When you get off the train at Hackney Downs, Hackney looks like a pretty sketchy borough of London. However, this unassuming city, which has in recent years become a hipster hotspot, has a long history within London.
The borough the way it is today was founded in 1965 when it merged with Stoke Newington and Shoreditch, both of which share a large present day hipster population and have recently been facing the effects of gentrification. The name Hackney, however, dates back to the 1200s when the area was believed to be surrounded by marshes, making it somewhat inaccessible and therefore deemed an “island”.
Both Shoreditch High Street and Kingsland Road, prominent Hackney avenues were once apart of a large Roman road that ran through the borough.
What was once a place frequented by nobility, the borough now stands as one of the most economically struggling parts of London with every ward in the 10% of “most deprived” in the country and “47% of its children living in low income homes. It also has a reputation of being very unsafe, but has seen a significant drop in recent years.
This low-income, dangerous vibe is still apparent when you step off the tube with rundown shops and homeless people on every corner. When I first got there, I thought perhaps I was in the wrong place, while I know hipsters are known for getting in before the rush, this place seemed like a sleepy town full of people just trying to get by.
After wandering through residential streets for a while, I finally arrived at Mare Street, one of Hackney’s most popular. The shift in atmosphere was palpable. All of a sudden there was free wifi, a huge museum, manicured gardens in front of the courthouse and a picturesque art film theatre. The people shifted too, gone were the shop owners and families heading home and in their place were young, rainbow-haired “cool kids” toting their vintage shopping bags and casually taking drags from their hand-rolled cigarettes.
Unlike the area of Shoreditch High Street and the markets there, the hipster seen in central Hackney is a little harder to find and is much more “word of mouth” than “tourist attraction.”
While Mare Street stood out, it was only after a little bit of searching that I came across it.
Back in the residential area, Labour posters in could be seen in many windows and anti-tory stickers littered among the streets.
“It’s not uncommon to see labour posters,” Viki, 34 said. “People who’ve been here their whole life are much more conservative than the kids moving in who are very liberal. They’re bringing a new mindset to the city.”
There is definitely a variety of cultures but they haven’t quite mixed yet. There is a lot of Turkish and Kurdish influence due to its high population and I saw lots of orthodox Jews walking around with their children which lends itself to an interesting culture.
“The [Kurdish] community here is very welcoming,” Olan, 52 said. ” My family has lived here for a long time and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else other than my home.”
There is lots of local media like the Hackney Gazette and the Hackney Post which focuses on community news and attractions like Hackney One Carnival and Hoxton Hall events.
While I chose this neighborhood to focus on the hipster music scene, what I found in the heart of Hackney was much more intriguing. A meeting point of culture as well as a once overtly dangerous neighborhood now dealing with the effects of gentrification.
“Things have been changing a lot in recent years and it’s not all bad,” Freddie, 21 said. “The hipsters yeah, have been changing the culture but its the companies moving into places like Shoreditch that are changing things. It has gotten a lot safer though I think.”
For a city once nicknamed “Murder Mile” and that was recently in the news for the mugging of a 92-year-old woman, there is quite a distinct and vibrant culture that hopefully will be able to retain its sense of self in spite of the current influx of outsiders, although I do hope the upward trend of safety continues for the sake of its residents.