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How Hackney became a diamond

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As a rule of thumb, if I like a neighbourhood, it peaked a decade earlier. When I lived in Silver Lake, the hipster frontier of Los Angeles had long before moved to the other side of Dodger Stadium. When I did a stint in the Shaw district of Washington, the “scene” — to the extent that such a thing can exist amid the majestic seriousness of the imperial capital — had transferred to H Street. 

In fact, as a lagging indicator, I have just two equals. One is Aesop, the Australian cosmetics brand whose arrival in a district tends to round off its transition from avant garde to Bobo. The other, it seems, is The Rolling Stones. In the title and promotion of their album Hackney Diamonds, which comes out next week, the band tips a fedora hat to a London borough decades after it became a haunt of the creative class.

Whether you regard it as paradise, or as a beachhead for ruthless gentrifiers, the mutation of Hackney, and its fringes, is up there with Brooklyn and Kreuzberg as an urban story. 

Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones, pictured recently in the back of a limousine
The new album from the Rolling Stones, ‘Hackney Diamonds’, is named after East End slang for broken glass © Mark Seliger

It is also rich in lessons. First, that infrastructure, while important, isn’t everything. In fact, it can have perverse consequences. Perhaps the crucial fact about Hackney is that it isn’t on the Tube. (Though its slick overhead trains allow eerily Hitchcockian views into people’s homes.) If it were, and locals could traverse the city on a whim, I doubt the borough could sustain its independent cinemas, its nightlife, its urban farm, or its atmosphere. A little bit of separateness forces a place to evolve its own features, like the Galápagos finches that piqued Darwin’s curiosity. Whatever estate agents say, the only “villages” in London tend to be off-Tube.

The same principle can hold across an entire city. The glory of LA is inseparable from its most obvious glitch, which is the lack of geographic integration through public transport. Forced to have their own ecosystems, neighbourhoods there harbour all manner of curiosities: galleries in strip malls, vinyl-playing bars above unpromising chain pizzerias, a restaurant as fine as n/naka just off Interstate 10. 

The rise (some would say fall) of Hackney has underlined something else. There is a closer relationship between bohemia and capitalism than either side can stand to admit. Notice how often the most modish neighbourhoods lie close to financial districts. It might be that incidental business from high-earners allows creative people — chefs, artists — to take risks. Or that both cultures rely in the end on a kind of individualism. A Labour borough, Hackney has entrepreneurial smallholders, whether in the migrant-run markets or the starred restaurants, to make a Thatcherite brush a tear from their cheek.

But perhaps the ultimate lesson of all that has happened in E8 and its surrounding postcodes is how difficult such change is to bring about. The morality of gentrification is debated often enough. Support it, and you seem indifferent to the displacement of people. Fight it, and you can cross over into the sentimentalisation of poverty. Neglected in the crossfire is the technical question of how it happens at all. And lots of struggling places are desperate to know.

Well, for most, Hackney isn’t a viable template. Even aside from being a few miles from the core of Europe’s global city, it had lavish physical assets to work with: the canal, the Victorian brick, the ever-surprising green-ness. Infusing this built environment is the history, whether glorious (Joseph Conrad recovered from maritime illness here) or notorious (“Hackney diamonds” is antiquated slang for broken glass, such as might litter a retail premises post-robbery). 

No place, however desperate it is to improve itself, can magick up this kind of material or atmospheric legacy. This is why, while new developments arouse anger and distaste in some people, in me the feeling is more poignant. It is about the creation of hopes — of “village” life, of café culture — that aren’t realistic. A place must work within its inheritance.

Having grown up in a suburb that gentrification forgot, I can see that it wasn’t anyone’s fault. The interwar housing there isn’t so coveted or the historical texture so beguiling. That, no doubt, is why I pass more evenings and weekends in Hackney than anywhere else. Of course, the bohemian frontline has long since moved south across the river. See you there in a decade.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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