Urbanist Miracle, Manufactured (in Hackney)

WW$Many say the Royal Wedding Street Party on 29 April 2011 was the turning point. It was then that Wilton Way, this manufactured urban miracle in Hackney, just north of London Fields was declared the coolest place on earth. And ‘the place to go’ for a street party in London. In the Times; no less. By noon the street felt like the Reading-London commuter train at 8.32 on a Wednesday morning. There were street musicians and clowns; and lots and lots of cupcakes courtesy of the street’s brand new artisan, hand-made, organic, ethical (and bleedin’ expensive) bakery, Violet. There was plenty of wine, too, mainly sold in the street’s Borough Wines shop that had opened a week earlier. Allegedly, the singer-superstar Sophie Ellis-Bextor was seen wandering around in a white wedding dress. Though she might as well have been anyone and everyone else… There were no stars on Wilton Way that day, albeit many-many were wearing wedding dresses (and not all of them female, or for that matter, human).

The Royal Wedding Street Party supposed to have been a small gathering for the locals and local businesses. It turned out to be anything but. According to Corinna Pyke, PR and community organiser working with the shops of Wilton Way ”We did not mean to make a big fuss at all. Obviously, we were very surprised that it exploded like that. Literally. We just put out some long tables and benches. All the shops got involved, there was some decoration… Hackney Council did not see the need to help us, they thought it was only going to be a tiny street party of very little consequence. We did not advertise it much, only a few local papers wrote about it. We still don’t know how it happened. Word of mouth, probably.”

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This story is about Wilton Way, a previously crime ridden and derelict shopping street in Hackney, London. According to the locals it has been “sleepy shopping street” for as long as anyone can remember. But as Muriel Chatel, the owner of Borough Wines puts it, Wilton Way “is a magical place”. The trees are well, high, so high and so green, you cannot not notice. You can feel energy floating in the air. Or if this sounds too esoteric, let’s just say for some reason people like it there and want to move there, or the very least go back there as often and stay as long as possible.

The magic is probably due to the stream running under the street. It makes vegetation greener and trees grow high on Wilton Way and in its close proximity. Then one day not too long ago some people saw the magic floating around and opened a few shops that became cool; and more and more people wanted a piece of the action. So property prices that rose by roughly 30% as a result. A few new shops (and a pub and a café) on Wilton Way completely transformed the street and turned it into a cool hipster paradise of sorts. But it also remained a street of harsh contradictions, now more than ever. On the one hand, there are the “fancy shops” as some of the locals like to call them. These shops, like Wilton Cafe where a latte costs £2.20, are frequented by people of ‘certain social background’, mostly people who recently moved to the area. Like it or not, they tend to be white and middle class. They live in Victorian houses and like gardening. Yet there are 2 large council estates housed in concrete blocks on either end of the street. And of course, there is the William Hill betting office visited by the local Caribbean community. There is no two ways about it: miracles might occur on Wilton Way, but it is also a strange mix of social extremes.

Indeed, life in the street has changed beyond recognition in the last 3 years, on that most locals agree. There are a lot more people around (footfall, the shopkeepers call it), visitors coming from as far as westest of West London. The fact that it has happened in this particular locality is by no means an accident. London Fields is just around the corner and it experienced its own similar, albeit larger scale transformation a bit earlier. And Hackney in general, with its ‘hipsters’ and political activists has always attracted those who could turn an area ‘cool’. Never more than of late, either.

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All it took was an idea and half a decade. And lest we forget: a man with a plan. David McHugh had witnessed the rise and rise of Notting Hill in the late 1980s and he also saw its decline. He lived there for decades, took part in a variety of community projects and is still involved in running the Notting Hill Arts Club. He is not happy about what happened. “The film (Notting Hill) was the kiss of death, really. The place became way too cool and as a result too expensive. When an area is proclaimed to be the ‘hottest’ is the end of it all.” – says David. Something similar happened in a number of other areas of London. First a cheap, run-down, but charming area becomes ‘cool’ because interesting businesses and artists move there. In a short while it becomes fashionable and more and more people want to buy property in the area, thus property prices increase. Simultaneously, investors show up, there are renovations and so everything becomes more expensive. Property, food, coffee, rent… Eventually artists and those original “cool” businesses cannot afford the rent anymore.

Several areas in London went trough a similar transformation in the last 2 decades. Islington is a prime example, so is Camden. Notting Hill, according to David is a shadow of its former self. The Notting Hill antiques market is in danger of closing down and all the interesting shops and restaurants closed. “All landlords started seeing were pound signs and became only interested in ‘dolly’. They started charging obscene amounts in rent. – David says – Now there are only big branches of multi-national shops, high fashion and bankers’ wives selling cushions. The character, the fun, the buzz is gone.”

8 years ago David started looking for a new home and a place where he could ‘do’ things differently. He saw a positive example of how things can be done well in Marylebone High Street; which thanks to its landlords, the de Walden family managed to ‘avoid its fate’. The de Walden estate of course, has £2 billion worth of real estate in Central London, but thanks to their vision they managed to revitalise the “tired” shopping street that Marylebone High Street had been. “We wanted to create something that was different.” – Howard de Walden told the Daily Telegraph. Thus they invited businesses that were “different” from what you would see on an average high street. They came from “cool” places: from Borough Market, Notting Hill among others and the de Waldens decidedly preferred independent shops, not chains. They carefully chose their tenants and as the estate owns much of the street, they could guarantee that the rent would stay the same everywhere. The area was reborn and now the estate can charge higher prices for non-commercial property, while managing to keep the high street fresh and interesting. David McHugh had something similar in mind for Wilton Way, only on a smaller scale.

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“It took a while – says David – I moved here 8 years ago and it was a run down ex-shopping street with lots of closed shops. There was a betting shop and a corner shop and that was it.” Many shops were turned into flats, too. Over the years David and his business partner managed to acquire 3 shops on Wilton Way. As a first step two of the shops became pop-up galleries for a year. David asked Corinna Pyke for help; she had taken part in several other similar shop regeneration projects in Hackney. According to Corinna “The pop-ups were very important. They provided a transitional period. The shops were closed for a long time and with the pop-ups we gave them their original ‘meaning’ back. And people from elsewhere started coming here, too. It changed the perception of the street. Without the pop-ups, shops on Wilton Way probably would have been a lot less successful.”

The first “real” shop to open 3 and a half years ago was “The Other Side of the Pillow”, a vintage shop run by Henry Davies, an Australian and his Italian business partner Luciano Fabry. They sell shoes, clothing and all kinds of everyday objects. David also owns a café and a hairdresser in the street. There is a brand new pub, a wine shop and a bakery, all opened in the last two years. They all became success stories, people started flocking to Wilton Way.

This, in essence, is a success story. But obviously, there are many who talk about “segregation” and loaded questions” when it comes to those who do not or cannot take part in this resurrection. People living in the council estates, people who have lived in the area, but feel they have nothing in common with the new way of life represented in the street. “I have no business going there.” – said a local woman who lived in one of the estate blocks (she asked to remain anonymous). A sentiment echoed by many not living the “Hackney cool” lifestyle that now dominates the street.

Wilton Way will continue to shine brighter and brighter, there is little doubt about that. There are plans for more shops, a restaurant. Nuno Mendes, Michelin Star chef and quintessential East London fixture, who lives in a Wilton Way side street set up a supper club and would love to open a restaurant on Wilton Way. There are many others interested.

But, as Henry Davies of Wilton Way vintage shop “The Other Side of the Pillow” said “You can see the cool moving north. In Clapton, the are what was known “The Murder Mile” is the next big thing.” he said. Thus, there we have it. Wise men say every miracle ends after a day. Or a year. Even in Hackney.

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