Hackney: one of the top places to live in Britain, or fashion fad?

Back in 2006, Channel 4 show “The Best and Worst Places to Live in Britain” condemned Hackney as the worst place to live in the UK. The borough’s crime statistics, poor schools and a lack of adequate housing were highlighted as reasons why it should be avoided.

But now, in 2014, Hackney finds itself on the Sunday Times list of the best places to live in Britain. So what caused this turnaround? What has changed in the last nine years?

London Fields. Pic: bryanesque

London Fields. Pic: bryanesque

Debby Blow, a partner at Keatons estate agents in Hackney, thinks the Olympics were the driving force behind people’s changing opinion of the borough. She explained: “The media had always portrayed Hackney so poorly before the Olympic announcement, but following that, everything changed.”

“Regeneration excelled, we saw a mass increase of secondary schools, transport links improved across the borough and council estates upgraded. I suppose it was all to give us the best presence before the Olympics started.”

Blow says demand for housing now outweighs supply in the area, with more and more people wanting to start a family there. “Across the board, everything about the area has excelled. This all adds to the wonderful open spaces and glorious architecture that we’ve always had. People are not just buying in this area because it’s close to the city, but because they want to buy a place here and stay for the next 20 years with a family.”

Many areas of Hackney have been subject to gentrification in recent years. Pic: Alan Denney

Many areas of Hackney have been subject to gentrification in recent years. Pic: Alan Denney

Judges for the Sunday Times’ list described Hackney as “a textbook example of gentrification.” Gentrification is a hot topic in the area, with many born-and-raised residents taking a disliking to the cafes and art galleries which have sprung up and an influx of new residents adding to a change in local culture.

Jenny Baker, a 27 year-old lifelong Hackney resident, says the recent developments have taken the charm out of the area. “These days Hackney has become a sort of Shoreditch overflow. All the posh shops and artsy students aren’t a sign of things having changed, just covered up. All the problems this area had are still here, they’re just being pushed aside. Hackney’s always been a bit rough, that’s part of its charm!”

Baker admits that the Olympics have had a positive impact on the area in some ways. “My sister goes to one of the new academies and seems to love it. Those all sprung up before the Olympics, so I suppose that’s a good thing.”

What of those who recently moved to the area? Ella Jessel is a 25-year-old student who moved to the area four years ago. She, too, can see the effects of gentrification in Hackney. “This place is definitely gentrification central. Families and those who have lived here for decades are being pushed out to places like Walthamstow as the rental costs have increased.”

For Jessel, the Olympics has little to do with her understanding of the changes in the area. She says: “I don’t think the desire to live in Hackney is that related to any kind of post-Olympic legacy, as that is mainly in Stratford, not in Hackney. I think most people are drawn to the period buildings, café culture, good pubs, schools and a strong sense of cultural community.”

A question remains of whether or not these changes are wholly positive. Are increased house prices, a greater number of artisan cafes and better OFSTED rated secondary schools the definitive criteria with which one should assess an area? Perhaps the factors on which the Sunday Times ranking is based do not produce a just assessment of Hackney as a community and place to live.

For long term residents such as Baker, Hackney is about more than its ranking on a list. The culture and community are more important. For people like her, Hackney should be looked at with its past in mind. It should be the product of its difficulties and the way they were overcome.

Perhaps those looking for the “artsy edge” and “urban cool” advertised in the Sunday Times should keep their minds open to other London areas, and allow this changing community to flourish on its own.


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