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Tale of a city: From hell to hipsville

Bim Adewunmi contemplates Hackney's inevitable gentrification.

Chilli peppers on sale in one of London's markets
Chilli peppers on sale in one of London's markets. Photograph: Getty Images

I began my life in the Borough of Newham and have gone on to spend most of my London life in the east of the city. I was born in Forest Gate, lived in Stratford, went to school in Manor Park and on my return to London in Year 11, went to Brampton Manor School (now a significantly improved academy, thank you very much) in East Ham.

In those years, the Eighties and Nineties, Hackney was as remote to me as the rainforests of Borneo; it was almost mythical. “You think Stratford is rough,” my parents’ friends would say. “Maybe. But Hackney is hell.”

My mother loved to tell us how terrible Hackney was – the crime! the poverty! – and under no circumstances were we to go there unaccompanied. It was a rule we stuck to with one exception: on Saturday mornings, we would make speedy trips with my mum to Ridley Road Market for the Nigerian foods she couldn’t get in supermarkets.

My earliest memories of Hackney are in that market, the smells, the sounds and the people. Most of us in the market were of African descent – Yoruba mingled with Twi, with some Igbo, Lingala and Arabic; and all the foods – tubers of yam, crocodile pepper, the sweetsmelling apon (Irvingia) nut – are as familiar to me today as when I was a teen. The market felt distinctly “ours”. We would arrive at Dalston Kingsland empty-handed and return home on the packed North London Line (nowadays extended and called the Overground) laden with fruit, vegetables and spices.

I still go there a couple of times a month and as I munch on my halal chicken hot dog (£1.50 from the burger van smack-dab in the middle of the market), I watch the newer patrons buying things such as okra and suya spice and my heart soars. But I also feel a small pang: it is the meat and bones of my childhood, and I selfishly want to preserve it as it was. What was once mine alone is now fashionable.

As a teenager, I ventured more fully into Hackney and it was much as everyone said. But it was also cool and so much fun, too. I volunteered for a children’s charity on Well Street for a few months, before going to uni and forgetting about Hackney for a few years. When I moved back to London in my early twenties, I ended up back in Hackney, via Woolwich. The area felt different, even as it was largely the same; it certainly hadn’t redeemed itself enough for a family friend (“Your mum told me where you live now. I love you but I’m not coming to visit you there”). But now, on the edge of my 30th year, I consider it to be home.

The landscape is familiar but the inhabitants look a little . . . different. Like hipsters, you might say. Elaborately bearded young men and women with messy buns (I call it the “hipster topknot”) ride “fixie” bikes in the bus lanes, their baskets heavy with produce from the farmers’ market and flowers from Columbia Road Market, en route to pop-up art installations in disused buildings.

There are still the distinctive Caribbean and African accents I remember but there are lots of younger Home Counties ones, too: it’s no coincidence that the Office for National Statistics reported an increase in Hackney’s white population between 2001 and 2007. Hackney is a very young London borough – second only to Newham – and it shows. Come Christmas, the streets empty as the non-natives go back to their parental homes for the break. They leave behind all her old people; and the lifelong Hackneyites come out to play.

Gentrification is a hot topic round our parts. People are worried that long-term residents are being systematically priced out of their homes, and the many ritzy developments that sprang up in the wake of our successful Olympic bid didn’t help to quell fears.

For the past couple of years, I’ve lived on Chatsworth Road, one of the hubs of recent gentrification. We have a traditional butcher, a junk shop, a black hair salon and even a seedy “sauna”. But we also have fragrant cafés with flat-white-sipping mums and grandmas, pushchairs at their feet. We have vintage shops that sell Eighties shellsuits and Forties-style tea dresses.

The latest development on my road is a Sunday market with its own Facebook and Twitter pages; a few weeks back I bought some organic rose Castile soap. And a few feet away, I chatted to the guy running a Nigerian food stall.

Bookworm heaven

Like with so many places in the grip of gentrification, the wealth of Hackney has not been handed out fairly. Parts of the borough are still painfully poor – Hackney has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country – and there are for many, two Hackneys. They rub along side by side, coexisting amicably enough through the seasons.

In Clarence Road, there is the Book Shop, a small and magnificent second-hand bookstore full of treasures, run by a lovely woman named Rose. I recently bought Buchi Emecheta’s Kehinde in there for £2. But a ten-minute stroll down to Lower Clapton Road will take you to another indie book emporium, Pages of Hackney. The clientele here is very different, but just like Rose’s shop it’s serving its community just fine. We’ve adapted to the mix of residents – the Tesco on Morning Lane now sells egusi (melon seeds) and Nigerian Star beer, and smaller independent shops stock things like organic kale chips. Which is pretty great, if you like that sort of thing.

London, like any capital city, is littered with failed gentrification projects. In those places, people’s worst fears have been realised, neighbourhoods snuffed out. But Hackney is still working through its issues.

I love it here and I hope we’ll be one of the few that get it right, keeping everything that makes it what it is while incorporating other things. “Hackney remains fiercely unpretty,” someone tweets, as I scroll down my timeline. Really? I don’t think so. I think it’s pretty gorgeous, actually.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is: yorubagirldancing.com

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