A special place, I’ve been enjoying Hackney Wick since discovering it in 2009. Like the world at large, it’s a place of contrasts. Like London, it’s a place of contradictions. In flux, it’s future is uncertain as the old industrial spaces are knocked down and the alternative creative scene that made it such an interesting spot is squeezed out by flats that people around here don’t see as being for them (read more about Save Hackney Wick here).
But while this is getting some limited media attention (see BBC News clip,), the estates of the longstanding Hackney Wick community – next door to the artistic enclave that once boasted ‘the highest number of art spaces in Europe’ – don’t really feature in the media spotlight.
There are generations of families who are Wick through and through, in an area whose high deprivation scores remind us that – recalling Dickensian times – extreme wealth coincides with extreme poverty in this great city. There are very different East Londons out here.
One of the organisations tackling longstanding social problems and generally helping the community is youth charity Hackney Quest. Also running some great initiatives that really do make a difference to local people’s lives is the Wick Award. Together with the Yard Theatre they have facilitated a project where 400 young people in the area were interviewed about their hopes, fears and needs. At the Yard Theatre in the Wick a broad spectrum of the community came together to hear the results on Saturday (event link).
The same day as the ‘Vittoria Wharf Love-In’ (see yesterday’s post), it was an uplifiting occasion, with a community meal, this presentation and a play made from the words of all different types of Hackney Wicker.
But it was also a bittersweet occasion. Five local young women – bright, articulate, positive and excited for what the future might bring – shone as they recited the usual suspects for youth issues: being stereotyped and prejudged as gangsters just for wearing tracksuits; not enough jobs; no youth club; gang issues and a sense of personal danger.
It was fantastic to watch the young women speak eloquently about the issues facing teenagers today. They were even-handed when it came to changes in the area: open to new experiences and excited about living in Hackney. Well done to Hackney Quest and the Yard for putting together this project and to the Wick Award for finding the lottery money to do this.
But where were the boys? As some of the statements sunk in, it was sobering to think that – while I can remember some fear and violence as a teen in my native north east and I’ve had stitches in London as a result of unprovoked aggression, as a primary school child I was never scared to play out because of gangs. When you hear a 9-year-old in Hoxton say “There are gangs that’ll stab you for nothing,” it makes you think.
That fear is real. And mental health came up again and again: “There should be a counsellor in every school” said one young woman on the stage. We live in an age of anxiety, and for London youth it’s coming from several sides; this is not the first time I’ve heard that youth who are barely in their teens are being told by under-pressure teachers that if they fail their GCSEs their life is absolutely ‘ruined’. That’s pressure: “We don’t learn about dealing with our stress and anxiety,” they said.
These feelings manifest themselves in other issues; a mother told me last year that several girls in her daughters’ class in Hackney had bulimia. Very possibly for the boys not here today, conditioned to express negative feelings through the traditional male medium of anger, that frurstation and pressure is expressed as violence.
A local resident enjoyed the show but where, she wanted to know, was the support for these boys? Why was there no mental health councillor in each school, as the youth had requested? Echoing an old complaint (that seems to be changing now in some places thanks to projects like City & Hackney IAPT) that there is no NHS help for you until your Depression has reached extreme levels (“Come back when you’re suicidal and then we can help”) she made the point that early interventions save pain and money in the long run.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, youth clubs featured several times as crucial spaces where young people could speak to non-parents about issues troubling them and where they could be exposed to new experiences and life-changing ideas. If you’re a youth worker, you’re certainly changing lives and quite possibly saving some. And probably not paid what that work is really worth when you add up the ripple effect over generations…
One of the articulate young women – someone who had been offered a helping hand to navigate these difficult years by Hackney Quest and grabbed it – had been to Uganda to teach local kids rugby. It had given her an insight into the materialism of today: there are people with nothing and we’re chasing £100 trainers or stressing because the shop hasn’t got the top we want, she said. Of course the ripple effect of this is hard to measure, but perhaps she’ll influence her friends and they’ll influence their friends and so on.
I recently worked for The Hive in Camden training young people to be tour guides and can testify to both the fact that there’s a lot of young talent out there. There are also a lot of people that life isn’t dealing a great hand to. If you give them a hand, a lot of them will grab it and pull themselves up. Mental illness, extremes of poverty, not being able to get a legal job and being constantly dangled the temptation of quick money through gangs: I’m glad I’m not faced with those choices.
You’ve got to have hope, without that you’re lost. And the Hackney Quest presentation was very upbeat, finishing with some recommendations about what young people in the area need and want (click here). The young people were receptive to new arrivals in the area even if the refrain “it’s not for us” was also heard several times. If you can’t get a job because of your postcode, £3 coffee isn’t relevant to you.
So they want to be part of the future. They want to have green spaces where they can let off some of the stress that they’re feeling in school, they want more police patrols and community policing and to feel safe. They want job opportunities and not to feel they’re persona non grata because of where they live. They want a little respect, they want people to see past stereotypes and appreciate them for who they are. They want to be able to enjoy the autonomy and self-respect that comes from being given a chance. All the things any of us might want out of life, no?
This year I’ll be doing some more work as Hackney Tours with the council encouraging adults to walk – for both physical and mental health – but also Young Hackney. Last year we took kids from youth clubs around their own areas, then to Kings Cross, then to Parliament and finally to the Folkestone Triennial. The aim is to connect them with culture, art, work opportunities, ideas and ways of living so they have options, and so they can share this with friends and family. “This is for you too” is always the key message for me.
Bad news sells, the media is full of it. But Hackney Tours has always been about going deeper, slower and appreciating what’s right on your own doorstep, instead of jumping on a plane every month in an era of climate change concern. And the good stuff sometimes takes a bit longer to find; it certainly isn’t found on the pages of shrill tabloids.
There are strong communities here still in London. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to stay in Hackney long enough to find it. It can be a very transient city. But look hard enough and it’s there.
The young people called for people to come together more. And while organisations from the police to the council to charities are being asked to do ever more for ever less – there’s some brilliant work being done out there day after day to build a better borough.
I resolved to do see what I could do for Hackney Quest, to try and send Underground Camden Tours business, to do more shifts at Hackney Winter Night Shelter, to keep spending my money with the local independent businesses like those championed by East End Trades Guild or found in Inside Hackney community guide, to support any more ventures like this by the Yard Theatre who – like any enterprise in a changing Hackney Wick – can never take anything for granted.
Inside Hackney article on how and where to volunteer
Hackney Council volunteering page
Hackney CVS volunteering organisation
VC Hackney volunteering organisation
The running do-gooders and community builders Good Gym Hackney
Alternative theatre space The Yard Theatre
Community initiative the Wick Award
Homeless shelter Hackney Winter Night Shelter
Local indie business movement East End Trades Guild
Led by local youth Camden Underground Tours