Sitting in my white skin in this corner cafe, festering, eating a pastry and drinking a nice coffee, I am holding a new publication from one of the most expensive and exclusive estate agents in our neighbourhood. ‘1986’ it’s mysteriously invoked, kind of like a Taylor Swift album laying claim to an entire year, in this case the founding year of the agents who have been party to such generation, or rather degeneration of change in our community and housing market.
Looking through the listings of east London hot properties featured in its pages, though it is not merely a property guide- it’s a lifestyle magazine also showcasing high priced homeware and entertainment- not one property listed in our vicinity runs below a million quid. Others rent at not below £400 per week for a one bedroom. I begin to feel my stomach turn and burn with that familiar sensation of indignation as I open a second publication from the café bookshelf titled ‘Courier’. I don’t even know how to make sense of this magazine with its jargon on scaling and foraging on gloomy winter days, and I’m a university graduate. Every single face I see is a shade close to my own. And it’s not just a race thing; it’s a socio-economic thing, these hobbies and businesses, which sadly too often relate to skin colour. The topics aren’t so much what divide and exclude as anyone can be interested in such ideas; it’s an issue of a subsection of society, the gentry if you will, who have adapted a language to identify fellow elite and exclude others.
I’m getting pissed off by this point and my frothy coffee is beginning to get cold but I pick up another publication, a news sheet published locally, and one I enjoy reading. It’s as white as can be with only the inside of the front page featuring a person of colour in a photo op flanked by a white Councillor and a white MP grinning like Cheshire cats at the re-opening of the man’s convenience shop which had been ransacked by rioters in 2011. “Look! We’ve helped a hard-working brown person get back on his feet!” That, and an ad at the back for a local girls’ school featuring a photo of a black girl and a girl in a hijab, though I doubt their parents would be likely to read this publication. Perhaps the school is appealing to white folks like me with a conscience who’d rather our children integrate.
In the five minutes following, from my table at that social enterprise café on the corner, I count the people walking and cycling by: 50% white, 40% brown, the other 10% unknown due to their position, speed or clothing. Naturally, I’m just judging these pedestrians by their skin colour at a glance which is never a great idea, however I would reckon that several counted amongst the white crowd were in fact people of colour, boosting that figure to be closer to even. Why then the disparity in our communication? Why the isolation?
The fact is, I’d never set foot in the shop over the road offering beauty services and cornrows. Naturally they’ve adapted a business suited towards a niche and I don’t think anyone would argue the validity in that. The first and last time I had cornrows was when a little black girl with a beautiful smile in Costa Rica helped me braid my hair so I could stop carrying around cumbersome bottles of shampoo and conditioner on our field biology expedition. A couple doors down from the beauty parlour is a newish restaurant catering to those with a less stringent budget than most of the people living in the estate around the corner.
This flagrant diversity is one of the truly admirable things I love about Hackney but it’s also one of the most appalling weaknesses and cultural borders I’ve seen, cloaked in what estate agents love to boast about areas previously known as Murder Mile: the gentry are coming. Seriously, I have seen this lauded by an agent just this week with a new build locally: “… one of inner London’s most exciting and rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods. This is urban living at its best.”
So, Dear Hackney and East London: My heart is breaking and weeping and calling out to you as a place I hold dearly, to those moving in to old communities first and foremost – acknowledge, realise and own up to your own responsibility in maintaining a community that flourishes in the broadest sense. You and I will continue being privileged, seeing our dreams come true or at least failing trying. But do not move in and forge your own identities at the exclusion of those who have built up lives, businesses and families in this place. We are the occupiers.
Communities change, people move in and move out. It’s history and history at its worst, unfortunately. Keep your eyes on the whole forest, not on your own little wood patch. When you move into a community that is largely composed of struggling, poor and working class folks who have put their roots down, do not do so with an attitude of putting a thick glossy coat of paint over the cracks hoping the façade will hold together. Do not come in as the privileged class with the answers and the means. Get involved with your new community, spend time building relationships and investing in the folks who have built it on their misfortunes, hopes, successes and history. Do it as equals, knowing that they too have something to teach you.
Get off your fucking high horses, writing your articles which nobody outside your own clique understands and do something amazing that you can see in the face of another human being.