Physically proximate, but economically remote: gentrification in Hackney

I grew up in Hackney in the ‘90s and 2000s. I returned four years ago to work in the community. I’ve been struck by two main features of its inequality.

Despite its gentrification, there’s much continuity in Hackney

Simplistic narratives about Hackney’s complete “hipsterisation” abound, but having undertaken an extensive research project into the lives of young people locally, it’s clear to me that far from everything has been transformed.

There have been significant changes. Expensive shops and cafes have proliferated. Daniel, one of the brilliant young people I’ve worked with once said: “these new places are so close – they’re just round the corner or across the street – but they feel so far away.” 

Young people in Hackney are surrounded by new places which are physically proximate, but economically remote: they can’t afford or access them despite living alongside them. The worst example of this is ‘Hackney Fashion Walk’ – a collection of luxury outlet stores part-funded by the Mayor’s Regeneration Fund after the 2011 riots, which have now almost all closed. An act of corporate vandalism, presented as regeneration.

Daniel looks across the road at an expensive gym. Like Hackney Fashion Walk, it’s failed commercially and is now closed

Young people can see who benefits from change locally. Respondents to our research spoke about the area seeming to “prioritise richer people” or the “upper class”. One 19 year-old put it strongly: “They’re just about bringing in clothing shops, so it ain’t benefiting us… it ain’t helping young people, it’s just helping whoever owns the property.”

Many participants spoke openly about knowing they won’t be able to stay in the community that has always been their home. At a local school, a girl of around 15 said she feared going to university, because of knowing she couldn’t afford to live back in Hackney. Children in local primary schools spoke with sadness about their neighbours having to move out because they couldn’t stay in the area anymore. When talking about the changes they wanted, their answers included “lower rent” and “higher wages”.

A very well-placed street sign above a developer’s hoarding in Hackney Wick.

The question of who has the most claim to live in a certain area is an incredibly difficult one, as the perpetual debates about migration and asylum-seeking, as much as those about gentrification, attest. But one thing seems very clear to me: it’s not a question to be left to “the market”.

Among all this upheaval, though, there are important indicators of continuity. The young people we spoke to celebrated the area’s continuing multiculturalism, community spirit, and neighbourliness. Less positively, they also emphasised long-running problems affecting local young people: housing problems, crime, youth violence, gangs, drugs, and lack of work opportunities. One 15 year-old put it starkly: “Everything is more expensive here [but] the community hasn’t changed – it’s still poor.” Whack my old postcode (E9 5SX) into the Index of Multiple Deprivation data map, and you’ll see it’s still among the most deprived areas in the country. It was recently announced that Hackney now has the third highest rate of child poverty in the UK, the rate having increased by nearly 7% in the past year, so that now close to half of Hackney’s children are in poverty.

The same issues which affected my generation of young people in Hackney continue today, seemingly untouched by regeneration and gentrification. 

Parents from different backgrounds are treated very differently by (some) schools

One of my main roles in Hackney is supporting young people and their parents through difficulties in education. Quite often, after I attend a meeting at school with a parent and/or student, they comment with mixed feelings about how differently they were treated with me there – it’s good that they got more respect, but it’s bad that the teachers can only avoid demeaning them when there’s another professional present.

This belittling treatment is not equally distributed. Parents from poorer backgrounds, younger parents, single parents, female parents, and parents of colour are often victims of the greatest contempt. I’ve seen it. 

One parent said to me on the phone, the very first time we spoke: “I feel like the school is classist, Luke. They treat me a certain way because I’m a young single mum from Hackney. My neighbour is [professional], and they treat them very differently.” The idea that a school in Hackney would discriminate against a parent because they’re from Hackney is self-evidently absurd, but sadly very plausible: there is an intense superiority complex shot through some local schools (not all), which seem to view themselves as fortresses of civilisation in a savage neighbourhood. 

It goes without saying that this inequality is reflected in exam results and – most notably – in exclusion statistics.

Fighting (the symptoms of) inequality in Hackney

Hackney Quest, the charity I work for, fights the everyday symptoms and the causes of inequality in Hackney, as much as we can. We run free community meals and give out food parcels. We recently partnered with another charity, Build Up, to give local young people the power to design and build a new public space. Daniel, mentioned above, was a paid youth leader on the project. 

But much more is needed, from local government, national government, the business world, and civil society. It’s a disgrace that parents can be treated so differently due to class, ethnicity or gender. It’s a disgrace that young people living streets apart in my home borough continue to live qualitatively different lives, due to a degree of inequality that can’t possibly be justified. However tightly you grip hold of the preposterous notion of British “meritocracy”, it’s hard to argue for the superior merit of one 8 year old over another.

By Luke Billingham, Hackney Quest

This article represents the personal views of Luke Billingham not The Equality Trust.

Hackney Quest is a youth charity which provides positive activities for the community’s young people. To find out more about their brilliant work visit Hackney Quest’s website.

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