Reclaiming Hoxton

It's famed as the spiritual home of Brit Art and Jamie Oliver, and has been colonised by wealthy urbanites. But now the locals want it back. Maxine Frith reports on a neighbourhood in revolt
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It's a familiar story: a run-down area becomes the new haunt of artists and designers; corner shops are turned into organic juice bars, the local boozer morphs into a gastropub and, within a few years, most of the locals have been priced out of the area.

It's a familiar story: a run-down area becomes the new haunt of artists and designers; corner shops are turned into organic juice bars, the local boozer morphs into a gastropub and, within a few years, most of the locals have been priced out of the area.

Hoxton, in east London, is arguably the most famous corner of Britain to undergo such a hip replacement. Made an essential destination in the Nineties by the Young British Artist brigade of Tracey Emin et al, the central square and its surrounding streets are now home to Jay Jopling's White Cube gallery, Jamie Oliver's restaurant Fifteen, and more design-conscious bars than even the most dedicated clubber can get around in a night. When the fashion cognoscenti and arty crowd show up, the property developers are quick to follow. Sure enough, the dusty streets of the City's eastern border are rumbling with the cement mixers and skips of huge numbers of builders' teams, creating chic, minimal apartments that sell for a quarter of a million pounds and more.

But behind this glamorous façade exists a much harsher reality, untouched by the influx of cutting-edge artists and executives who have turned derelict warehouses into live-work loft spaces.

Hoxton lies in the London borough of Hackney, one of the most deprived, dangerous and derelict areas of the country. Unemployment rates are among the highest in the capital, its schools are considered the worst in the country, and part of the borough has been dubbed "Murder Mile", for obvious reasons. Those who lived in Hoxton before it became trendy, and who still live there, but not in the lofts, have had little to feel cheery about, and articles in the fashion press about art happenings and cocktail bars do little to lighten their mood.

Now, at long last, Hoxton's beleaguered residents are fighting back. Fed up with property developments which price them out of the area, and alienated by a bar and boutique culture which they cannot afford, Hoxton's locals are now, cannily, playing the newcomers at their own game.

They have formed their own property corporation, which has overturned existing ideas about how government funding and inner-city regeneration should work. Instead of merely using central grants for short-term schemes, the Shoreditch Our Way project buys up buildings from under the noses of commercial developers and reclaims them for the community. It also does deals with luxury-property companies, selling them leases on buildings in exchange for the building of health centres and other facilities for locals.

Run as a charitable corporation, Shoreditch Our Way has now amassed an impressive £5m portfolio of property, including a cinema, a community centre, and housing for key workers such as nurses and firemen.

Furthermore, the entire project has the unique advantage of being under the control of residents, rather than regeneration experts. Fourteen of the 23 board members are locals - and two of its members are17-year-olds. The residents have a veto on all the projects, and have control over the designs of projects, too.

Turnout for the last round of board elections was twice as high as that for the most recent local council polls - an indication of how involved the community has become in the project. Indeed, a National Audit Office report from February held Shoreditch Our Way as an example of community involvement and sustainable regeneration. Next month, the corporation will complete its fightback, with the opening of a new training centre right in the heart of Hoxton Square.

Michael Pyner, chief executive of Shoreditch Our Way, says: "There is still a lot more to do. Improving the quality of housing is a real priority, but we are really proud of what we have done so far. The whole project has been driven by residents rather than outside experts. The residents are not just there as advisers - everything has to go through them.

"Sometimes they have made decisions that I think are wrong, but which have later turned out right. Residents know what their area needs."

The corporation was formed in 2000, when the area came under the Government's New Deal for Communities (NDC) programme. The NDC targeted £2bn at 39 of the country's most deprived areas for a decade. A founding group of six Hoxton locals formed Shoreditch Our Way, and applied to run the NDC scheme in the area.

One board member, Lisa Ogun, 31, says, "I was living in a flat with two young children and I had junkies knocking on my door at night asking for tin foil to cook their drugs in. In the morning there would be needles outside my front door.

"There was nowhere for the kids to go - all the open spaces had been taken over by addicts. I was scared to go out of my front door," she continues, "but on the other side of the road from me I could see all these huge new loft apartments which were being sold for £250,000 each. It was like two different worlds. You could walk down the road to Hoxton Square and buy expensive organic juice if you wanted but there was nowhere to get any milk."

At the beginning, the project operated out of a one-room shop on Hoxton Street. Pyner, a regeneration expert born and bred in the East End, was recruited to be chief executive. "To start with, there was some cynicism about what could be done," he says. "I remember I walked in to the first board meeting and a woman took one look at me and sighed, 'Not another wanker in a suit'. But people really wanted to get something done, something that would be sustainable, rather than simply disappearing once the 10-year funding ran out."

This meant rejecting conventional ideas that government-funded regeneration schemes should not become property developers. "In the beginning, we were criticised, because we weren't just going out and spending the money," Pyner says. "But we wanted to make sure we did things right and spent the money where it was needed."

Shoreditch Our Way has used its grants to identify derelict buildings in Hackney and employ them not simply to provide better housing, but to inject life into the area. Its latest purchase is a derelict former cinema, which will be restored to its 1940s glory within the next 18 months.

"It's typical of Hoxton that the only cinema around here at the moment is the Lux," says James Morris, commercial development manager at the project, "which shows art films rather than mainstream blockbusters. The artists Gilbert and George go there, but not the people who live around here. One of the things that the board members said they wanted was a cinema for them, with the latest films." Rather than being run as a grant-dependent community venture, the project will lease the cinema to an independent film distributor, with the proviso that that the board has control over the movies shown there.

Nearly halfway through the 10-year funding period, the results of regeneration can be seen everywhere. The single room on Hoxton high street where the project began work is now a "one-stop" shop, where locals can get a wide range of services, from benefits advice to an acupuncture session. A run-down, single-storey GP's surgery is to get new premises in a four-floor "healthy living" centre round the corner; the centre is being built by a private developer in exchange for the lease on a building acquired by Shoreditch Our Way, which will be turned into luxury flats.

James Morris says: "The whole idea is not about fostering an us-against-them mentality; it's about working with commercial developers to get the best for the community."

The approach is beginning to pay dividends. Three years ago, there was no bus service linking the residents of Hoxton's council estates with their local hospital and the nearest supermarket. "When we asked Transport for London about it, they said it wasn't viable, because no one would use it," says Lisa Ogun. "So we went out and bought two buses of our own and ran our own service.

"It got people out and about, especially the older ones. Before that, people couldn't even get to their hospital appointments because there was no transport. Last year, Transport for London took over the service because they realised so many people were using it."

Hoxton's richest and poorest still live cheek by jowl, but regeneration is now going hand in hand with gentrification. A new play area has been built, there is an affordable, healthy-eating restaurant, and community classes. As Ogun says: "The biggest problem is still the quality of the housing, but the little things that everyone else takes for granted, like having somewhere to go out, are now making a big difference."