When I moved to the Suffolk Estate along Regent’s Canal in Hackney as a psychiatrist in training in 1999, I required three things from my flat: I needed space for my partner, our flatmate and me; the flat needed to be centrally located because I would change training hospitals often, and it needed to be cheap. One year of renting a damp, noisy flat in Brixton had already taught me that being a tenant in the UK was no fun. So, I decided to buy – an idea that would not have crossed my mind in Germany with its strong legal protection of tenant’s rights. At the time, I had no real idea what constituted a deprived neighbourhood, although I had learned that Brixton with its constant ethnic tensions and underhand aggression was not where I wanted to be.
Broadway Market in Hackney seemed charming enough. A little high street, bordered by railway tracks on one side, London Fields Park on the other, and Regent’s Canal to the South, felt like the centre of a small village even though half the shops were boarded up, and except for one little pub and one small café, the place felt derelict and run down. The two copies of the Guardian at the local news agent’s were still not sold by midday; there were long queues of local residents at the post office cashing their giros. It largely stayed that way for the next six to seven years, but then changed almost overnight into one of the most sought after and hippest locations in London. A street market organized by the local resident’s association – led by a Tory councillor I had had the pleasure of shagging (he was a dead sexy Rugby-player type and we never talked politics – was attracting visitors from afar with its increasingly upmarket selection of organic food, artisanal bakeries and patisseries, butchers, and various vintage clothes and handicraft stalls. Vegan cafès, cute little book shops, a florist, a posh fishmongers, a French delicatessen, fashionable pubs, and arts and design outlets in various formats popped up in rapid succession.
The street was brimming with men who looked liked they had just stepped out of a Dickens’ novel or the set of a film about Canadian lumberjacks, and girls with dignified clothes and restrained makeup, the type you imagine meeting at a conservatory giving her public piano debut. Nerdy specs and MacBooks complemented the look. To fit in, you ideally wore a wool beanie whilst designing a website and sipping a soy milk latte at the local cupcake shop.
The older residents now looked like aliens, never having moved at all. They were marked out by their unfashionable clothes, weight, elaborate hair styles and fingernail designs – the word “chav” is frowned upon in those enlightened circles, thankfully – their East London accent, their newspapers (Sun, Mirror, and Daily Express, not Guardian, Le Monde, and Independent) and, above all, their absence. There was nothing there for them anymore, except the local off-licence, Percy Ingles and the Turkish food shop at the end of the road. On Saturdays, the stacks of the Guardian at the newsagent’s spilled over onto the sidewalk.
I do not exactly remember when I stepped outside of my flat and realised the place had changed in the two seconds I had blinked or been on-call. What had initially felt like welcome little additions to the local scene, small incremental changes, turned into an avalanche. By that time, I had lived there for eight years and slowly got used to the place and its rough edges, not actively loving it, but finding it pleasant enough. The local lido had reopened, its olympic-sized pool heated all year round; the walk along the canal to Islington or Vicky park offered respite from the hectic and noisy city; the local pub was friendly.
Several events coincided to end my comfortable agreement with the neighborhood and London in general. On a sunny Thursday afternoon in late summer, I was reading a book in London Fields surrounded by about hundredandfifty people, beards, horn-rimmed glasses, bottles of wine… Across the lawn, 40 yards away next to the toddlers’ play area, was a commotion amongst a group of black teenagers, shouting; then shots were fired. They all ran off in different directions except for one who lay on the ground. Minutes later, an air ambulance and several police cars arrived; the area was cordoned off. The boy’s dead body was removed. What a shock! Amidst the almost pastoral pleasantness of us pleasant people enjoying such a pleasing afternoon, there should be such violence! People should live their lives on such different terms to ours. What was my daily professional bread in the neighboring borough– my patients were drug dealers and users, street workers, ex-inmates, the homeless and the marginalised – seemed like an alien intrusion into my private life. All was not well in Pleasantham; the riots only a few years later confirmed it to the nation.
The second, even more upsetting event was the story of Tony. Tony was a 40-something Sicilian widower who was raising his learning-disabled son by himself since the death of his wife. He took pride in his little café – named Francesca’s after his late wife – on Broadway Market, which was one of the few places where old and new neighbours met. With the success of the weekly farmer’s market and rising real estate prices, Labour-controlled Hackney Council decided to auction off the buildings on the little high street. Tony and a few other shopkeepers bid for their premises, but their bids were discounted on spurious formal grounds. The building was purchased by a property tycoon who planned to build expensive apartments. Tony and his son lost their livelihood. The café was boarded up until protestors squatted in it and demanded it be returned to him. They were generously supported with money, food and blankets by the local residents. Eventually the police moved in, cleared the squat, and the building was half demolished to render it uninhabitable, and then boarded up again. The protestors returned and rebuilt it, but were thrown out one final time. Eight years on, the building is still a ruin, the only one boarded up on this ultra-hip little street. On Saturdays, Tony is now selling freshly pressed juices on the market, within eyesight of Francesca’s.
On this early winter sunny afternoon, I took a stroll across my old estate. The low golden sunlight contrasted with deeply blue shade, turning the functional, evidently 60s social housing architecture a strange sort of graphic beauty, which in parts descended into almost brutish neglect. The many warning notices about fines for dumping or “CCTV in operation” as well as the surveillance cameras that monitor every corner of these blocks of flats betray a communal level of anxiety and mistrust that I have always found unsettling. They never seemed to have made any difference to the flash vandalism in the area. The artists that have taken over my flat – the vapid, translucent daughter of an overbearing and glamourous wealthy English woman from Paris and the daughter’s flatmates – have turned the flat into a fortress, screened off the front garden, lowered the blinds, let the shrubbery reach to the first floor, all to keep the world out. Everywhere in the neighbourhood one finds pointless little fences whose aim is less protection than the marking of property and of an “inside” and “outside”. The original layout of this estate betrayed the civic spirit of the 1960’s, of communal living, shared spaces, and trust. It seems an anachronism that has been adopted to the new social order by force.
On this afternoon, the estate is quiet, in sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle on the market less than 100 yards down the road. I had spent 11 years living there, the longest anywhere of my adult life, but now I come as a tourist and I feel a tourist. Five years after selling the flat, it has increased by €250,000 in value, €50,000 for each year . Without realising it at the time – as a matter of fact, being completely unconscious of it – I had as a young doctor been one of the trailblazers of the gentrification of that neighbourhood.