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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 June, 2004, 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK
A tale of two boroughs
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online Political Reporter (and Hackney resident)

Hackney may be the most deprived area in the UK, according to a survey, but, as you walk around its streets, it doesn't feel particularly poor.

Nightingale estate
High rise estates dominate Hackney's skyline
Certainly not compared to a place like Easington Colliery, in County Durham, which I visited last year as part of a series on the North South divide.

Easington tops many of the same indexes of deprivation as Hackney and Tower Hamlets.

It has the highest level of long-term illness in the UK, the worst life expectancy at birth and the lowest percentage of people with degrees or professional qualifications.

But, unlike the two London boroughs, the former mining village feels like something of a ghost-town.

'Night-time economy'

Empty shops and commercial premises are everywhere. A car passes through the main street every couple of minutes or so.

By contrast, there are traffic jams in Hackney well into the small hours. To the casual observer, the place appears to be thriving.

In recent years, Shoreditch's bar and club scene has come to rival the West End as a destination for a night out.

The divide is between the South East and the rest of the country
Mark E, "South" England

A sign outside a nightclub in Kingsland Road - "think before you buy" - warns anyone considering buying a house in the area of the lively "night-time economy".

Further north, Mare Street - the spiritual and administrative heart of the borough - has Ocean, one of the fastest-growing music venues in the capital, and legendary variety palace The Hackney Empire.

Then there is the cultural melting pot of Brick Lane.

Rich and poor

It may be deprived of the Tube - and any significant industry - but there are no shortage of things to do in Hackney. If you've got the money.

But the real difference between Hackney and a place like Easington is the gap between rich and poor.

Hackney facts
One in six adults receives Income Support
Some 95 languages are spoken by Hackney residents
There are more than 20 art galleries in the borough
All of Hackney's 19 wards are in the top 10% most deprived nationally
Source: Hackney Council
It is virtually non-existent in Easington. Many people are on benefits or scraping a modest living in a local factory or call centre.

In Hackney, situated as it is on the edge of Europe's largest financial district, real deprivation and conspicuous consumption exist side-by-side.

The gap is perhaps at its most eye-wateringly wide in the 200 yard stretch between Hoxton square to Hoxton market.

On the one hand, you have the White Cube gallery, epicentre of Brit Art, and favourite haunt of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, whose sculpture of a little girl in calipers briefly dominated the square last year.

Drugs problem

New flats, or combined living and working spaces, which are being thrown up at an alarming rate, start at 300,000.

Easington Colliery
Easington Colliery can resemble a ghost-town
A few hundred yards away, it is everything-for-a-pound and charity shops and forbidding "sink" estates.

Like Easington, there is a scarcity of well-known high street names, cash points and banking facilities.

Instead, you find gloomy sub post-offices, where the elderly and unemployed - the invisible majority in Hackney - queue up to cash their giros.

Empty shops in both areas have been commandeered by community action projects - always a sure sign of endemic deprivation.

Sadly, another similarity between the two areas is a drugs problem.


The local heroin trade was described to me by one Easington resident as the area's only growth industry.

Every house in a particular street, where scenes from the film Billy Elliott were filmed, was said to be the home of a dealer.

On the day I visited, local residents were quietly celebrating a police raid on a particularly-loathed criminal gang boss.

In Hackney, crack cocaine appears to have eclipsed heroin as the main source of grief for the local population.

In 2003, the local council closed down 200 "crack houses".

This is all no doubt thrillingly "edgy" for the Brit art crowd.

Pubs in Hoxton Street, where TV "hardman" actor Keith Allen can sometimes be spied singing karaoke, allow them to rub shoulders with authentic East End "characters".

Population movement

But there is growing resentment among the indigenous population at this incursion of middle class trendsetters.

Local working class candidates have done well in recent elections, campaigning on a ticket of reclaiming the area from the yuppies.

There is no such problem in Easington, where the only significant population movement is out of the area.

Although mobility among those that remain is worryingly low. One local employment service worker told me she knew young people who had never visited Newcastle, 20 miles away.

Hackney, on the other hand, is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the UK.

Less than two thirds of the people living in the borough were born in the UK.

Sense of hope

There are large Turkish and Caribbean communities, as well as substantial groups of more recent arrivals from Africa, including Somalis, Nigerians, French-speaking West Africans and Ghanaians.

It is also home to refugees from many of the world's trouble spots.

On a visit to Hackney's showpiece community college a couple of years ago, I dropped in on a language class, which boasted students from Angola, Afghanistan, the Congo, Sierra Leone and Colombia.

Standing on the roof of the college, the steel and chrome towers of the City were clearly visible on one side, with the sink estates of the east end on the other.

The College's principal told me she saw its role as a bridge between the two, although, she added ruefully, the gap felt a great deal wider than it ought to be.


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