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

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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