The death of Rashan Charles has been shrouded in suspicion, disinformation and rumour. The protest that followed has been no different. The police have been largely stoic and impressively impassive in the face of acts of vandalism and brutality. Charles’ family has been dignified: their interest is in getting justice for their son. Behind all of these conflicts there is another: one of a community existentially and fatally riven.
Dalston has been growing ever more divided for some time. A marker of change was the announcement of the £160m dalston square scheme back in 2007, all luxury flats and shiny cafes. Then the Olympics rush. In 2014, Hamptons reported a 31% jump in house prices in one year. That was only a couple of years after Dalston saw widespread riots, one of many during a national night of shame.
Indeed, Dalston has been a bonanza for the rich. It is a short walk down the Kingsland Road to the City of London, while at the same time, for a long time clung on to its hipster cache. It began in the 1990s with ‘Young British Artists’ Damien Hurst, Tracey Emin et al. who lived on Hoxton Square, south of Dalston and east of the City. Artists Gilbert and George still take their evening stroll down the road, whose pretensions to zeitgeist barely survived the awful X-factor tribute act named in its honour. Now it has gone way corporate, increasingly residential, clustered with artisan boutiques, serving a simulation of the high-art aesthetic at ten times the price.
The problem here is not as simple as saying ‘well, it’s gentrification, innit?’ The effect of gentrification is that when done badly it disbars those without money from actively participating in the public space. It relegates those who came before to the role of enablers, providers, servants even.
At the same time it encourages rentiers and speculators to do what they do best: shoehorning buildings at exortionate rents into crevices and alleyways, whatever the consequences.
And there is something even more sinister than this. Take Dalston Square. It is the single greatest architectural abomination to hit Dalston in the last decade; a perfect construction of social apartness. Its right angles and wood panels are garish enough, but it is constructed to encourage its residents never to have to play anything but the most cursory role in the lives of those about them or who came before them.
You can live there, walk to the attached train station, go to work in the city, shop at the co-op, go to one of a number of identikit cafes built out of lego to order and even play ping pong — all without leaving the stone clad ground that differentiates it from the earth around it. Yes, even the Earth is different. These buildings are a simulated community designed to divide.
This story is repeated in triplicate across this town. New space age skyscrapers are planned that look like Dubai hotels, that dwarf the ramshackle tenements about them.
The danger is we dismiss these complaints as some kind of aversion to progress. Not a bit of it. This is not about nostalgia but anger. Dalston’s power-brokers appear determined to create from scratch, whoever gets hurt. The relationships that made this community special and cohesive have been eviscerated and replaced with envy and anger. Social media presents a stark picture. Some residents online referred disparagingly to the race of those involved. They used racial epithets at will. Others accused the police of ‘execution.’ Some vented their anger at the gentry in their ‘million pound studio flats.’ The viciousness of these opinions are a symptom of the crucible in which they foment. And the reality is that we expect that these riots will not be the last.
— Charles Henry (@outlawcharlos) July 29, 2017
Some work tirelessly to build links between the old residents and the new. Social enterprises like Bootstrap Co, who run the Dalston Roof Park reach out and buck the trend. Others try and are ripped up for their trouble. Consider Passing Clouds, a social enterprise that put on club nights, gigs, permaculture and yoga classes. They occupied a building that was once daubed in beautiful murals.
Then it was acquired by a speculator. The nights carried on until police were called in. The building was locked. Huge notices were put up saying that dogs patrolled the premises. Then the murals were daubed over in grey.
This building has been empty, now all but derelict for months. The residents suffer not only the loss of amenity but of beauty. A community hub now looks like the watchtower of a concentration camp. In this new world of barter and exchange, grey paint and police dogs are preferable to joy and connection and aesthetics.
What a world! When human good is treated with contempt, where both aggressor and victim become dehumanised, where all react with aggression and mistrust. From these qualia of horror, we pretend there is a society here in Dalston. There isn’t. Rashan Charles is the victim here. But the sand on which Dalston’s segregated build their lives and their skyscrapers will not take much more of this.
This is the first in a series of GOTiLo comment pieces on London’s civic fabric and the necessary role of community organisations in helping rebuild our future. To submit your own ideas please contact firstname.lastname@example.org