Spotlight: Film

Zed Nelson captures the debilitating effects of gentrification in Hackney

Film still from The Street, 2019.

Shot over four years, Nelson’s new documentary hones in on a single street in Hackney, where 150-year-old eateries meet hipster coffee joints and £2m penthouse flats

Set against a decade of austerity, the chaos of Brexit, and tragedy of Grenfell, Zed Nelson’s first feature-length film captures the rapid gentrification of Hoxton Street — a historically working-class neighbourhood in Hackney, one of London’s poorest boroughs. But over the last decade or so, Hackney has become a hotspot for alternative nightlife, craft beer shops and hipster coffee joints. In addition to this, its proximity to the City of London, which glistens at the end of the street like the Emerald City of Oz, has attracted private developers. Luxury tower blocks with £2 million penthouses are replacing pubs and local businesses, pushing up the area’s already sky-high rents and rapidly reshaping the local demographic.

“When house prices reached their peak in 2015, I started realising that gentrification was taking on an accelerated form,” says the documentary photographer and filmmaker Zed Nelson, a lifelong Hackney resident who refers to this reality as “hyper-gentrification”. These new luxury properties are aimed at a more privileged clientele than middle-class hipsters or young professionals, who started to be priced out of the trendy borough long ago; even middle-class families who may be called the “original gentrifiers” are being broken up because their children cannot afford to live nearby. “I had a feeling we were living through extraordinary times, and I wanted to make sense of it, and my own feelings and place within it as well.” 

Joe, the owner of 150-year-old pie and mash shop on Hoxton Street, F. Cooke.

Nelson’s documentary, The Street, premiers in cinemas across the UK today. Over the course of four years since 2015, the filmmaker followed the local characters of Hoxton Street such as 82-year-old Colleen, proud to be born on the “worst street in Hoxton”, and Joe and Kim, a couple who voted to leave the EU, and who run the 150-year-old pie-and-mash shop, F. Cooke. We also meet Stefan, a German shop owner who sells 400 different types of craft beer, and Serge, a homeless man who lives under a bridge, along with estate agents, art gallerists and property developers. Through this cross-section of characters, Nelson seeks to unpick the process of gentrification, how it happens and why.

“It began quite simplistically, by filming hipster cafes and expensive restaurants,” says Nelson, who initially saw these places as symbols of gentrification. “I quickly realised they weren’t at fault. They were just independent businesses trying to do their best. It’s the property developers and the machinery behind them that capitalises and monetises an area. That’s when people start getting displaced.”

Advertisements selling “exclusive” and “luxury” flats exist are taking the place of pubs and local businesses

“People didn’t form neatly into categories. Some of the villains turned out to be decent, hard-working people, and some of the heroes turned out to be quite narrow-minded”

A property developer gives a guided tour of a £1.25m flat. “We don’t actually have any social housing within our two buildings. We have 198 private apartments.”

Nelson was born in Uganda but was raised in Hackney from the age of three. His documentary photography projects have taken him across the world, from investigating the global beauty industry in Love Me to exploring America’s paradoxical relationship with one of its greatest killers in Gun Nation, as well as projects based in South Africa, Israel, and South Sudan. But recently, Nelson is more concerned with issues close to home, specifically relating to wealth disparity and inequality. His project on British billionaires graced the cover of British Journal of Photography’s February 2016 issue, and since 2010 he has been exploring the economic and social disparity in his home borough, Hackney, through photography and has since published three sold-out editions of A Portrait of Hackney.

As Nelson began working closer to home, in 2010, Britain’s conservative-led coalition announced the most drastic budget cuts in living memory, rolling out an austerity programme that cut more than £30bn in spending from social services, housing benefits, and healthcare. The effects of this fell hardest on deprived communities that we witness in The Street.

“I’m one of the few that’s still left down here. See us old ones, we don’t want to move” — Colleen, 82.

We meet Colin, who lives in what was once a two-bedroom council flat, sold to its owner under the Right to Buy policy introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1980, then to a private landlord who split it into three. Colin lives in what was the kitchen, which is being rented back to people on housing benefits for £235 a week. “These kinds of living conditions are almost Dickensian,” says Nelson. 

But The Street is far from the over-simplified, Benefits Street-style depiction of poverty seen in the media. “We live in a culture where news is more crudely delivered,” Nelson comments. “It feels like more reason to produce slower, more thoughtful work.” In doing so, Nelson reveals a more complex situation and offers a deeper reading of an issue that might seem black-and-white. For example, characters we have grown to love, reveal startling prejudices against their immigrant neighbours. “People didn’t form neatly into categories. Some of the villains turned out to be decent, hard-working people, and some of the heroes turned out to be quite narrow-minded,” Nelson reflects.

Reverend Gloria from the Bethel Tabernacle Church says the “good old days” were not always so good. When they first opened in the 1970s the National Front would vandalise their church at night. “It’s heaven to what it used to be.”

Walking down Hoxton Street towards the shimmering glass wall of the City, everything looks different. Luxury developments no longer sparkle as they used to, and passing F. Cooke’s emerald framed windows, the same questions that prompted Nelson to make The Street come to mind. How did this happen? Who is to blame? Is there something we can do about it? 

As the end credits roll to the sentimental waltz of Rachel Portman’s score from Life Is Sweet — “both upbeat and poignant, and peculiarly British” — Nelson offers no easy answers. But he never intended to do so. The Street is about life, community and loss, and ultimately, it is an important document of contemporary British history during the tumultuous times we are all living through.

The Street is out in UK cinemas on 29 November.

Keep up-to-date with the leading voice in contemporary photography