The Street: A story of Hackney’s grit and glory

Hoxton Street. Pic: Zed Nelson

“You can’t live in Hoxton unless you’re absolutely wedged to buggery.”

Joe Cooke

The pie and mash in Joe Cooke’s shop is almost certainly the same as it was 50 years ago. There’s sawdust on the floor and mash slathered on the plate next to a perfectly crisp pie with parsley sauce drenched all over. And a cup of no-thrills tea for a quid.

Cooke told Eastlondonlines: “I’ve been in Hackney all me life -67 years. I don’t live in Hackney, but I’ve been in Hackney all my life, I was born here. I live in Chingford now. I’ve said to people before, do I look like a billionaire? Because you can’t live in Hoxton unless you’re absolutely wedged to buggery.”

He is one of the main characters in Zed Nelson’s documentary, ‘The Street’, an exploration of Hoxton Street, a single road in London which manages to represent modern day London in all its grit and glory.

Hoxton Street, located near trendy Shoreditch. Pic: OpenStreetMap

We also meet a garage owner, a carpet shop owner, and some local residents who even remember the blitz days.  There are also the new arrivals; the galleries, the German craft beer shop, the artist’s agency.  

From the start it is clear the divisive issue of gentrification is at the forefront, and its effects  are laid bare across Nelson’s four-year project.  It is a microcosm of London and its problem with property prices and the housing crisis.

Joe Cooke of F Cooke Pie and Mash. Pic: Sean Russell

Gentrification is nothing new to Hackney. Shoreditch is often considered the symbol of gentrification itself; once a place in east-London where the poor lived alongside artists, now a chic area dominated by Principal Tower luxury apartments, vegan cafés and pop-up boutiques. Little to none of its character remains.

During the four years of filming for The Street, not only were small local businesses closed and luxury apartments built, but the Brexit referendum took place, highlighting the stark divisions in our society.

“People feel almost guilty as well, we all feel some guilt at being a part of this change but not knowing how to control it.”

Zed Nelson

Hoxton Street is a market road just north of Shoreditch, nestled alongside Haggerston and below Dalston. For years it has been the centre of the Hoxton community. The 394 will drop you off right alongside it.

Even now its businesses remain a mix of food and goods, cafés and galleries. You can even get street-food served up by pop-up restaurants and trailers.

Pie and mash, the funeral directors, and the city. Pic: Sean Russell

Nelson, 53, grew up in Hackney from the age of 3, just north of Dalston, and has studied Hackney before in his book, ‘A Portrait of Hackney’ in 2014.

Then, in 2015, Nelson set out to film these rapid changes: “Hackney’s become a trendy desirable place to live which is great, but there’s a feeling that it will go too far and that we’ll all lose in the long run if we’re not careful. People feel almost guilty as well, we all feel some guilt at being a part of this change but not knowing how to control it.”

The film deals sensitively with issues from race, to community, to money, to Brexit, challenging the audience to consider their own position.

But at its heart, the point is not that change is bad. On the contrary, it can be good, but “rapid profit driven changes, where the demographic of an area changes very quickly, causes rents to go up rapidly; even small businesses are faced with increasing business rates and rents, and then very quickly people start being displaced.”

Colleen O’Neil from the film. Pic: Zed Nelson

He explained that there is nothing bad about new “hipster” café’s and art galleries, as they can add something to an area. We do, however, need to consider how far we go.

“A lot of pubs have been closed down and sold off to be converted into apartments, but that’s something you can’t reverse, a part of the British heritage of pubs. When they’re torn apart and ripped out they’re gone. So the film in some-ways is a wakeup call to make us consider what we value, who we value, and what sort of city we want to live in.”

Nelson believes that slowing rapid gentrification that displaces people “falls into the lap of our councils and our government to manage and control this free-market capitalism that we’re all in the grip of. Hackney council is by no means the worst, they actually are quite aware of these issues, but Hackney has had almost 50% of its budget slashed by central government.”

Speaking to Cooke over a cup of tea which was “strong enough for a spoon to stand in,” he told Eastlondonlines that it is “increasingly difficult for people to be here, without paying money, it’s very hard, very hard.”

Image from The Street. Pic: Zed Nelson

The gentrification is laid bare in The Street. Viewers are shown members of the community eat food from a soup kitchen outside a trendy art gallery, a man living in a “flat” no bigger than a prison cell for £235 a week, the racist backlash after Brexit and the reaction to the terrible tragedy of Grenfell.

Nelson said: “The speed of change and this kind of hyper-gentrification that we’re experiencing means that communities are increasingly broken up, and I think that’s true of middle class communities as well – it’s not just a working class issue,” said Nelson.

“I’ve had to consider, am I a gentrifier?”

Zed Nelson

He added: “Even the so called “gentrifiers” feel uncomfortable about what’s happening, and I think I include myself in that. I’ve had to consider, am I a gentrifier?”

The Street is at cinemas now, find a screening here:

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