The development of Shoreditch: a recent history

North Shoreditch is dominated by tens of post-war tower blocks, built amidst the ruins of the terraced housing that lay there before, which was bombed during World War II. Shoreditch hums with the industry but also dangers of the poorer communities which inhabit these areas. Homeless people can be found sat underneath bridges on the main thoroughfares on Friday and Saturday nights; and Shoreditch is apparently home to one of the largest concentrations of striptease joints and a number of prostitutes.

Set against the characterless nature of the steely post-modernity of the city, the autumnal colours of the terraced warehouses in Shoreditch, no bigger than four to five stories high; offer a reminder of the legacy of a thriving fabrics and furniture industry which blossomed in the seventeenth Century. Although the decline set in as Shoreditch entered the nineteenth century even up to the Second World War it has been said that there was a big textiles industry based in three to four floor warehouses in Hoxton. After the Second World War the industry moved elsewhere and is today mirrored by the state of some of some of the warehouses in and around Shoreditch. In some areas it looks like a bombsite.
However the general decline is being arrested, as service industries, not wealthy enough to operate in the City, but many of which are there to support the City; renovate and move into the new warehouses. A large number of the firms are IT but a significant number are also designers and advertisers.

The emergence of Hoxton as a trendy centre for new artists and designers began in the eighties although some people put it in the nineties. As Jess Cartner-Morley puts it ‘Hoxton was invented in 1993. Before that, there was only ‘Oxton, a scruffy no man’s land of pie and mash and cheap market-stall clothing…’ At that time artists like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin were taking part in ‘A Fete Worth than Death’ an arts based event in Hoxton. Gradually these artists began to create their own gravity, attracting more and more of their own like. Clubs and bars began to emerge, as did a Hoxton style, ‘the Hoxton fin’ being a trademark haircut. According to Cartner-Morley by 2000 the rising popularity of Hoxton had worked to inflate property prices and most of the artistic community were forced to move out. Furthermore Hoxton has now become known for its night life, and is attracting people from all over town, it is no longer the abode of an artistic bohemian community.

Politicians from all parties, spiritual leaders for global capital, tell us of the unstoppable forces of globalisation. They say if Britain is to continue to dip its paw into the cream of the world’s wealth it needs to become a post-industrial service economy; suggesting a rosy future of millions of Asians slaving away co-ordinated by keyboard tapping British suits, feet on desk, leant back on high backed leather chairs, secretary blowing them off. The financial district of the City of London, lying to the south of Shoreditch, has been successfully promoted as a global financial centre, and its mighty power is slowly expanding its way northwards. For example, plans are afoot for a string of skyscrapers, financed by speculative property investment, which will eat their way into the heart of Shoreditch. Tracy Emin has been quoted as saying “These plans are destroying what makes London special, threatening to replace an historic area and it communities with a sterile, corporate monoculture” (Baracaia, 2008).

So, Shoreditch is a crumbling dirty, dodgy, polluted mess but it also has money; and these two factors provide an intoxicating mix for artists, who can take inspiration from their environment, but also rub shoulders with people who have the kind of money to buy their work. As a result Shoreditch has also become a hive of studios for artists, vintage fashion shops, art students and musicians.

The reality of the artist is that whilst he or she might always subscribe to the artistic process being a good in itself, he or she is always likely to succumb to the desire to be loved, desire and wanted. There is no better way of doing this than of making yourself known on the streets around you. The wealth of ego-centred designers and artists in Shoreditch has combined to create a movement, which has found its expression in the streets of Shoreditch. The post-industrial legacy of Shoreditch’s crumbling low-rise warehouses, not only provides an environment in which the artists and designers can do their work, but together with several building sites, it has provided the canvas which those very same artists can display their work.

The irony is that the very same financial forces, and post-industrial legacy, which have worked to create this micro-environment, in which an artistic business community can thrive and gain access to the resources needed to display their wares, are the same forces which will in time eventually destroy it.

The glass foot soldiers of mammon will, one or two a year, gradually advance northwards, replacing old warehouses with a caravan of Starbucks and Japanese sushi places and a concomitant reduction in dead spaces to portray the art, increased security to capture and ward off street artists, increased property prices and the eventual eviction of the artistic community. Maybe the community will move northwards, maybe it will dissipate, but until that moment lets just enjoy what the community puts out there, for its own financial interests, for their own ego and also, just maybe, for the benefit of the people.


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