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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”