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London Is Broken – This Film Is Proof

We spoke to Zed Nelson about his new documentary, which focuses on gentrification along Hoxton Street.

by Oscar Rickett
02 December 2019, 12:07pm

All images courtesy of Zed Nelson / 'The Street'

An estate agent walks up to the window of a luxury apartment, looking down over east London's Hoxton Street Market. The flat is available for £2.2 million. "There are large windows, which can be opened up to allow air to come in," the estate agent says, opening the large windows.

In a flat whites and hollandaise café on Hoxton Street the owner describes how he came to set the place up. "When I first got here, I drove away," he says. "It was a shit-hole, but it was an affordable shithole."

A former City trader shows us round a large warehouse that used to be a studio for artists. Some of their work has been kept on the walls to add character to what is now a collection of properties. "This is now just an investment," he says.

All these vignettes come from photographer and filmmaker Zed Nelson's brilliant and timely new feature-length documentary, The Street, which tells a story of gentrification, austerity and culture along one thoroughfare.

For a long time, Hoxton Street resisted much of the change that was tearing through formerly working class areas of inner city London. In the 1980s, with the arrival of the Thatcher government's Right to Buy scheme, many locals bought their council homes, sold up for a profit and moved out to Essex and the east London suburbs – but it wasn't until the next century, and the arrival of a Conservative-led government in 2010, that the area's fragmentation sped up, a result of an aggressive, market-dominated system and the impact of over £30 billion of spending cuts.

Nelson began filming The Street at the end of 2015, and over the four-year period he spent there the carpet shop, a 150-year old bakery and a garage all closed down. Locals moved out and locals died. The British public voted for Brexit. Grenfell Tower burnt to the ground.

zed nelson the street
Colin.

A soup kitchen was set up, serving locals outside an art gallery. In the documentary, Colin – a plate in his hand – looks through the wide windows of the gallery into the brightly lit space. It would make a nice home, he says. Every building he looks at, he thinks about how it would make a nice home.

Colin is black, from the area and lives in part of a home that has been divided into three tiny flats that bring the word "Dickensian" to mind. He is in what used to be the kitchen. His bed folds away in the day to give him a small sofa, from which he makes music on an old PC terminal. Rather than living in a council house and paying an affordable rent to the council, as used to be the case, the council pays his £235 per week rent directly to the private landlord who has created this dwelling.

In the garage down the road – the one that shutters before the film ends – Errol, the owner, is "the last man standing". Every week, he says, at least three people offer to buy his garage. They never want to keep it as a working garage. They are all property people. "It's money," Errol says, about the "rapid, aggressive change" that has hit the area. All the workers are being forced to move out and he barely has any customers anymore. "Who's going to do the sweeping of the road," Errol asks. "They'll be coming in from 20 miles outside of London." They already are.

After a screening of the film at what used to be called the Renoir Cinema, and is now the Curzon Bloomsbury, I sit with Zed Nelson in the bar.

Nelson was born in Uganda but grew up in Hackney. He went to one of the roughest schools in the borough and his best friend was stabbed to death when he was 17, but his parents were middle class journalists who'd moved there because it was affordable. They still live there.

An acclaimed photographer, Nelson has taken his camera across the world, documenting conflict, people and society from Somalia to El Salvador. Among much other work, his book Gun Nation is a haunting, beautiful and disturbing portrait of gun culture in the United States.

hoxton street
Hoxton Street.

He began making The Street because he could see that something extraordinary was happening in terms of house prices. He looked around him and knew that "everything had a price tag hanging over it. We've all been brainwashed into thinking of everything as property. It's turned everyone into a prospector." At one point in the film, a local real estate agent even calls for government intervention, "otherwise market forces will gentrify everything".

During the Q&A following the screening, an earnest Canadian student said he lived in what used to be a council house, that it was the only place he could find that was affordable and near enough to where he was studying. He didn't want to be part of the problem the film showed so viscerally.

Nelson tells me that making the film was partly an exploration of how he felt about questions like this, as a media professional living where he grew up, in an ever-changing neighbourhood. During the film, a creative agency moves onto the street. The employees sit in a bath full of brightly-coloured balls to get the ideas flowing. Nelson says he'd find himself in coffee shops fuming about hipsters and then catch a glimpse of himself, MacBook to hand, in the window.

Besides, gentrification has moved beyond artists and hipsters – the "shock troops of gentrification" – who, for the most part, wanted to be part of the communities they moved into. "I'm not surrounded by colourful, interesting hipsters anymore, I'm surrounded by the children of bankers. I look back with fondness on my days of being annoyed by hipsters," Nelson tells me. On Hoxton Street, many of the independent places that arrived in the first wave of gentrification had to shut down. What's left tends to be corporate or run as a chain.

One of the documentary's strengths is that it doesn't sugar-coat some of the worst prejudices of the local characters. There is some racism among the white community of Hoxton, and Reverend Howard of the Bethel church talks powerfully about the racism she experienced at the hands of the National Front in the 1970s. "It was so terrible then," she says, adding that there has been a marked improvement since those days.

On the morning of the Brexit vote, Stefan – the German owner of the craft beer shop opposite the pie and mash place – wakes up to someone snarling, "You fucking German bastard" at him on the street. He is shocked and upset. "I wonder who they blame?" he asks, and across the street, at F. Cooke pie and mash, Joe blames the EU, but not Stefan. Stefan has since sold up.

joe cooke hoxton street
Joe Cooke.

The day after I talk to Nelson I go to Hoxton Street to meet Joe Cooke. The walk to the shop from the top of the street is only a few minutes, but on the way I pass five homeless people. "It's gone absolutely fucking crackers," Cooke tells me, of "the change" – the phrase he uses to describe the process of gentrification taking place on Hoxton Street. "It's not somewhere your kids could afford to live."

Large, white and full of life, Joe is a character. His family's shop was the first place in the country – so he says – to put the meat pie, mashed potato and parsley sauce on a plate together. It's an institution and it's still there, even as much around it goes. Joe grew up on nearby Broadway Market but now lives in Chingford, on the edge of Epping Forest.

Some people like the change and some don't, he says. There used to be eight butchers on Broadway Market, now there are none. You can't get tripe anywhere. Does he miss tripe? "No, I never had it."

"If we all wanted to think about how good everything was, we'd all top ourselves," he tells me. Before the financial crisis, "we had huge orders to the City. They’d go out and get pissed on a Thursday night, then come in hungover on a Friday and get pie and mash for lunch." He says there's been a 95 percent drop in orders since those days.

luxury flat london
Ad advert for a luxury flat.

Global capitalism has unmade this place, but the political sensibility of the community has been eroded. You can't lay a glove on neoliberalism; it's an unseen force, uprooting your life, filling it full of anxiety, dread and hardship. Joe says he can't follow this current election because of all the "mudslinging" that's going on. If he feels a political kind of anger, it's at the EU, which he thinks is undemocratic.

On Hoxton Street, the locals leave or they fall into dire poverty, surviving on soup kitchen meals and living in dystopian dwellings. Rising above them, clearly visible from the market, are the towers of the City of London. As a symbol, it's almost too obvious.

The Street is out now – find out where to watch it here.

@oscarrickettnow

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Documentary
hoxton street
zed nelson