Home to the emerging creative class, independent coffee shops and beanies in more colours than you can name, East London has been crowned as one of the capital’s trendiest locations. London Fields, Hackney, Dalston, Brick Lane and the surrounding areas are championed as some of the ‘edgiest’ places to live across the city. It might then be peculiar to consider that in the past this sentiment did not exist—instead, many would express sympathy and even disdain towards any of the areas mentioned.
Areas that had been foundational to London’s reputation as a multicultural metropolis. The growing glittery narrative defining the East End as a wealthy hipster haven in the eyes of prospective inhabitants and opportunistic landlords is quickly drowning out the sinister implications gentrification has on marginalised communities.
Having grown up in Walthamstow, and then relocating when I was 6, some of my fondest memories include visiting my family scattered across East London. My grandparents moved to the then-affordable Waltham Forest area in the 60s, where a large wave of immigrant communities established a life for themselves following the generational consequences of Britain’s colonial footprint. Unsurprisingly, they were not met with open arms and were quickly acquainted with racism both through their own personal experiences as well as the experiences of others. Taking precautionary measures was commonplace, such as the act of barricading their letterboxes with wooden planks to protect themselves from well-known skinheads who would set off fireworks into local houses.
Over time, a defiant community formed, hosting a lively South Asian and Caribbean presence as well as a large working class community of all backgrounds. The East End arguably had one of the most significant impacts on London’s culture, from music, food and culture to the conception of grassroots organisations fighting for a plethora of social causes. Despite this, the predominant narratives that plagued the area (and aimed to eclipse the above) were stories of poverty, knife crime, and rampant gang rivalries. While for many years, this remained statistically true, most reports of the area would omit to delve into the structural inequalities and lack of public funding that would result in this neglect. Nonetheless, East London was not considered one of the city’s many prized possessions.
However, it’s evident that this perception is rapidly beginning to change. In the midst of current TikTok trends, I stumbled across a since-deleted video on the platform showcasing candid clips of East London’s new, middle class, and apparently exclusively white inhabitants—with the on-screen text reading “POV: you move to East London.” The clip also included the caption “There’s a runway between Broadway and Brick Lane.”
Comments poured in on the video, which received over 150,000 likes, describing Hackney as “the new Amsterdam” and calling East London a “vibe.” Words that would never be used to describe the region just a few years ago. It’s safe to say, not everyone was pleased with the video. Many expressed a sense of grief for the area that they once called home, while others argued that the TikTok “glorified” and “glossed over” the reality of gentrification.
Those who author TikToks, blogs, or make comments like these, while perhaps absent of ill-intent, push forward a form of problematic ignorance that erases the stories behind the areas they occupy. It omits to recognise the communities who are in a state of disarray because social housing tenants are being pushed out to neighbourhoods miles away from their communities to make room for an incoming tide of high-paying hipsters.
It fails to realise that minimising places such as Brick Lane to no more than a ‘runway’ ignores the efforts of grassroots organisations such as Nijjor Manush protesting to halt council-approved plans to build a shopping mall that would see the destruction of many Bangladeshi-owned curry houses on the street. It does not recognise that describing East London as the “new Amsterdam” figuratively displaces the Caribbean, South Asian, and other communities that founded a cultural hub of the city to share and express their cultural traditions. Despite this, gentrification remains a contentious issue with many arguing that it brings more good than harm to the local community.
Rianna, 26, strongly detests this. She grew up in a large St Lucian family in Hackney and later moved to Newham for school. Having witnessed extended family members gradually moving to places as far as Luton, she continues to grapple with insensitive comments from the emerging community that have opened her eyes to the absurdity of gentrification.
“When people talk to me about Hackney, London Fields etc. and they’ve just moved in… they always talk about it like it’s somewhere I don’t know about. It’s a working class area, and [yet] it’s been taken from the working class. Now you’re taking pride in an area that had nothing to do with you,” she explained.
It is important to note, however, that responsibility for gentrification is not solely on those entering the area, the onus falls primarily on the councils and private entities ruthlessly capitalising on property development at the detriment of working class communities. These comments online, which may appear harmless on the surface, can often be perceived as staking claim or implying ownership of an area, without recognising that this presence has come at the expense of someone else.
Rianna also explores the wounds that gentrification begins to re-open, “The problem is how this happens, who profits, who benefits, who it’s made for and the people it’s displaced. You pushed my family out, what hurts is they were not welcomed here in the beginning. That’s what is heartbreaking about gentrification.”
When asked whether she prefers the Hackney that is regarded so highly today, she stated, “I prefer the old Hackney but I would love for the old Hackney to have traits of the new Hackney. Gentrification is bad because of the hurt behind it but there are ways to regenerate areas while retaining the original community.”
Nairah, a British-Pakistani, who has lived in both Hackney and Leyton, agreed, “It makes me laugh when people say this stuff, they don’t know the real Hackney. They’ve just seen it for two seconds. East London before had more culture and it was more vibrant. The changes serve to benefit others, not the community. I feel like they are pushing people out to bring in ‘better’ ones. Before, people would smile at each other. Now when you smile at someone you receive a blank look in return.”
While gentrification may bring about shiny buildings and airy open office spaces, it does so with the intent of appeasing a growing middle class community, at the great expense of local residents. The plethora of coffee shops and trendy thrift stores do not serve to benefit a community that is facing the largest brunt of the cost of living crisis. So in the pursuit of glamorising gentrification by expressing your ‘main character energy’ down the ‘runways’ of the East End, remember that your catwalk came at a great cost.