Is gentrification killing the political and creative side of Shoreditch?
Walking through the streets of Shoreditch it’s impossible not to notice the colourful murals, portraits and original street art that adorn the otherwise bare brick walls. These works are increasingly politically charged and alive with thought-provoking concepts that capture the spirit of a more rebellious London. However, as Shoreditch’s popularity soars, it’s questionable whether it can hold on to the creative atmosphere that makes it so popular.
Recent plans to give the area a face-lift have been met with fierce opposition, as campaigners say gentrification could mean risking to lose “the soul of Shoreditch”. A planned £800m redevelopment of the Bishopsgate Goodsyard into six towers of apartments and offices only provides 10% affordable housing; if the plans are approved by Hackney and Tower Hamlet councils.
David Donoghue, of the Spitalfields Society, recently told the Evening Standard that “something as inappropriate as this on such a massive scale will kill the golden goose”. Worries over Shoreditch’s loss of character are clear, as campaigners fear that it could become merely a playground for the rich, and in turn tear apart its unique dynamic.
Shoreditch has long been a hub for creativity, beginning in the 1990s as artists invaded empty warehouses that had been left vacant since World War Two, in search of a cheap place to work. It wasn’t long before the people that spent their time there began reflecting on the neighbourhood itself, and it eventually became the up-and-coming neighbourhood in London.
Nowadays it’s a worldwide brand; the Dubai Design District is currently working on building their very own Shoreditch from scratch. The area has become synonymous with hipsters, beards, beanies and quirky cafés, but art is still very much at the centre of what brings the borough to life.
Rob Allen, Project Director of Hammerson, the developer of the Bishopsgate Goodsyard regeneration, thinks that worries are miss-directed, saying that areas like Shoreditch are “constantly reinventing [themselves]”. However, as street art is an important part of the area, its survival seems key to the success of a re-invented Shoreditch.
David Speed is a street artist who founded Graffiti Life in 2010 as a way to make street art commercial and to provide a bridge between artists and clients. Speed says that street art is “an amazing part of [Shoreditch]”. However, if the trend of gentrification continues, “artists like us will not be able to afford to work here and will leave. If this happens I think that the area will suffer,” he says.
Dave Stuart, the principle guide and founder of Shoreditch Street Art Tours, says: “If street art appears to be a mechanism for fighting loss of character, this is more fortuity than design. Street artists incorporate messages of anti-corporatism, anti-capitalism, anti-oppression into their art and those sentiments are often targeted against the same agencies which drive gentrification, mainly capitalism.”
This style was first popularised by the famously anonymous Banksy, whose work began to be noticed around the east end of London in the early 2000s. Particularly captivating for always having a distinct political message, whether anti-monarchist, anti-capitalist or just intended to bring awareness to an issue, his pieces always have something to say.
Speed believes that “street art allows the people to have a voice. It always has done, political graffiti from ancient Greece has been discovered, the Berlin wall was covered [in graffiti] and we’ve seen messages during times of unrest throughout Britain in the 80s and 90s.” However, Speed continues, “the difference with work made today is that the audience is potentially global due to social media”.
Graffiti Life are extremely active online, with over 20,000 followers on Instagram and 18,000 on Vine; meaning that, when they decide to get behind something, it can really bring a focus to the issue by reaching a relatively large number of people. As Speed says, “social media puts the power in the hands of the artist; if a piece goes ‘viral’ it can potentially be seen by millions.”
Following the attacks in Paris earlier this year, artist’s work in response popped up all over the east end, taking an anti-terror stance that summed up the mood of the city. Speed was the first to spray something. A brick wall painted as a sky blue is the backdrop for a large gun crossed out in a bloody red, accompanied by the phrase: “Je suis Charlie”.
Speed elaborates: “When I first learned about the tragedy I was on Twitter and started investigating this strange #JeSuisCharlie that I was seeing all over my time line”, referring to the hashtag that went viral across social media in support of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that fell victim to the attacks. “I started seeing cartoonists’ responses and at first was reluctant to paint anything.”
However, the work he produced encouraged other artists to take their own stance. “After painting the piece, I started to see more street works popping up. So many people got behind the message and it was heartening to see this show of solidarity in the aftermath of such a tragedy,” he says. While London’s most spirited areas like Shoreditch may be under threat, the art that inhibits them is thriving because, as Speed points out, “artists are so competitive they push each other on to create better work”.
It’s difficult to imagine a Shoreditch without its vibrant street art and it’s clearly vital in order to preserve the unique energy that draws people to the area in the first place. “It would be exciting to see people concerned about those changes emerge as street artists and use the walls as a messaging device for raising awareness about their concerns,” Stuart says.