Magazine article The Spectator

Mary Wakefield: Gentrification Is Far from Our Biggest Problem

Magazine article The Spectator

Mary Wakefield: Gentrification Is Far from Our Biggest Problem

Article excerpt

The late afternoon sun fell on the anomalous pine trees of Gillett Square, London N16, and on the wooden decking below, giving it a fleeting look of lunch in the Alps. To the east, just visible at the far end of Gillett Street, the Kings-land Road ran its usual choppy course: hipsters and the homeless, Jamaicans and Turks, Vietnamese up from the Shoreditch end and the odd Haredi Jew heading north to Stamford Hill.

Gillett Square is Hackney's great regeneration project. Once a disused car park full of drunks and dealers, after 25 years of funding drives and architects, bulldozing, building and PR, it's now Dalston's 'town square'. In the beginning, it was the first of Ken Livingstone's '100 new public spaces' and a model for future development. Its proud parent, Hackney Co-operative Developments (HCD), calls it: 'A place to walk through; a place to sit; a place to share; a place to meet; a place to see, hear, feel, smell, taste and discover wonderful and incredible things.' HCD puts on events almost every day: on Monday you can play 'giant chess'. On Thursdays through the summer it's a 'pop-up playground'. 'Durable and intriguingly shaped equipment transforms the square into an adventure wonderland for children to discover, create and enjoy', says HCD.

The sun fell on the pine trees, on the platform, on the multicultural food stalls and, that Thursday, on what looked like a scene from a zombie movie. My small son and I approached from Mildmay to the east. As we arrived, a man lurched out of the doorway of the Vortex jazz club and into the path of the pushchair. He had a tin of Foster's in one hand and a scarf wrapped right up from his neck to his hairline. To get the can to his mouth he had to push it up under the scarf, which he did.

Behind him, an Irishman stood, shouting and swaying. He had a bottle of Corona in one hand and a pram in the other. On a bench beside him sat a box of 24 Corona Extra and two women, one with a baby, the other with a blue plastic bag of Stella.

There was a pop-up playground, though it had not transformed the square into an adventure wonderland. Some grubby foam shapes had been scattered on the ground, but over the long summer the HCD events team have lost heart. A small boy ran in circles, crying and chasing two older girls who'd nicked his bike. The Irishman lunged at the girls as they passed: 'Come here. I'll spank ya!'

Cedd and I headed for the pines to regroup. On the wooden platform a black guy stood with a can of Stella beside a toddler in a pushchair. If only HCD had scheduled a bring-a-bottle-and-a-baby party, they could have counted it a success.

Along the square's undeveloped side, a long bench of West Indian men and women sat and smoked weed with great concentration and intensity. Drifts of sweet smoke floated over the prams, the kids, and a gang of seven- or eight-year-old boys who'd turned up to play table football and, to be fair to Gillett Square, did look as if they were having fun. …

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