Gentrification and the battle for Clapton’s soul

Chatsworth Road traders

Chatsworth Road traders old and ‘new’: Omar Nissar, manager of Carnival Cards, which has been trading for over two decades; Venetia Strangwayes-Booth, owner of Venetia’s and and Rémy Zentar, owner of L’Epicerie@56.

Gentrification is an uneasy word. Some people tend to shy away from it – tucking it between apologetic air quotes, others use it to congratulate an up-and-coming area, while some use it to criticise the way that areas such as Clapton are changing.

Regeneration, gentrification, urban sprawl – whatever it is, things are changing and it’s got people talking.

Guy Nicholson, Hackney council cabinet member for regeneration and the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, has said: ” A new generation of citizens identify with all that Hackney has to offer and wish to become part of that. This inevitably brings with it profound social and economic changes, often described as gentrification. These changes bring a new set of values that inevitably find their way into our daily lives.”

The future of Clapton has been the subject of particularly frenzied debate, with magazines like Time Out seemingly agog at how this locale has switched from being ‘Murder Mile’ to a hive of young professionals. However, not everyone welcomes the change.

“The less affluent and less educated who live in these areas don’t give a damn about uppity eateries they won’t be eating at, or hipster clothes stores they will not be buying from,” said one online commentator. “Their focus is on staying employed, getting employed and making their low wages and no wage go a long way. While they are trying to stay afloat, their neighbourhood as they know it is slipping away.”

The Offmarket Collective squatters’ group, which until recently graced Lower Clapton Road, describe gentrification as a force that “pushes out long term and low income residents and small businesses”. And with its revitalised Sunday market and vocal Chatsworth Road Traders and Residents Association (CRTRA), Chatsworth Road is at the epicentre of this controversy.

“Everybody always talks about gentrification,” says CRTRA chair Diane Cunningham. “It’s not necessarily gentrification, but it is change. And it’s about how you manage the change for the benefit of everybody.”

The CRTRA, originally set up to deal with shop front trading problems, is a not-for-profit organisation run by volunteers. Its role is multifaceted and looks as though it will evolve over time, but for now it is perhaps best described as a lobbying, community driven body working with the council to revive Chatsworth Road and the Sunday market in particular.

Euan Mills, a local resident and member of the CRTRA’s executive committee, is helping to create the Chatsworth Road Neighbourhood Plan – a scheme he says is aimed at finding out what residents’ priorities are in order to guide planning policy and, crucially, to influence land values. He says he has consulted widely with council tenants, religious leaders at churches and mosques and many other sections of the community. The plan emphasises five aspirations: local, diverse, accessible, sustainable and distinct.

“There’s two sides of gentrification,” he explains. “There are good things: it brings some investment and attention and activity. If you look at Chatsworth Road now compared with ten years ago, it’s a lot more vibrant. But gentrification does also have lots of pitfalls. It increases property prices, it displaces local communities. It does make the existing community possibly feel alienated. The whole purpose of the CRTRA at the minute and the Neighborhood Plan is to try and deal with that. We don’t want the neighbourhood to become a middle class enclave nor a ghetto but a place where people of different ages, races and backgrounds can feel at home.”

However, he admits such a project is “difficult”.

Diverse and accessible are the two of the aspirations that come under question by those sceptical of the market, but Cunningham and Mills seem genuine and determined for Chatsworth Road and the surrounding area to be both things.

And to a large extent this appears to be the case already. A stroll down Lower Clapton Road, and along Chatsworth Road to Brooksby’s Walk highlights Clapton’s diversity. There are both tidy and scruffy Victorian houses, council homes, bedsits and student flats. And there are cafes, betting shops, a French deli, a pound shop, a greengrocers, fast food outlets and charity shops. You’ll see old and young, black and white, rich and poor, families, hipsters, students and professional types.

While outright opposition to organisations such as the CRTRA and initiatives like Chatsworth Road market and the Clapton Conference (run by the Clapton Pond Neighborhood Action Group) is minimal and seems largely confined to anonymous posts on online forums and blogs, there are people in the area who feel either ambivalent towards things like the new market, dismissive of some of the initiatives or excluded.

“They’re only interested in the market at the moment,” Winston Laws of Brooksby’s Snooker and Community Hall says of the CRTRA. “They haven’t been helping anyone else. They don’t come in here to see what’s going on, they don’t try to bring us in. Except when they wanted a spot to have meetings.”

Laws stepped in to manage Brooksby’s four years ago and is in the process handing the 30-year-old business over to newcomer Marina Francis. The centre is open to anyone and hosts wakes, christenings, birthdays and other events.

But Laws feels he is being pushed out, saying the pressure is coming from the council and a few neighbours. There is development interest in the community hall site, he claims. “They want our building so they’re trying to give us a bad name,” he says. “We’re not misbehaving. They’re changing Hackney, so all of our premises that we used to have will be taken away. Shoreditch, Kingsland Road, Church Street – I’m one of the last ones [black-run clubs] standing.”

Bobby Campbell, who has worked at the Brooksby centre for 20 years remembers working on the old Chatsworth Road market at the age of 11. She says it was different then, a “proper market” where people would do their shopping.

But some locals have no problem with the market’s latest incarnation. Fidan Altun, whose family has run Altun Food Store for 25 years, says she wishes the market was bigger and on more often. And Nicholas Blanchette, who runs A Taste of Reality in Chatsworth Road, likes the fact the market attracts more people to the area.

Jean Perrin who owns E5 Florist thought similarly, “it’s mainly a place to go and buy breakfast, it would be nice if it were more like Dagenham.”

There are a lot of people in the area who are excited and proud of the market and the other changes to the area. Nicholas Blanchette, who runs A Taste of Reality on Chatsworth Road is happy about the market and likes that it attracts more people to the area.

Venetia Strangwayes-Booth, who runs Venetia’s Coffee Shop, spoke to the Hackney Citizen in November last year after the first trial market day, she said: “I sold over 300 coffees on a day when I’d normally sell 70. I think it’s about community, I think people are beginning to get a sense that they’d rather shop locally and be part of the local community.”

Ian Rathbone, one of the councillors for Leabridge ward and an active member of the community, said: “When I was first elected in 2002 I set out to bring culture and life back into Clapton and to restore people’s faith in political culture.”

Over the years he has born witness to many failed efforts yet many notable successes. He said the closure of the Palace Pavilion club in 2007 had a “spectacular effect on reducing crime, showing people that change is possible.”

Rathbone believes that to call what is happening in Clapton ‘gentrification’ risks over-simplifying the issue.

According to Euan Mills from the CRTRA, there are no simple answers to the gentrification conundrum. “You can learn from the way that other areas have changed,” he says. “For example, Broadway Market is an example of the bad way that change can happen because it creates problems such as the displacement of some of the local population. Our role is to make sure that doesn’t happen here.

“We are trying to make sure that people are not being marginalised or priced out. We are trying to be representative of the whole community, all of the varying shops and members of the community. We can sit back and let change happen, or we can see if there is a way to influence the change.”

Remy Zentar, owner the L’Epicerie deli in Chatsworth Road and another CRTRA volunteer, says that if the makeup of the group’s committee is less reflective of the diversity of the community than it could be, that is merely an unfortunate result of the fact that some people have more “disposable time” than others.

He said: “People who are part of the committee spend a lot of their time trying to make this market work and to regenerate the whole area. They have lots of commitment in the sense that they might have to wake up at 7.30am on a Sunday and spend evenings answering emails. It’s true some people who live here now might be a bit more well off and have more disposable time to take care of that and get involved in the committee.

“We have had a number of public meetings trying to get as many volunteers as we can. We are sadly short of volunteers, very short of them – people who can spend time to help set up the market, drive the vans to pick up the stalls and so on. Whatever colour you are, it doesn’t matter – we need you.”

Mr Zentar says it is wrong to characterise new arrivals to the area as rich.

“My neighbours, the newcomers, are not really well off,” he says. “They bought their house on a shoestring and are redoing it all by themselves. Yes, most are young professionals who are pretty well educated, but they are not coming with millions from Chelsea.”

However, he is worried about profiteering landlords who he says are a growing problem and risk making Clapton unaffordable for local people.

“All of a sudden landlords who don’t live in the area hear about Chatsworth Road and the proximity of the Olympics and decide it is time to up the rent,” he says. “Some of these landlords don’t even know where their properties are. I employ 15 people, all of whom live locally, and for them rent rises are a big problem.”

It is hard to deny that Chatsworth Road market on a Sunday, the new Saturday markets and events like the first Clapton Festival held recently are anything but positive developments. They bring life to the area, they feel safe and there does seem to be a sense of community.

The well-acknowledged challenge is to make sure this goodness continues and spreads. It seems the majority of people in the area do want to work together to see inclusive change, benefiting as many members of the community as possible, but it’s clear this will take sustained action and persistence.

Note: an edited version of this article appeared in our September 2011 print issue. The full version here was published on this site at 12.00pm on Sunday 25 September 2011.

Related: Chatsworth Road grapples with plans for growth