Tale of a city: From hell to hipsville

Bim Adewunmi contemplates Hackney's inevitable gentrification.

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

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

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war