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Diverse Dalston: Good or bad?

By Bryan Goh and Jeremy Wong

Written for the Cities and Social Change module, students are tasked to investigate a physical and social change in a street, neighbourhood or city of their choice.

In this article Bryan and Jeremy shed light on a London-wide phenomenon by visiting the streets of Dalston in the Borough of Hackney, focusing on the experiences of both long-time and new residents.


In a swanky new part of town, Dalston was bustling with crowds on a Monday afternoon. Yet, despite numerous people getting along with their day, it felt cold. It was a mere fourteen degrees and we were still in the heart of autumn. We were trying to explore how locals have responded to the newest development in the area - Dalston Square. Yet, almost nobody wanted to talk to us. We heard that Dalston has long been home to a vibrant, energetic community [1], so why is that the case?

Walking through the complex, it seems almost unimaginable that one is in the East End. Known for decades as a relatively deprived area, Dalston and other town centres in the Borough of Hackney has been undergoing extensive regeneration. The Hackney riots in 2011 brought its ethnic divides into light [2]. Are the processes of regeneration shedding light into the deprived Hackney’s future? Or is it foreshadowing new hidden problems?

Location of Hackney (Red) and Dalston (Blue)

The 2012 Olympics brought London into the limelight again. With the Olympics happening on its edge, Hackney’s image has been effectively uplifted. For the first time since 1991, Hackney has again attracted young talent, increasing Hackney’s population by more than 20% in 2011 [3].

Dalston Square stands directly above Dalston Junction station and has been determined by the Council to spearhead Dalston’s redevelopment. Historically, its major landmark - Dalston Town Centre, represents Hackney’s vibrant cultural and social mix. The neighbourhood also benefits from excellent public transport connectivity. Moreover, its high street - Kingsland High Street, is filled with large amounts of small, active, independent shops and services, catering for the area’s ethnically diverse population in terms of food and other specialist products.

These dynamic interactions between people of different ethnicities have long been valued in the area. In fact, the famous Ridley Road Market is one of the most vibrant in East London, with over 100 stalls, opening every day except Sunday. While highly interactive cultural exchange lights up the street throughout the day, Dalston is also supported by a lively evening economy filled with entertainment in multiple music venues. A gradual transformation, however, has emerged within the town.

Juxtaposition of old (Right: 11 Dalston Lane) and new buildings (Left: Dalston Square) [Photo by Bryan Goh]

Long a stronghold for gentrification resistance, increasing need for housing has posed a threat to Dalston. Taller, newer residential developments have sprung up in the past decade. This has contributed heavily into a new buy-to-let system, facilitating a nature where everything is monetised [4].

Dalston Square, in its three different phases, has produced 533 new flats for London’s increasingly stressed housing market [5]. However, only 28 of these flats are affordable. The Council claims that this huge margin was to pay for the £63 million slab built over Dalston Junction station to accommodate the increased space needed for Olympic buses, yet it was never used.

Consequently, Dalston Square has been constantly blamed for causing gentrification in the Dalston neighbourhood. Gentrification is the process where socio-economic changes occur when the regeneration is residential areas has been influenced by more affluent incomers, thereby displacing current or former residents who are not able to afford the increased costs of living [6].

Dalston Square has undergone extensive promotional campaigns in East Asian cities, like Singapore and Hong Kong. In fact, 30% of the flats are owned by foreign buyers [7].

Also, over 40% of Dalston Square’s flats are owned by ‘investors’. Despite providing rental opportunities in the area, these are expensive and priced at over £350 per week for a one-bedroom flat, escalating average rental fees in the housing market. Dalston for decades has been a relatively lower-income neighbourhood in inner London and this has resulted in segregation between different social classes.

James [8], a middle-aged shopkeeper in Kingsland Shopping Centre, has been selling snacks for eight years. He says, “Dalston has changed since I started working here, these new buildings have forced poorer people out of their old homes, and it affects my business. There is now a large gap in people’s incomes.” Car parking charges have soared by 300% ever since Dalston Square was completed. Despite this, James believes this is inevitable and just wishes for more integration.

Paul, a retired Hackney resident who regularly visits the Dalston C.L.R. James Library, the first library in Hackney for over 20 years, expresses the same concern. “Dalston is changing too fast, we once felt like family. I wish it were the old days again.” [9]

Unfortunately, this might be a challenge for Dalston as many flats in Dalston Square are on the rental market. The UK shorthold assured tenancy scheme only has a 3-year maximum duration. Many residents know that they will not live here for a long time, and consequently feel there is no need to interact with the wider local community. “Dalston is not my home. I only live here because it is easier to get to university than from where I grew up.” Maria [10], a second-year undergraduate student at the University of London confessed that she has never interacted with her Dalston neighbours. Unsurprisingly, she thinks that everyone just gets along ‘pretty well’.

This sense of community and social cohesion that James and Paul are wishing for might never occur. In fact, the problem might worsen.

When Dalston Square was first unveiled, homes started out at £210,000 for a 1-bedroom apartment to £470,000 for a 3-bedroom. Now, these homes are listed at over £500,000 to £730,000 respectively [11]. Real estate agents we spoke to say housing in Dalston will continue to be high, and demand in London as a whole is not being met by house-builders, causing prices to rise even further. Housing quality is also affected, with the Home Builders Federation declaring that 98% of customers reported problems with their new homes, reflecting a wider problem of housing in general in London and the UK. Many are now also calling for local Councillors and planners to impose guidelines that force developers to conserve neighbourhoods’ identity in some way [12].

Back in the 1980s, Dalston Square was home to the Four-Aces-Club. Housed in a Victorian theatre, it was one of the first music venues that celebrated international black music. However, despite protests, Barratt homes started building Dalston Square over it in the late 2000s, to lift itself out of debt after the financial crisis hit hard. The 30-year cultural legacy of the Dalston African-Caribbean community was grounded up and crushed to what was later used in the foundations for Dalston Square, further rubbing salt into the wound.

So how are the physical implications for this new trend in gentrification displayed in this once uniformly vibrant town? The socio-economic divide between its residents has gotten wider, making this disparity more visually explicit [13]. Previously, Dalston Square had a more balanced proportion of income class. That picture has now been repainted, featuring an influx of merely only affluent newcomers.

Arriving at the adjacent Kingsland High Street, however, one can immediately feel the striking contrast when approaching the Town Centre and the Ridley Road Market. There is an ethnically diverse crowd and a mixture of people dressed in various states. There are people dressed in formal luxury brands such as ‘Prada’ and ‘Gucci’, juxtaposed against more casually dressed pedestrians. What is captivating is how the latter dominates the former, as if there is a manifestation of income class division between the square and the streets.