When the topic of gentrification in London comes up, it’s likely Hackney will come up in that discussion, sooner rather than later. That’s largely what I thought about during a 25-minute stroll through one neighborhood of the northeast London borough which began, innocently enough, as an after lunch photo walk to collect images of anti-Donald Trump graffiti. As you might expect, it was easy to find, and spreading in all directions like an uncontrollable orange weed.
This particular area of the Inner London borough lies at its eastern edge, a short walk northwest from London Stadium aka the 2012 Olympic Stadium and Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. I don’t know what it was like a decade ago, when Olympic boom-related construction and renewal began and gentrification first arrived, floating in on a raft of promise on the polluted River Lee. The feel of the old –what’s left of it– is largely industrial, so gentrification may not even be the best way way to describe its present transformation. Locals, please fill me in.
Based solely on this particular 25-minute stroll (60 seconds of which are in the video above), the renewal had the appearance, at least on the surface, of mixed-use community development, with as many new and newish flats, lofts and office spaces as there were galleries, funky cafes, bistros, and various community centers, mostly rising from transformed factories or warehouses. The people strolling about and using those spaces appeared as diverse as London itself. It was all-ages, too.
What those surface observations mean in reality I don’t really know. I didn’t have time to explore how much the cost, quality or standard of living in the area has changed. Or to determine who has moved in or if anyone was forced out. Or whether it is forces from the outside or voices from the community that are orchestrating the changes. It didn’t possess the same Potemkin village facade that many urban areas elsewhere do. At least not in any immediate or obvious way.
It’s fashionable and easy to be opposed to gentrification in many of its forms, to bemoan the economic forces that power it. But the reality is never as simple as that knee jerk response. The issue is an important one as the planet becomes even more urban-centered. Today, 54 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas. The UN estimates that will grow to 66 percent by 2050. That’s an additional 2.5 billion people moving to cities where room will need to be made to accommodate them. The concepts of urban renewal and even gentrification are now different, more nuanced and better researched than they were when people, and later the greedy developers many despise, rediscovered the potential of urban centers. The changes that critics say ruin urban neighborhoods are often the drivers that revitalize them.
I don’t know what it costs for someone to dock and live in a houseboat here these days, but I do know that the shores along the River Lee and its tributaries are no longer used as chemical and toxic waste dumping grounds.
The colorful displays of guerrilla art are fun, too. Fourteen more images below.