A study of a street in one of London’s poorest boroughs during the era of government-inflicted austerity, the Grenfell tragedy and Brexit. Hoxton Street, Hackney, is traditionally a working-class community, but as its pubs and local, family-run stores shut down to make way for art galleries and craft-beer outlets, its residents reflect on the cost of change.
Hoxton Street’s pie and mash shop has been there for four generations, ever since its founder “invented” the combination of meat pie, mashed potato and parsley sauce. Its current owner is one of the principal interviewees in Zeb Nelson’s latest documentary. When his great-grandfather first set up the café, he says, the street was a close-knit community, hubbed around its market. Today, however, that hub has vanished and what’s left of that community is now ringed by long-shadow-casting high-rise flats, offering City-proximate property at costs far beyond the reach of any of the locals. “It’s not gentrified,” huffs Mr. Cooke the pie ‘n’ mash purveyor, “it’s poncified. We had a hand-made bike shop open.” He looks aghast. “They’re French!”
Nelson’s other subjects include an octogenarian lady who lives alone, wrapped in regrets about her life choices; a homeless Russian man who lives under a canal bridge; and a garage owner who, initially at least, resists the constant offers to sell up to people who’ll take a wrecking ball to his business and replace it with unaffordable apartments. All are equally bemused and frustrated by the sudden, often crippling changes happening around them.
While Nelson presents both sides of the gentrification equation, it is clear where his sympathies lie. There is little subtlety in his juxtaposition of a man who’s crammed what little he owns into a three-way subdivided council flat with the vast floor space of the swanky art gallery across the road. But it is a message worth delivering, a stark display of the huge gulf between rich and poor in Austerity Britain.
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The “change” refrain does become overplayed, with Nelson finding little variety among the various locals’ complaints; there’s only so many times you can hear the same thing, occasionally wincing at the xenophobia along the way — especially once Brexit happens. But the film still has value, both for its empathic presentation of an overlooked and mostly voiceless section of British society, and for its relevance as a future historical document: a snapshot of a fractured community during one of the country’s most challenging and tumultuous decades.
It’s not easy viewing, and its central message does feel laboured, but it remains effective evidence of the inhumane impact of austerity, gentrification, and the inability of Brexit to act as any form of solution to this country’s problems.