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Issue 222

Will Gentrification Be Dalston’s Demise?

With the mass displacement of communities and local businesses, Dalston’s long-standing diversity has become a much hyped-up marketing ploy, but can Ridley Road Market survive this re-brand?  

BY Juliet Jacques in Features , Opinion | 21 SEP 21

For a certain type of person, the gentrification of Dalston in northeast London over the past 20 years has become something of a joke. The area is now synonymous with ‘hipsters’ – the middle-class ‘arty’ types who moved in during the 2000s, satirized in the Channel 4 sitcom Nathan Barley (2005) and viral YouTube video ‘Being a Dickhead’s Cool’ (2010). For those who grew up in the area, it’s less funny. Skyrocketing rents have led to the displacement of communities and the disappearance of long-standing local businesses and social spaces. Property developers have used Dalston’s ‘diversity’ and culture as a marketing tool and, yet, places like Ridley Road Market – a longstanding social hub, with vendors from and stores catering to numerous local communities – are under threat because they occupy valuable space. Extant since the 1880s and reputedly the basis for the market in the BBC’s long-running soap opera EastEnders (1985–ongoing), Ridley Road has been recognized by Hackney Council as an Asset of Community Value, supposedly giving it extra protection from developers.

With the support of vocal local campaigners, Ridley Road Market survives – for now. However, many of the cultural spaces that made Dalston so attractive in the 2000s and early 2010s have vanished. The artists’ moving-image organization LUX, which handles the archive of the long-running, formally avant-garde and politically leftist London Film-Makers’ Co-operative, left its premises on Shacklewell Lane in 2016 after 14 years. Two years later, the artist-run production lab no.w.here, which inherited the Co-operative’s filmmaking equipment, finally lost the fight to retain its space in nearby Bethnal Green. There are still several galleries and clubs in Dalston and, although the legendary Vortex Jazz Club, which opened in 1988, lost its venue on Stoke Newington Church Street in 2005, it was rehoused on Gillett Square, a public space designed by Hackney Council’s Regeneration Committee. But other live music venues, such as Power Lunches – the last of the small, scuzzy venues that felt like a throwback to the early 2000s alternative scene – have gone, narrowing the scope for new bands; another popular music space, Birthdays, closed in 2016 and is now part of the Brewdog chain of pubs.

Rio Cinema Archive
A fashion shoot for the Tokki boutique on Bradbury Street, Dalston, London, 1985. Courtesy: © Rio Cinema Archive 

These closures followed an earlier wave that took out some older, community-run initiatives – most notably the Centerprise bookshop and cafe, opened as a co-operative in 1971. At the time, there were no independent bookshops in Hackney because publishers and booksellers didn’t think working-class people read much, let alone wrote. Centerprise took Hackney Council to court in 2012 over a rent hike and lost. After effectively forcing its demise, the council paid tribute to Centerprise’s popularity in their ‘Celebrating Black History in Hackney’ (2017) exhibition, with a walking tour that also took in the local library, named after The Black Jacobins (1938) author C.L.R. James, who spoke at Hackney Town Hall in 1983. James’s talk is one of the many events captured in The Rio Tape/Slide Archive: Radical Community Photography in Hackney in the 80s (2020), recently published by Isola Press. It has a foreword by children’s author and long-term Hackney resident Michael Rosen, whose poetic script for Emma-Louise Williams’s 2011 documentary film, Under the Cranes, celebrated the area’s multiculturalism and questioned the motives behind its 21st-century ‘regeneration’.

The book features slides made by The Tape/Slide Newsreel Group, an adult education project that taught photography and sound-recording skills to young, mostly unemployed locals and sent them to report on life in Hackney. Founded at Centerprise and based at the independent, 

non-profit Rio Cinema, they recorded the community at work and play: shopping at Ridley Road Market and family-run stores, all no longer there; protesting against police with dogs stopping and searching people on Sandringham Road, known as the ‘Frontline’ in the 1980s because it was where young Black people met; demonstrating against the death of 21-year-old Black man Colin Roach in custody at Stoke Newington police station in January 1983 and the deportation of a Turkish family in March 1984; supporting the striking miners in 1984–85 and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; and the Save Hackney campaign, which called for the council to invest in infrastructure and to provide childcare for women, especially those from ethnic minorities, who wanted to work.

Rio Cinema Archive
Centerprise bookshop and cafe, Dalston, London, 1985, photograph. Courtesy: © Rio Cinema Archive

Last summer’s campaign to prevent the board of the Rio Cinema selling it to a chain seems to have worked, and spaces such as Cafe OTO – London’s best venue for experimental music – and the equally innovative Arcola Theatre have survived. Tensions between the local community and the police remain, notably flaring up in 2017 when 20-year-old Rashan Charles died after officers chased him into a shop on Kingsland Road. And attempts to displace the working class and destroy their institutions are ongoing: the Kingsland Shopping Centre – a mixture of supermarkets, chain stores and family businesses – is slated for ‘redevelopment’, as is Ridley Road. Often the harbingers of gentrification, artists are more politically conscious now of their role in the process than they were in the 2000s. If they side with campaigners, working on grass-roots initiatives that involve long-standing communities as well as new residents, we might be able not just to look back at what has been lost, but to build more robust cultural organizations that recapture something of Dalston’s 20th-century spirit. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 222 with the headline ‘Eastenders’

Main image: One of many protests demanding justice for Colin Roach, Stoke Newington, London, c.1983, photograph. Courtesy: © Rio Cinema Archive

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June 2022. Her second short story collection, The Woman in the Portrait, will be published in July.