The Street Review
What began as ‘A Portrait of Hackney’ in 2014 by photographer Zed Nelson has gradually evolved into a similarly themed debut documentary called The Street. A native of the borough for nearly all his life, Nelson decided to take a closer look at Hoxton Street in Shoreditch, which is situated on the border of Hackney next door to the towering glass structures of the city’s financial district. As the featured image above reveals, it serves as an ideal juxtaposition of the haves and have nots in modern society and the growing threat gentrification poses right across the UK.
Shoreditch is no stranger to the changes we see in Nelson’s film, with the the area undergoing a continuous transformation since the mid-90s. Around 20 years ago artists and creatives looking for cheap rental spaces took up residency in and around Hoxton Square and it quickly became one of the capital’s most fashionable places to hang out, spreading across to nearby Brick Lane. As we hear in Nelson’s film, where the artists go the corporations follow, and over the past 10-15 years Hackney has witnessed an influx of investment that has welcomed city workers and young professionals who have changed its image beyond all recognition. While The Street focusses on one small section of the community, it is representative of many others who are equally as powerless to stop their own neighbourhoods being taken from underneath their noses.
Shot over a four year period the documentary covers life in and around Hoxton Street for local businesses and residents before, during and after the Brexit vote. Many continue to struggle in the face of the problems caused by austerity, and 'solutions' offered by the local Labour-run council (which it has been since the early ‘70s) tend to add to the problems rather than solve them. Nelson’s film goes on to demonstrate that gentrification is a complicated matter, driven by systemic greed and societal division as much as political manoeuvring.
Owners of the local carpet shop, bakery and mechanics serve as our introduction to the street, each of whom have continued to operate while new property developments spring up around them, with pressure to sell increasing by the month. One of the most prominent characters is Joe Cooke, owner of a renowned pie and mash shop that has been open for over 100 years. It’s a business rooted in tradition and offers clear sight on the modern world through the large shop windows (his brother's pie and mash shop in nearby Broadway market was also recently forced to close).
Joe’s opinions about the changes being made reflect some of the ignorance and prejudices that continue to divide the community. Fear of foreigners taking over is rife amongst older white people, while Black and Asian residents recall the brutal intimidation they had to overcome in order to call the area home. Nelson also spends time with Colleen, an 82-year-old who has lived in Hoxton for as long as she can remember. It’s a mostly tender portrait of a woman given the chance to reflect on her life, but it's also a reminder of the nasty undercurrent of racism hidden behind the multiculturalism of today's East End. Her causal use of a racial slur hits hard considering how warmly she comes across until this point, and while you want to presume it’s a reaction born out of ignorance more than anything else, it's also just as likely that it's not.
The one issue that unites everyone is the presence of property developers and the near-constant construction of luxury apartment blocks in and around the street. We see the effect it has on the businesses introduced in the first half of the film, who one-by-one slowly disappear from view. The class divide is exemplified further when hot meals are given to those in need late one evening, while directly on the other side of the street hipsters gather to hobnob in and around a newly opened art gallery.
Nelson can be heard behind the camera posing the occasional question, but in the main he lets his subjects and the imagery doing the talking. It’s a no-frills documentary that benefits from his experience as a photographer to make the most of the resources available to him. Through the various locals he speaks with it becomes clear that whether talking about immigration, austerity, gentrification or Brexit, the confusion purposely created by those in power is what really leads to the divisive resentment people hold against each other. In order to rule a people you must first divide them - a tactic that seems to have been implemented flawlessly here.
For anyone born and raised in Hackney (like this reviewer) The Street can only be viewed with a heavy heart, and it's a painful reminder of how little autonomy people have in the face of such wealthy resources. These are stories that could be transplanted to countless places across the UK, and even with the understanding that gentrification is cyclical, the damage done to people’s lives and families in the meantime is often irreparable. What we see here is a community being pushed out of its own home by the might of capitalist market forces, while those who could do something about it turn a blind eye.
The Street opens in select UK cinemas on November 29