Thursday, 15 December 2016

Alternate realities in the high street – a small psychogeography of gentrification in E17

Hoe St E17

Men shout at me as I take photos, the cars disrupt my frame, and the fumes choke my fragile lungs. I see Hoe Street through the lens of my camera, and it looks awful, containing none of the promises of my dreams. The sweeping curve of the street is gone, replaced by grey and dusty buildings and the sense of a litter of chaos.

I’ve always been fascinated by Hoe Street in Walthamstow, E17, at least, that bit of it which runs from Forest Road to the High Street. If life was fair and we lived in a different kind of world (and one that I only push at with my imagination), Hoe Street would be an ambling walk through beautiful old buildings, with art galleries, cafes, and bookshops. A place where you engage with the feel of the old, remade successfully in the present.

I stand in it, perplexed as to why it isn’t so. Maybe if I thought hard enough, the landscape would change. Yet, here I am, just seeing the ugliness, the dirt, and the fumes, and wondering how so much aesthetic promise can be lost. How the struggle against the elements that disorganise our lives cave in our hopes.

Hoe Street is a kind of front line of gentrification, a place where possibilities of aesthetic beauty are smashed to pieces by the combined forces of commerce, planning and people. It is this place where I will now turn to examine the promises and disruptions of gentrification.

The spatiality of gentrification

Gentrification has a physicality, a geography. Every place that has regenerated, or gentrified, has something in its physical landscape that delights our visual senses.

Hoe Street has this. Starting from the crossroads where Forest Road and Hoe Street intersect, and Hoe Street begins, taking over from Chingford Road like a declaration that you are no longer in the Essex borders, the Road forms a gentle curve as it progresses towards Walthamstow Central. It is the curve of a crescent.

Hoe St, the curve

Any regeneration project would, if thought about, look at a street like this and make it a centerpiece of change. It has, as you progress along it, twee Victorian flats above shops, tiny shops below, and roads branch off to the left and right that are lined with pretty Victorian cottages. You can almost see the Victorian obsession with making retail and public space the centerpiece of urban living in its design. It still has trees, and some shops have complied with the Big Local grant to hand paint signs.

But the Victorian buildings have been damaged by the sheer lack of contemporary interest in the value of shopping streets. It is ok, apparently, to rip out sash windows and replace them with uPVC. It is fine to put satellite dishes on the buildings. The retail street in London, except in very wealthy areas, is a place for slum living and low-income housing (if it is housing at all, as opposed to vacant space used by no-one). The vitality and potential of flats above shops have, for a long time, not been appealing to people. Did we all so thoroughly buy into the ideal of quiet living, the cul-de-sac, the detached house, and all the off-road parking of suburbia? More to the point (and as someone who once engaged with the ‘flat above’ experience) you are left unprotected by a planning system geared towards commerce, any commerce. Getting a mortgage on such a building is practically impossible. As a consequence, they are left unloved and underutilized, except by landlords.

The chaos

The shops themselves mostly abound with neon signs and dirty window frames. Free standing advertisement screens litter the streetscape. Pavements are not cleaned often and are dotted with chewing gum. No-one, it seems, is feeling the value of these streets.

Do our shopping streets suffer a lack of love because of the car? Hoe Street is dominated by traffic, being a major through road from the North Circular to Layton, Stratford and beyond. Lorries and buses thread along its narrow streets. Cars stop by the side of the road to pop into shops and cafes, blocking movement. Trucks unload throughout the day.

Queues of traffic in Hoe St

Car volume has increased seemingly because of the controversial ‘mini-Holland’ scheme – where roads are blocked to traffic - now being extended to roads running parallel to Hoe Street. It helps residents in these streets to some degree so that their residences are not used as rat runs. It is also meant to encourage cycling. However, traffic is forced onto Hoe Street, while the exit route from the crossroads of the High Street and Hoe Street are narrowed by nearby road layout changes because of the Empire Cinema. Policy almost always has unintended consequences, and these two policies – mini-Holland and the Empire development – have impacted on the potential for a re-envisaged Hoe Street.

That is not to say I have an opinion on mini-Holland. I support the idea of a car-free city, which would be like my version of utopia or the beginnings of one. We would feel better without traffic, making cycling a joy rather than a potential ride of death. Hoe Street would be amazing if it were fully pedestrianised; indeed, it would never have become what it is – a dirty and polluted space – without traffic. Mini-Holland doesn't go far enough, for sure, but it’s either a start, or a scheme that will mess things up further. Time will tell.

The aesthetics of architecture

The contemporary building does not often inspire in London. There is a corporate sparseness and monotone quality to them. Two recent examples of development illustrate this.

Uninspiring architecture?

The first is a small block of flats built on a plot of land on the corner of Hoe Street and Milton Road, a familiar pastiche of London brick (but looking too square to be good and lacking the quality of reclaimed materials) and grey window framed squareness. Because the frontage is so close to the pavement, residents have to put up net curtains, thus totally negating any bogus attempt at modernism. Of course, people like to do that in practically all new-build flats. Net curtains are used, probably, because designers failed to consider innovative window coverage that looks good and fulfills a dual need for privacy and light. People fill the balconies with junk because they serve no other purpose (who wants to look at the wonderful view of the road or yard) and could probably be dispensed with.

The second is the enormous Empire Cinema development, occupying the corner of Hoe Street and the High Street. A mixture of cinema, chain restaurants and residences, it is a grey and largely uninspiring building, the size of which I would argue negates organic regeneration (think Wood Green in North London, a place where the carbuncle of the modern shopping centre has rid the place of any possible aesthetic appeal).

Empire Cinema development

It is popular, however, and given it was purposefully designed to attract people from a wide geographical reach, it might account for the increase in vehicles in the area. The restaurants below, particularly Pizza Express and Yum Yum (a little bit of Stoke Newington in E17, which is after all the imaginary home of all incoming Walthamstowians), are often packed. While the corporate cinema has taken off, though, just up the road is the EMD Cinema, now taken over by Antic Pubs (of the DogStar in Brixton fame or infamy) and called Mirth.


Originally it was planned as an independent cinema and entertainment venue but it is now is a bar. Apparently a small proportion of the EMD may at some point become a bit of a cinema or something, but right now it's a bar. Only a bar. With occasional, and (I understand) fraught, use as a music venue, and less fraught use as a pop up craft venue. Sitting right next to another bar, the juxtaposition of which is more than a little ironic:

The Victoria, nestled next to Mirth

The different fortunes of the Empire and EMD cinemas illustrate how Hoe Street's potential to become a space for an independent arts scene has never been fulfilled. The Rose & Crown pub offers a lot of community and cultural potential, and is still busy (although somewhat overtaken by the Bell, which is not so community minded), but the possibilities are slowly fading as one form of commerce replaces another.

Rose & Crown

Another way of thinking about creativity and waste is the use to which well-situated buildings are put. When walking by an old and lovely building sitting on the corner of Hoe Street and Tower Hamlet's Road, I always thought ‘independent arts venue or social centre.’

Imagining a different future?

It practically screams it, but apparently only to me, because I was born in the 1960s and came of age in the 1980s when all that stuff was de rigueur. I've even fantasised about winning the lottery and buying the building, so have I longed for that vision to become a reality. But alas, my rapidly diminishing wage won't do it, so the building remains offices, and the lovely old windows on the top floor stripped out and replaced by double-glazing.

Contested commerce

The ‘old’ Hoe Street and the ‘new’ gentrified Hoe Street butt up against each other in an aesthetically conflicted way.

Here are some of the old:

Snooker hall

Takeaways adorn every street, until the battle is over
Four nail bars in a row

And here are two of the new:

Italian deli

Craft beer store, just before it opened. Still not Clapton..

Of course, the concepts of old and new applied to these shops may be a misnomer. It is not about when they opened, as there is a constant turnover of shops in Hoe Street. By old I refer to the old Walthamstow, supposedly ‘down at heel’ and in need of a makeover. Yet, people make businesses and communities out of these shops (or they are a front for another kind of business and community).

By new I was referring to gentrification, but who knows if these businesses will last, and what kinds of conflicts and difficulties they will encounter in these spaces. Will people shop there (after all, traffic, busyness and deli food don’t often mix)? Will they get broken into? Hoe Street is frontier land for cultural entrepreneurs and hipsters, and the frontier has always been a place of confrontation and violence.  One cultural form will win, propelled by forces outside of Walthamstow control, or anyone’s control.

Because the high street is engaged in a constant battle to become one thing or another, because of the need, noted by Jane Jacobs, for complimentary businesses to exist in the same area. It encourages footfall if several tasks can be undertaken in one visit. It is, we assume, by gentrification is all-encompassing.

But nestled in How Street have been alternative spaces, for example, the two antique furniture places that have been there for many years. Here is one:

Lot One Ten

The high street is engaged in a constant battle to become one thing or another, because of the need, noted by Jane Jacobs, for complimentary businesses to exist in the same area. It encourages footfall if several tasks can be undertaken in one visit. It is, we assume, by gentrification is all-encompassing.

One street can tell a huge story about social change, one taking place right across London. Jonathan Raban said in his book Soft City that we all struggle to comprehend, and make sense of, the complexity and rapidity of social change in London. Standing in Hoe Street, and trying to grasp the threads of change, and shifting between alternate realities, induces a kind of existential nausea. These are the promises and disruptions of gentrification, and the witnessing of rapid and unimaginable change in the space of a small time frame. Maybe we think it into being? That is London. 

This article was written in the spring of 2016, and since then, new hipster and gentrified stores have opened. The Hoe St curve may fulfill its promise, just not in the way I imagined or hoped...

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