommodated all kinds of people. And within that lay a sense of basic humanity and human decency, too. When our washing machine broke, we had neighbours who volunteered to do our washing, free of charge, because there was an underlying sense of community – we were all on low incomes together, and because of that we supported each other. Today, however, the polarisation between the wealthy and the poorer – and even among these groups – is widening violently, and within this increasing gap is the deterioration of Old Hackney’s sense of community.

As with any place, particularly one in an urban area, there will be discrepancies between the wealthy and the less wealthy. However, growing up I saw all of the people that called Hackney home come together; not in a High School Musical, "we’re all in this together" sort of way, but in the sense that anyone could walk down Kingsland Road and go into any shop and be welcomed, instead of being greeted with "Are you lost?" stares. Or be walking through the Narrow Way and being able to guarantee that they’d see somebody they knew and stop to chat, instead of having white women who clutch their purses tighter when you sit next to them. I won’t lie and suggest that there is no longer a sense of community in Hackney, because there definitely is – among the white middle class who have infiltrated and colonised all of the places I grew to love.

The stark lack of integration between the old and new communities in Hackney hugely contributes to my feeling of no longer being at home walking down streets with memories and experiences ingrained in their pavements. Like the street where I grazed my knee after falling off my bike, where my uncle taught me how to cycle. That road has been resurfaced now, with the council filling in potholes as per their deals with housing developers after responding to complaints by the new residents. Or the street where my great granddad walked with me to take me to primary school, quickening his pace when going past the park.

At any time of the day, that park would have been a shelter for the homeless and drug abusers; now, the climbing frame is actually used by children – but only children whose parents can afford to take them in the middle of the day instead of working a ten-hour shift. Children of all creeds, colours and classes would play for endless hours in the rotting mouths of rusty MUGAs, but now it plays host to the blinding Colgate white of ‘regeneration’. It relentlessly bleaches over the crookedness and imperfections of the teeth of various estates that were resilient enough to stand firm throughout two world wars, but whose bite couldn’t withstand the crunch of gentrification. Those teeth now are crushed tombstones, reminders of former lives, destroyed not by decay or wear and tear, but by the sweet appeal of luxury flats, gated communities and a socially cleansed borough that has replaced where these towers once stood.

I know that Hackney wasn’t perfect, but it was home. But now that everyone else wants to make it home (and with me having moved house four times since I left Hackney), I have no idea where else to call home in London. But as long as Sarah and Richard are happy and are contributing to the local economy by going to the weekly farmers’ market and buying ethnic food from the independent café to relieve their conscience from the guilt manifested within it after chasing out the locals by agreeing to high house prices, that’s all that matters, right?

A complete and exhaustive account of what the first wave of gentrification probably looked like, maybe

"Look!" said Sarah excitedly, with one hand rubbing her growing stomach, the other clasping onto the arm of her fiancé, Richard. Together, they stared longingly at the Victorian three-bedroom house with the generously sized garden and potential for a loft conversion in the estate agent’s window. "The rooms are so big! It’s practically the same as those houses we viewed near Angel, just cheaper," she continued, naively choosing to ignore the article in the Hackney Gazette about the most recent stabbing in Clapton.

"I wonder what the schools are like around here," proposed Richard, implicitly dressing up his fear about how densely populated the area was with brown people.

"I heard they’re improving, and when baby grows up they’ll make all sorts of multicultural friends – think of the play dates and the dinner parties we could –" Sarah looked over at Richard. He wasn’t sold. Sarah was close to pleading now: "I read in the Guardian that Hackney is really up-and-coming, you know… we could sell it in five, ten years and move." She hesitated. "We could make a lot of money out of this." She looked into her fiancé’s blue, capitalist eyes; he cracked a smile.

A week later, the house was off the market. Sarah and Richard sold it in 2011 for £850,000, making a £500,000 profit. They live somewhere near Dorset now, with their child and a pony or some shit.

Don’t allow this hypothetical situation to go over your head; Sarah and Richard, and thousands like them, are the reason why I’ll never be able to afford somewhere to live in the place I was born. And herein lies the greatest issue: as long as we continue seeing property as investments or assets instead of homes, we will never be able to halt skyrocketing rent and housing prices, making Hackney and other areas following suit (Tottenham, Walthamstow, Peckham) simply unaffordable for the ones who made these places homes to begin with. Places where people have spent their entire lives living and working are rapidly losing their identity, and are becoming replicas of other bougie-fied areas where the white middle class have Christopher Columbus-ed entire neighbourhoods by claiming them as cool, telling all their mates to come and forming their own communities within them, rather than engaging with the existing community who, more often than not, lose out economically and become displaced once their area begins to be infiltrated by self-interested ‘young professionals’.

Of course, Hackney has always housed pockets of affluence and wealth, with the pressure for Hackney to become ‘better’ (read: more white, more wealthy) having existed for a long time – and in recent times the local authority has been dancing with the devil to appease the desire for a ‘rejuvenated’ Hackney. Prior to questionable collusion between the council, the Greater London Authority (GLA) and property developers, Hackney provided a great deal of social housing to some of the poorest individuals and families in the UK. For a long while, its name grew in notoriety, and it was infamous for being grimy, unwelcoming and dangerous. So of course, with the poor being, well, poor, they were often placed in one of the abysmally designed mid-20th-century housing blocks scattered through the borough, with recent disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire displaying just how hazardous and mismanaged social housing still is.

Almost ironically, such housing projects, which encapsulate the struggle of the working class in inner London, more often than not face, or are adjacent to, tidy rows of three- or four-bedroom Victorian or Edwardian terraced properties, symbolically modelling to the working class Thatcher’s mantra of, "If you stopped being so lazy and so poor, look at what you could achieve!" You can spot the well-to-do nuclear families in these homes; you know the type – mummy and daddy guzzling eight bottles of wine a week from the cellar, and their children perpetually laughing as if to say, "I enjoy an abundance of extracurricular activities." Their dog probably has a bigger lounge than you – those types. The first wave of these families setting up shop in Hackney occurred around the mid-1990s, after they realised neighbouring Islington just wasn’t as cheap. At this time Hackney wasn’t as upmarket as many parts of it are now, which somewhat confusingly seemed to attract the Bugaboo-pushing parents from Somethingshire who flocked, and continue to flock, to the borough.

And thus Hackney began appealing to the appetite of the bougie: the Whole Foods on Stoke Newington Church Street has been on that corner in different forms for at least my whole lifetime, peddling organic delicacies and aspirations of healthy living, and the creative innovation and entrepreneurship that’s made the borough famous in recent years has, in reality, been thriving for decades. Independent shops like The Ark in Stoke Newington have always appealed to Hackney’s wealthier few by selling overpriced smelly candles and other middle-class nonsense for years. Pre T-shirt print fame (yes, I genuinely saw T-shirts being sold with The Ark name emblazoned on it – like, who actually buys that shit?), Dalston in the 1970s was home to a genuine community of hardworking artists, as opposed to the frauds living there now who claim to be struggling whilst paying £800 per calendar month for a double room above a chip shop. Despite the existence of a more affluent group within the borough, when I was growing up there, and even when my mum was a child, there was little of the socio-economic division that is seen today.

For someone without the same emotional connection to Hackney, perhaps this contrast is best displayed visually.

A concept: how the fast food establishment and the off-West End theatre are actually cousins

The McDonald’s has sat on the corner for decades. It rests on the main thoroughfare of Dalston and is a hub of activity for Hackney’s schoolchildren, the unemployed, parents, commuters, late-night partygoers, early-morning civil servants, the old, the young and everyone in between. It is buzzing throughout the day and night, and is the subconscious landmark and linkup point for pretty much everyone that goes to Dalston. It serves an entire community wholly through providing cheap food and somewhere warm to sit. Or on the newly added terrace, if it’s good weather.

A stone’s throw away, tucked away on the corner of a cobbled street, sits the Arcola Theatre. It produces pioneering work in-house, and since its inception has moved into a larger building, away from the street where the theatre gets its name, due to its popularity. It has a lively bar with music nights, a great theatre space and two studio spaces, and provides a central spot for Hackney’s creatives to network, drink and enjoy the culture on offer.

Both of these institutions are merely buildings filled with people. Yet there’s little crossover between the people who utilise these buildings. To generalise, those who visit the Arcola regularly would much rather buy smashed avocado on crusty sourdough for £6 than buy a cheeseburger and fries from McDonald’s. Similarly, those who go to McDonald’s regularly are more likely to watch a film in Stratford or hang out in Hackney Central than go to watch a play without an interval at the Arcola. These two buildings, simply bricks and mortar (and terraces), are symbolic pillars of the class division in Hackney. They encompass the differences between the people that live in the borough, and despite their close proximity, there are very rare occasions in which these two groups cross paths. Yet, somehow, I belong to both.

As I cycle from my relatively nice flat in north London into my company’s office – the one adjacent to my old estate – I automatically feel a sense of resentment, knowing that every so often I’ll pass old friends and neighbours who still live in the bubble of that estate a decade on, and haven’t ‘made it out the hood’. Not long ago I was making my way down the road into work and almost found myself surprised by the police tape that prevented me from going any further. I remembered where I was and stopped awhile, considering the fact that, whatever the incident might be, my reality is that I could very well know the person affected.

Two days later, speaking to my grandparents, it turned out I did: a young, black man in his 20s had been hit by a car and stabbed repeatedly in the chest – a young black man I grew up with in church. He lived in another area in Hackney, where he’d previously had trouble with gangs in the borough, and had crossed the divide into the ‘wrong’ postcode to see his friend on my old estate, only to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Luckily, he managed to survive this horrific incident, after being in an ICU at the local hospital for days afterward. The common perception is that all of this violence involving gangs and Hackney’s youth more generally stopped when parents started naming their children Odyssey and Clover instead of Oluwadamilola and Chanel. It hasn’t.

The fact that we grew up in replicable settings, yet I have an adequate career in the arts and moved away while my peers are still trapped there because it’s the only way of life that they were exposed to, fills me with ambivalence and uncertainty about where exactly to place myself socially and economically. My line of work, well-spoken accent, rolled-up jeans and appreciation for ‘white’ things often leads people to believe that I’m from a stable or wealthy background. However, the only reason I cycle to work is because TfL is fucking expensive, and day to day I can’t afford to top up my Oyster. It may sound like the woes of a struggling artist, but at times it can genuinely be hard to make ends meet.

If anything, all this proves is that gentrification has layered effects on everyone: the less wealthy who had little access to cultural capital remain stagnant in their poverty; the wealthy who move into the areas where the less wealthy live (because it’s cheap) agree to pay higher rents, forcing up property prices and pushing the less wealthy out of their own area; and the people in the middle (me) will continue being not poor but far from wealthy, creating a new purgatory in Britain’s much beloved class system and perpetuating feelings of – and literal – displacement.

I know more than anyone that gentrification will continue to spiral out of control if we continue to appease those who exacerbate it. The Dutch pot of Hackney was long boiling prior to their arrival, with all of the flavours and spices in our neighbourhoods blending seamlessly. But as soon as the gentrifiers got a whiff of the stew, they ran straight into the kitchen to rob it from us, water it down because it was too spicy, and replace the authenticity of Hackney’s vibrancy with generic, "look at the exposed brickwork, we’re so edgy!" cafés that cater to the palates of the avocado-devouring, latte-sipping elite.

But this is where I am in flux.

If I’m offered a smashed avocado with a poached egg on sourdough it’s very unlikely that I’ll say no. If I’m at a meeting in a ridiculously pricey coffee shop, and the barista with the bad haircut and "LOOK AT ME, I’M A WHITE FEMINIST™" armpit hair asks what I’d like to drink, it’s now more likely that I’d say an organic pressed elderflower juice than a Coke. Fam, I drink coffee now. I still don’t know if I even like the taste, or what the difference between a cappuccino and a macchiato is, but I drink it now, just like everyone else.

I’m stood on the periphery of change: walking past – never through – these glossy apartment complexes leaves me feeling as empty as the apartments themselves, as housing developers attempt to market a one-bedroom flat at £565,000. Yet such developments are a benefit to me, as the people that have the money to buy that flat usually also have the money to invest elsewhere, in fields such as the arts, in which I work.

Recently, I’ve been asking myself more and more who and what it is that I am becoming, or have attempted to become. I’ve subconsciously succumbed to the culture of the gentrifier, living their life completely, only without the money. As much as I protest about how the process of gentrification has led to the decimation of local family-run businesses, and how the new businesses that open in their place only appear to welcome a certain type of person, I will still go into the new establishment anyway.

An anecdote: that one time I went into an organic food shop where the Turkish furniture shop used to be just to see if they would acknowledge my presence

They didn’t. I waited a good six to eight minutes before I even got asked if I’d been served. All I wanted was an orange juice.

Fin.

As unwelcomed as I may be in hipster havens, I know that plenty of Old Hackney still remains, and will greet me with open arms. I know all of the barbers in the barbershop on the bottom of Ridley Road as well as I know all of the aunties in the church I used to go to. As different as they may be, I
know undoubtedly that both groups of people embody the love and spirit that once filled the borough, and being in their presence alone is enough to bring me back to times when figuring out how I’m supposed to complete a tax return and not knowing when my next invoice is coming through were just not on my mind.

The subtle segregation between Old and New Hackney used to frustrate me, because the vapid New Hackneyites couldn’t (and still don’t) seem to comprehend that people who don’t look or sound like them – i.e. a six-foot-and-a-bit black man – may be interested in theatre, too. But alas, I’m long past caring now, because I thrive not in the Arcola Theatre bar, but in the McDonald’s, and all of the other alcoves and people in which I can find aspects of what home used to be.

Of course, gentrification has meant that Hackney has cleaned up a bit; for much of this decade crime in the borough has been low, employment has increased, the creative scene is booming, and when Hackney is mentioned to an individual, young white people on bikes spring to mind, instead of drug dealers and the homeless. Yet somehow both coexist in this large and confusing borough, and all of its residents call it home.

For me, generational diaspora woes will continue to cloud my view of home and what that is. But for now, Hackney comes pretty close. Just to be clear though, I’ll take Irish stew at my nan’s house in Stoke Newington over a fucking latte any day.

Rife is published by Unbound and available to buy now for £9.99 on Amazon and Watershed.

@malakaisargeant