In Hoxton Street there is a traditional East London community divided by Brexit, gentrification, and rapid change
25th November 2019 by Will Stewart
We caught up with Zed Nelson before the release of his debut feature length documentary, The Street. Zed spent three years ingratiating himself amongst the residents of Hoxton Street, traditionally a working class area of East London that has been the subject of recent, massive changes. Strategically placed on the border between the wealthy commercial centre of London and the traditionally lower income East End, rapid gentrification has sent property prices rocketing, pushing out residents and business owners. Zed’s film is a study of a once typically working class area struggling to accommodate an influx of wealthier residents, and illustrates poetically the divisions of Brexit. The Street is in cinemas from today.
Zed Nelson – “The film about one street in Hoxton, Hoxton Street. Filmed over a three year period and is essentially about gentrification and change. It’s the last street that has resisted all the incredible and rapid changes that have happened around it. It’s a working class street surrounded by counsel estates, and at the end of the street is a sort of glittering, shimmering mirage of the city, and all the skyscrapers and office blocks that have gone up. So it’s really visually on the front line of change. And the film is about the community of people that live there and asks the question, “what do we want from our cities? Who do we give a shit about?”
The film grew from realising that house prices in London were completely out of control, and that that was causing what I would call a kind of hyper gentrification. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with a kind of gentle gentrified change of an area, but when you’ve got a value put on everything that’s going up all the time, you get rapid change. You get different kinds of people coming into an area buying only as an investment. Then you end up with people being displaced quite quickly. So these were the things that motivated me.
The idea that Amazon has now become the second company that’s worth $1 trillion. I don’t even know what $1 trillion is. It’s like a made up number, isn’t it? But the taxes they pay in in the UK, for instance, are tiny. Their main office is not in England, and that’s model of these big companies. So the film asks a question, “are we’re okay with all of this?” Small businesses are just being swept away because they can’t afford the business rates or the community taxes, and the people that have moved into the area don’t want to shop locally. We’re gonna wake up one day and the high streets are going to be closed. It’ll just be a load of nail bars and cafes.
Hoxton street caught my eye because it still had this kind of bedrock community, but at one end of it these restaurants and cafes were opening up. Changes were happening that I could literally see. As I was filming it, Anderson’s Bakery that had been there for 150 years, closed. It was replaced by a trendy Delhi. The carpet shop that had done the carpets for every single resident in all the flats, and also the local church, has closed. Again, it’s become a very trendy little cafe. What really made my mind explode is that as these trendy cafes opened up, I would go and film the owners and they were nice! They were nice people. And I went there and bought a coffee and realised that I was quite happy in those places.
So I wasn’t trying to hold them up as the villains. And that’s why gentrification is so complicated because we are all part of it. We’re sad when the old ones disappear, but we’re going to the new businesses too. So then the question is how do you stop it? Do we even want to stop it? I think the issue is that if you don’t protect the smaller businesses, they will just be swept away.
If someone wants to buy a house and make it their home in an area, good luck to them. But when you have foreign investors buying up blocks of flats in order to use them as investments, the area changes. When every property development is a gated community, with electronic gates and underground parking and a starting price of 900,000 for a one bedroom flat, the people that are moving in as so different than the people that are there, there’s no interaction. Those flats are even built to prevent interaction. You drive your car in, you go to your own gym, you leave, you drive to the city. And so the film explores these issues.
It’s an observational film that takes time to let the story unfold. You see it happening before your very eyes. I haven’t wheeled on experts to tell us what gentrification means, and then have someone saying how bad it is. This film inhabits the street. It’s a kind of portrait of the street over a three year period, where you get to meet the residents and business owners, and you feel the changes happening. Literally, the bulldozers are moving in. There’s a guy who runs the garage, and then suddenly he’s gone. Then it’s flattened for more flats.
One day the Baker is gone. Then the little cafe where all the elderly people sit outside on the tables and smoke and have a coffee in the morning, gone. Replaced by another hipster cafe. The pub, gone. And then you realise all the pubs are closing. All the old boozers where people of low income, or people who have traditionally lived in those areas have been going, they either close down and make them into flats or they reopen as a gastro pub with a pint that costs five or six pounds, that again, prices out the locals. The closure of pubs is a big issue and I think now some of the local counsellors are only just getting a handle on it, and realising that they have to protect them because that’s what’s so interesting and good about our city.
Once they’re gone and all of the oak bars are ripped out, and the beautiful ornate glass work around the bars are all gone, or made into someone’s flat, you don’t get it back. So those are the battles that are being fought. Protecting small businesses from enormous increase in rates is something that has to be looked at. So in the end, the film doesn’t demand that we throw bricks through windows of hipster cafes. Not at all. A lot of the people that own those cafes are hardworking business people. But it’s more about, should there be laws in place to protect people?
When I began the film, Brexit hadn’t really been invented. And then David Cameron announced the referendum, which happens about halfway through the film, and then the vote takes place. And so in a way, the film becomes about Brexit, and this idea that the government have imposed austerity on Britain for so long. On the one hand we’ve had runaway house price increases, a real housing crisis where only the wealthy can afford to buy a home. Then you’ve got the sell off of council estates and council flats, a massive reduction that’s been going on for years. And then you’ve got austerity, which was caused by the banking crisis, and caused social services to be depleted and money to be taken away.
My own feeling is what took place in the Brexit referendum was a vote of anger and of resentment. The people who voted to leave felt like they’d been left out of the party. They could see the skyscrapers of the city, they’d heard about the bankers’ bonuses, but they didn’t feel any of the benefits. A lot of that is encapsulated in Hoxton street, and I think that’s been replicated around the country. And so they voted to leave the European union, which may be a huge own goal for the United Kingdom. It may make them personally worse off, but I think people felt like it was their moment to kick back on a system that had pushed them out.”