Witness the dramatic changes to one London street and its residents over four years in Zed Nelson’s film. Following the lives of residents and business owners on Hoxton Street, Zed’s film urges us to consider the impact of gentrification.
Although born in east Africa, director and photographer Zed Nelson grew up in Hackney, east London, where he still lives today. It’s an upbringing that means he knows gentrification better than most, as he’s witnessed the borough’s dramatic changes. “Years ago Hackney represented a place to get away from, but today Hackney has become a trendy place to live,” he tells us. “Some changes are clearly good, but due to rapidly escalating house prices in the capital, Hackney has faced rapid gentrification and development.”
Gentrification as a subject often presents these kinds of tensions when brought up in conversation – for whom are the regenerations being done for? There are benefits, but what’s the real cost to those that have called these areas home for decades? It’s questions such as these that Zed tackles in his recently released film, The Street, a feature-length documentary following the lives of the residents of one street in east London.
Zed first decided it was a subject he needed to address back in 2010 when a 16-year-old girl was killed by a gunshot fired through the window of a fast food restaurant in Hoxton Street. At the same time, he was photographing hipsters on the corner of the same block. “It struck me as incredible how these two worlds could exist side by side,” he recalls. “Hackney – although crime-ridden, poor and dilapidated – was fast becoming one of London’s trendiest neighbourhoods. I watched with fascination as the area went through a metamorphosis – witnessing an extraordinary social situation where fashionable young hipsters, yuppie developments and organic cafes co-exist awkwardly with Hackney’s most under-privileged.”
Hoxton Street, specifically, therefore became the subject of Zed’s attention. He spent four years documenting its inhabitants and, in turn, charting the “toxic collision of gentrification, austerity and the nation’s slide into Brexit.” While Zed acknowledges “Hackney has really become a better place in some ways,” he has watched with growing concern as the borough identity and community has been chipped away at. “As the property developers move in and gated luxury apartments spring up on every street corner we have to ask ourselves what kind of city we want to live in, and who we care about.”
Zed began filming in August 2015, and spent a lot of time slowly getting to know the people who live and work on Hoxton Street, “sitting in cafes, visiting business owners, meeting local vicars, attending soup kitchens.” Through interviews, a familiarity and trust built up between the filmmaker and the street’s population, and those who would come to shape the story of The Street slowly emerged. Moving with the seasons, their stories unfold in front of us throughout the film, as we see skyscrapers pop up and businesses close.
While many of Zed’s works tell stories through the medium of film, he has predominantly worked with photography during his career and in 2011 was nominated for the prestigious Deutsche Borse Photography Prize for his series Love Me, a reflection on the cultural and commercial forces that drive a global obsession with youth and beauty. His first seminal book, titled Gun Nation similarly looked at a contemporary Western issue, outlining America’s deadly love affair with the gun.
The Street is the next step in Zed’s portfolio, turning his reflective eye closer to home. He tells us about what he’s learned during the process of the film: “House prices have increased by an incredible 850% in Hackney in the last 25 years. My aim was to show gentrification as it happens, and its effect on a community. But things quickly became more complex. While house prices increased exponentially, the number of council homes has been depleted, with only two million council homes left in Britain – reduced from 6.5 million in 1980. This has caused a desperate shortage of affordable housing.
Ultimately, The Street is a nuanced documentation of the complexities of gentrification and the questions it poses. Far from throwing down the gauntlet and stating what is wrong and what is right, Zed weaves a story which allows the lives of real people to be a testament to the facts. Brexit happens in the middle of the film, and the Grenfell Tower burns down amid its duration as well. Watching The Street, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion. Zed concludes by urging: “I want people to consider what is worth protecting, who we care about, what kind of city and neighbourhood we want to live in.”
The Street is now streaming for free on Amazon Prime.