Amidst London’s artistic calendar brimming with cinematic rendezvous, the Hackney Film Festival (HFF) surged, rightfully claiming its unparalleled credentials in experimental showcase. Despite a premature chill wrapping London in autumn scarves, large crowds bustled through Hackney streets to see the next short film, feature documentary or live audio-visual performance.
Amongst the festival’s many highlights was Under The Cranes, a moving feature-length collage of archive material, fused with contemporary footage to the rhymes of sleek poetry. The director, Hackney resident Emma-Louise Williams, skilfully paints chapters of Hackney’s history between receding and forthcoming realities. When I met her for coffee, Emma gave tongue to one of the elements she explored in her film: the change of communities across the timescale. According to her, this dynamism, “is not the threat to Hackney’s identity, it is its marker. Communities recycle themselves; it’s the fabric of life”. But Emma’s Hackney has gone under the cranes and new times are unfolding, an unprecedented episode where most people haven’t seen the cranes. But Emma has seen them. They were just above where her film was screened, at the very heart of Dalston, Hackney.
Over twenty years ago, Dalston, a district in west Hackney, witnessed a major demographic shift. During the 1960s, an increasingly affluent Jewish community wantonly looked outwards leaving behind dilapidated neighbourhoods where Turkish migrants gradually moved in. A mere four miles north of Whitehall’s Thatcherism and Blairism, the newcomers have been setting up their shops, restaurants, and snooker clubs whispering a breath of life into their new home, which is the diverse quarter throbbing with colour that we recognise today.
It is the story of Dalston Square, however, which invites interest; a development scheme approved in 2006 by the London Development Agency, Hackney Council, and Transport for London among others. The project was offered to Barratt Homes, an arm of Barratt Developments PLC, one of the UK’s largest property developers. Despite its singularity in policy, Hackney is much like elsewhere in the UK when public authorities own derelict land or property in inner cities. Under the dictates of various economic imperatives, a mega contract is handed over to a hefty corporation.
One would expect public officials to cringe over the misfortune of many locals whose livelihoods were affected. However, with nothing less than alacrity, Hackney council speaks of Dalston’s development projects in purely economic terms. It is claimed essential to boost the borough’s competitiveness against Islington to the west and Stratford to the east.
What about the young Turkish Cypriot couple running a supermarket whose lease was not extended by Hackney council? To this question, a group of protesting locals is given the official stance, which comes across as a shrug of indifference: “the project is hugely beneficial to the borough and the issue is not political, it is economic”. What a deceiving lullaby. It is striking to realise how insensitive, offensive and discriminatory such evasive comments are. To the stretch of 45 year old striving bakeries which got bulldozed so that Dalston Square soars overnight, the official message seems to imply that “they are not economically viable.”
Let alone alien architecture, Dalston Square is erupting in disharmony with its economic and social surroundings. Indeed, decision-makers utter socio-political statements in the urban structures they favour. Dalston Square flats, devoid of playgrounds, inadequate to raise children and affordable only to middle to high income persons, could only host certain types of professionals. Between the lines, one can read “when you want a family, you sell the flat to the next professional with no children and move further out”.
Once I wrote: “Hackney, home for London’s most experimental art scenes, a celebrated emblem of British multiculturalism and a congregation of sprightly neighbourhoods abuzz with young flair”. Have I pondered enough on what I meant by ‘home’?
With all sentimental thoroughness, I certainly feel Hackney is home. It is the immediate geography around me – spaces which define my daily habitat and weave my sense of collectivity. A second thought clouds my mind though. Am I not one of these privileged individuals who moved to Hackney a few years ago and forms today’s new layer of human pageant which not only keeps on attracting outsiders and investors, but also magnetises developers and policy to cater for us? We pride ourselves for being part of a community, but are we? We cycle past decimated dwellings and we ramble around “for sale”, “luxury flats”, and “modern offices” signs. Do we know who moved out or where they have gone?
In a short documentary, Iain Sinclair, author of Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, stood facing a 1985 mural and a block of housing development flats to find himself engulfed in a juxtaposition of realities. The mural represents “a vision of what hackney was” he says, while across the street, is “what Hackney is endangered of becoming”.
Hackney has always welcomed all and for it to continue doing so, the hierarchy of economic viability based on income and housing ladder affordability should be disputed and dismantled. If the legacy we are to leave behind is one of a volatile herd of socio-economic compeers whose concerns do not extend to adjacent host communities and families, then it is degeneration, not regeneration.
Next time signposts are up, stop and peer over the fence. Let us not have another Dalston Square.
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