Exploring the Dalston ‘vibe’ after Time Out labels the area 13th coolest in world

Ewart had been running his Jamaican restaurant at Gillett Square for eight years. Pic: Winnie Lee

When Time Out unveiled its coolest neighbourhoods in the world, places in Copenhagen, Chicago and Seoul topped their list – along with London’s very own Dalston, which came in 13th.

But for many Dalston locals, it came as no surprise. 

“There’s no other area like this in terms of diversity, the culture, the free-spirited people here – especially the food as well. When you come here, you can get different cultures’ food, which makes it more appealing.” said Ewart, who has been running a Jamaican restaurant in Gillett Square for eight years.

“You can get on with people easily. People don’t need to know you.You are just more welcomed in Dalston than anywhere else.” he added

Ewart compares Dalston to similarly diverse areas like Enfield and Brixton but feels that his neighbourhood stands out more as it is home to more cultures than anywhere else in London.

“You have the Jamaicans, you have your Africans, your Ethopians, your Somalians, Turkish, Polish. Everyone is here.” 

Mosts know the east London area of Dalston, in the borough of Hackney, for its cafes, pubs, and historic establishments such as Ridley Road market and the Rio Cinema. 

Jeffrey and Anne Campbell’s Sugar Cane stall on Ridley Road Market Pic: Winnie Lee

Jeffery Campbell, 57, who runs a sugar cane juice stall on Ridley Road Market said on hearing the news: “That’s why I said it’s got a vibe! 13th’s really good.”

The former property maintenance worker of 30 years worked with another relative, who runs a herb shop on Ridley road, for four months before developing his current sugar cane store.

Set in the heart of Dalston from 1880, Ridley Road Market has over 150 stalls Pic: Winnie Lee

“I think it’s basically a mixture of people and everybody’s kind of like a melting pot of different cultures. Everyone expresses themselves in all different ways here. There’s different cultures, different people doing different things, dressed in all different ways.” he said.

This is Jeffrey’s 70th day of trading on the historic Ridley Market and he enjoys it immensely.

His sister, Croydon local Anne Campbell, 53, occasionally joins him to help serve customers because she says she loves the cultural richness of Dalston and friendliness of stallholders in Ridley market.

Anne told ELL: “To me, Dalston is like a community that has been there at many other places, maybe like Brixton, but those sort of places are gentrified now so we haven’t got that. So that’s the reason why I like it so much. You can come and still feel that kind of energy, that kind of community, that warmth from people that you don’t get in many places in south London any more.”

Jeffrey and Anne Campbell Pic: Winnie Lee

Though she says it is not as gentrified as other places, Anne fears Dalston may encounter the same fate as Brixton. The Campbells assert that despite the myriad of cultures and historic businesses in Dalston, gentrification is definitely still present. 

Jeffrey said: “I get a lot of the elders here at [Ridley Road Market] and they say that 30 years ago, and even 10 years ago, it was completely different. It was even more diverse and more cultured. And they say that it’s changing.”

Dalston is ranked 13th out of Timeout’s annual list of 49 cities, which showcases the international cultural and culinary hotspots that are leading the way out of the global pandemic.

To evaluate the final rankings, Time Out’s local expert editors and writers rated neighbourhoods for great vibes, food, drink, nightlife, emerging culture, community spirit and resilience. 27,000 global city-dwellers were also involved in nominating their city’s coolest, most underrated and most culturally exciting neighbourhood.

Pic: Winnie Lee

Ewart, who had been living in Dalston for 20 years echoes the sentiment that his neighbourhood has changed and agrees that Dalston’s ongoing gentrification is a “work in progress”.

He said: “It is not what it used to be. New buildings, new developments, more people coming in. Different types of living in the area as well as the council putting in money to make the place better.”

Gillett Square is a public space that hosts cultural and social events for its neighbouring communities like art fairs and pop-up playgrounds. 

The Dalston local raises an example that he sees right in front of his restaurant – the construction of a new workspace building on Bradbury Street, part of The Dalston Works project by Hackney Cooperative Developments CIC. 

Construction of the workspace building started in 2019 and is ongoing at Gillett Square Pic: Winnie Lee

The finished workspace will support local traders and social enterprises by creating new low-cost spaces to help existing businesses stay in the area. But while construction is underway, existing traders on Gillett Square are allocated discounted spaces at the neighbouring car park, before being offered new, permanent spaces in the completed development. 

Ewart said: “After the redevelopment finishes, these things will come back again. This is a spot for people. When you come back in the summer you will love it.”

While locals still gather there to socialise, the on-going construction of the area has halted the possibility of bigger social events like pop-up outdoor cinemas. 

Though pleasantly surprised, Gwen Reed, the duty manager at the Rio Cinema is skeptical of Time Out’s ‘coolest neighbourhood’ ranking of Dalston.

Reed said: “I wonder what is making it ‘cool’ and what effect that’s had on what was here before, if you know what I mean.”

The 30 year-old, who lives on Crossway, hopes that Time Out’s publicity would benefit the people that have been living here instead of pushing them even further to the fringes.

The Rio is London’s oldest community-owned cinema Pic: Winnie Lee

“I think its history is really long and this is kind of like the newest transformation of the area. So it’s funny to me that it is this recent sort of discovery, I suppose. Which isn’t a discovery at all, it’s a place that has always been here and has always had a very active community.” she added.

Reed has been working at the Rio Cinema for three and a half years and is very familiar with the neighbourhood she calls home. 

Reed said: “It definitely has a very popular nightlife and a very exciting one. It has grown I think, even super recently, to being a place where people actually are seeking out – is kind of like the natural expansion of the Shoreditch crowd that’s just been pushed out of the tight city centre up this way. But there are some wonderful places to eat and drink to see art and theatre and films.”

Harry Bolam, 23, who works at Dalston cafe Brunswick East concurs, citing Dalston Superstore as a nightlife institution in the area. 

Bolam, who is a Bethnal Green local said: “I think Dalston is quite different to the rest of the East London spots. I think you’ve got the Hackney and Bethnal Green area like that, but nothing’s really got the same vibe as Dalston. “ 

Reed, who is from the United States, came to the UK to study at Guild Hall. Aside from her work at Rio Cinema, she is also a freelance musician in the London Contemporary Orchestra.

Though she is happy about the new developments that are making Dalston unique, she ruminates on the gentrification that Dalston is undergoing and expresses her concern about real estate prices for long time local businesses. 

“Especially working [at the Rio Cinema], and getting out late nights, you see the sort of desperation of the homeless population or the population of jobless people. It’s quite difficult to look at that and think of this area as being so trendy and so fun. Because it is still there and these are people, you know, and they deserve a place here as much as anyone else.” Reed added.

According to the latest Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD2019), Dalston has been ranked the lowest 15% in England, suffering particularly in the areas of crime and health deprivation. However, it ranks one of the lowest in England especially for barriers to housing and local services, sitting in the lowest 10% range.

Working at a cinema with a rich 100 year history, Reed recognises the importance in documentation and recommends the Rio Archive project for people who want to see how Dalston had transformed from the last 40 years.

In 2016, thousands of film slides were found in a filing cabinet in the Rio Cinema’s basement. They were taken by amateur photographers depicting the vibrant street scenes and community life in Dalston’s 1980s. The 256 page Rio Tape/Slide Archive book can be purchased online and feature over 300 images.

Reed said: “It’s genuinely so fascinating to actually see what it looked like and how different it is now and how some elements are still missing. And to feel the spirit of the place, which has always been lively and always been chaotic.”

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