Shoreditch Subcultures15 minute read

In this essay I aim to use the metaphor of London as a body to describe how the evolution of Shoreditch evinces a confluence of time. In other words, I will describe how Shoreditch was molded by the subcultures that defined it and was transformed from a no-body, an impoverished industrial centre, to a some-body, a glamourised cultural destination. Throughout its history, Shoreditch has been defined by its residents who have historically been those on the fringes of London’s mainstream culture- from the impoverished, struggling artists, gay men, hipsters and geeks. Each population has shaped Shoreditch, converting it from a gritty area with a seemingly incurable issue of poverty into a location with celebrity spottings, trendy restaurants, boutiques and galleries. It has become such a popular location that “according to figures from Knight Frank, Shoreditch has seen a 46 per cent increase in house prices over the past three years, outstripping prime central London by about 20 per cent.” In this essay, I will explore how a place that was home to the pariahs of society became a source of British pride.

shoreditch house prices
A graph of housing prices for Shoreditch, Greater London and England & Wales from 1995 until 2010

Although Shoreditch is now part of Inner London, it only joined the new County of London in 1889. Before then it was a medieval parish in the county of Middlesex. At this point in time, Shoreditch was a destitute area with a low standard of living and high prevalence of disease. One article that was published in 1866 discusses a report by the Registrar-General that reports 346 deaths in the third week of July alone due to cholera, claiming that “the fatal explosion occurred chiefly in the comparatively poor districts of the East of London.”[1] This dire situation is exemplified by the fact that Oliver Twist lived in South Shoreditch as Charles Dickens used to visit Shoreditch for inspiration for his works. Even after Shoreditch became part of the new County of London, the lack of progress is apparent from an article that was published in 1890. The article sought to recruit a charity worker to help women and children in Shoreditch who worked as matchbox-workers and earned about eight shillings a week. The author of the article, Dilke, calls on workers to “bring love to this work, love which will enable you to forget the rags, the dirt, the possible degradation of mind and body in those amongst whom you will move.”[2] The language used to express the compassion and effort required by the middle-class to help the people in Shoreditch indicates how serious the issue of poverty was. As a final test to assess if potential workers are able to take on this burden, Dilke asks if “you feel you can, without flinching, lay your arms about the shoulders of one of these solid waifs of our civilisation and say, as a friend might, “Well, dear, and what does your man do?” Again, this reinforces the mentality that the residents of Shoreditch were viewed as people on the outskirts of society and that enormous mental toll was necessary to treat them as equals.

The living conditions of the people in Shoreditch remained largely unchanged in the beginning of the 20th century. In 1902, Booth describes the character of the locality as working-class and says that “poverty is everywhere, with a considerable admixture of the very poor and vicious,” with areas of high poverty, prostitution and thieves.[1] He also claims that the “great change during the last ten years has been the displacement of dwelling houses by warehouses and factories” and that Shoreditch has an “evil reputation for poverty and vice and the absence of open spaces.” Ford Madox confirms this view in 1905, describing Shoreditch, at the time a Victorian slum, as being inhabited by “an intangible cloud-like population of white-faced misery.”[2] An article in 1938 regarding a study on children in Shoreditch painted an acute image of the situation at the time. The study was conducted by the Shoreditch Housing Association and was based on 400 children who were selected to serve as a random and representative sample for school-children in the borough. The findings revealed that “38 per cent [of school-children in Shoreditch] were living in overcrowded conditions; and in 34 per cent cent. of the cases there was no indoor water supply.”[3] The article goes on to lament the ‘London slum evils,’ attributing Shoreditch’s location as “the centre of a large factory area offering ample employment” as the reason why people migrated to the area at “such an appalling cost to themselves and their children, and ultimately to the community.”

Damien Hirst Tramshed
A Damien Hirst piece on display at The Tramshed restaurant in Shoreditch

Within the next couple of decades, artists colonised Shoreditch in waves. Starting in the 1980s, the first wave was struggling artists who were drawn to Shoreditch for its proximity to London, lower studios and living rents and ‘edginess’ as a gritty neighborhood that was compatible with their bohemian lifestyle. The industrial legacy of Shoreditch facilitated this creative transition as artists rented “out the abundance of low-rise warehouses, originally built to house London’s furniture industry, but left vacant by the middle of the twentieth century following the industry’s decline.” They used the derelict warehouses as “open gallery spaces, such as White Cube Hoxton Square and a host of independents on Vyner Street.”[1] Eventually a large number of up-and-coming artists moved to Shoreditch including Damien Hirst, Alexander McQueen, Gary Hume and Tracey Emin, who were members of the Young British Artists, a group of British visual artists who became famous for their provocative “shock tactics.”[2] Their success drew more artists into the Shoreditch area and “quickly attracted other creatives, like architects and filmmakers… Soon, the empty warehouses were being transformed into makeshift living spaces and grungy bars and music venues.” With Shoreditch increasing in prominence as London’s newest artistic hub, the area was covered by The Independent in a feature and was the stage for a Harper’s Bazaar photo shoot, becoming a place that “attracted celebrities like Donatella Versace and Kate Hudson.” Ultimately, the trendy creative scene replaced Shoreditch’s reputation as an industrial area that was home to furniture-makers and shoe-manufacturers.

Before long, Shoreditch became known for being London’s premier community of artists, designers and musicians, setting the stage for it to become the centre of street art for British and internationally renowned artists. The street artists used Shoreditch’s legacy as an a former industrial area, “abandoned buildings, railway lines and wasteland car parks,” to display their work. The perception of street art went from being illegal to priceless in a similar manner that property in Shoreditch went from being undesirable to unaffordable in a matter of years; this value shift is exemplified by Banksy’s urban art piece, “Keep it Spotless,” that was sold at Sotheby’s Charity auction in New York in 2008 for $1,870,000. In 2010, David Cameron presented President Obama with a painting by a graffiti artist, Ben Eine, entitled “Twenty First Century City,” indicating that he thought it was a worthy representation of British cultural heritage. In the International Journal of Heritage Studies, Merrill suggests that “there is strong case for listing Banksy’s street artworks as heritage, especially when supported by a local community that attaches value to their artistic qualities and political and social commentary.” He demonstrates this attitude of pride among the locals, following the success of graffiti artists such as Banksy or Ben Eine, by pointing out the “numerous private owners of Banksy’s illegal street art [that] have attempted to protect their assets in situ by covering them in Perspex.” According to Bozynski in the Art Inquiry 11, “thanks to the mastery of the artists such as Banksy, the public space has turned into a sphere where artistic freedom has already been established,” which has allowed the residents of a dynamic, international city to express themselves. These attitudes reflect a willingness of Londoners to use their city as a palimpsest, even despite cultural tendencies to promote heritage through strict regulations regarding the preservation of landmarks and historical architecture. By allowing the current generation of Londoners to reshape existing legacy and reinvent the city while doing so, they too can create new legacies to be proud of and hope to protect.

Ben Eine's Street Art
Ben Eine’s street art in Shoreditch

At around the same time, a new demographic started to move in and give Shoreditch a new flavour. In the 90’s, Shoreditch became a hub for the LGBT community as the location of the Chariot Shoreditch, the largest gay sauna in the UK, and the Joiners’ Arms, a popular gay pub and nightclub. Rothbart, a filmmaker who made a documentary about East London drag, describes Shoreditch as vital for the development of LGBT culture in London especially when gay men weren’t protected by the legislation that exists now.[1] Paul Flynn, a writer and local resident describes The Joiners’ as “a social space that symbolised a decade of gay counterculture which felt at joyful war with gay assimilation,” calling it “a little assault against Civil Partnerships, gaybies, ​It Gets Better, Lady Gaga and Glee.”[2] Shoreditch’s position as a gaybourhood, Curt discusses, hastened the “gentrification of a London district, injecting energy and cash and -inevitably- raising house prices.” He calls Shoreditch “a prime example of pioneering gays subsumed within a wider influx of cool, followed by commercialism” and claims that the gay movement started with the Joiners’ Arms that was there even when “Shoreditch felt like the middle of nowhere.”[3] The LGBT community that contributed to the gentrification of Shoreditch however is gradually being squeezed out of the region. On January 15th, 2015, the Joiners’ closed because of the need for additional housing. Following the threat of the closure of the Joiners’ Arms, a protest group named Save the Joiners was formed, echoing the anger that LGBT communities felt for being pushed out of the area for the profit of developers. Glass, a community worker believes that “in failing to recognise the importance and cultural significance of venues like the Joiners’, the government is to blame for the recent spate of closures.” He concludes that the apathy towards the gay community “by those in power, combined with market forces really does seem to be eating away at London’s gay scene.” The founder of the pub, Pollard voices his opinion that “London will end up destroying itself,” and cautions the people of London to remember that “London has always been more than a playground for the super-rich.”

Recently, Shoreditch is being called Tech City for the influx of tech-savvy young people it has been experiencing. This demographic is fuelling the Flat White Economy, named after the type of coffee they tend to order, which refers to “the dense network of digital marketing, computer programming, software publishing and video post-production businesses that have sprung in and around Shoreditch around 2008.” The pressure of space and expensive overheads in central London made Shoreditch a prime location for startups, which typically do not have the cash flow or capital to spend on central London office rent. Felix claims this vitality allowed London to be resilient during the financial crisis and recover relatively quickly, indicating a potential shift of power to the fringes of the city.[4] This trend does not seem to be declining any time soon because “across the UK, the media, information and communication sectors account for nearly 8 per cent of GDP- the size of the car manufacturing and oil and gas industries combined” and is believed that its “share of GDP will double over the next decade.”[5] Large companies have established a presence there such as Google, through its startup incubator; Tesco, with its mobile app development office; and Amazon, with its fashion photography studio. According to statistics from accountants UHY Hacker Young, “15,620 new business were set up in and around Shoreditch between 2013 and 2014 – almost five times the amount launched in Canary Wharf.”[6] This sentiment was confirmed by Mr Cameron in 2010, who expressed his ambition to “bring together the creativity and energy of Shoreditch… to help make East London one of the world’s great technology centres.” The government has supported this statement by announcing the release of an Entrepreneur Visa and establishing a presence of the UK Trade & Investment in East London.[7] Initiatives such as the Digital Shoreditch Festival, “a global hunt for the best entrepreneurs to come to London,”[8] underscores the importance that Shoreditch plays in helping London achieve its goal to become a “leading technology hub” and be perceived as a modern city, an initiative that originated with Ken Livingstone.

Startup Map Shoreditch
Startups around the Shoreditch area that form “Tech City”

Doctrow cynically claims that Shoreditch adds “much-needed diversity to the capital’s industrial base – which presently consists largely of companies that launder war criminals’ money and companies that exchange this laundered money for empty luxury flats.”[1] In 2010, Hackney council planning department approved the demolition of small offices in Shoreditch for high-rise, student housing for wealthy international students. This decreased local affordable housing supply and is pricing out up-and-coming startups, the lifeblood of Tech City. Doctrow, as an entrepreneur himself, lists the benefits of startups as “bring[ing] in a diverse set of people with diverse retail needs, supporting a wide variety of services that transient students have no use for.. and [being] an alternative to a brain-draining exodus to the San Francisco Bay area.” He says that startups hold the potential for the creation of good jobs and local firms that pay local taxes and nurture local talent.” He claims that startups, however, can only succeed when they are local and allow talent and ideas to be rapidly circulated. He predicts that “scattering Silicon Roundabout’s startups to the winds may not kill all of them.. [but] the conversation at the pub and in the sandwich shop that leads to the next big thing will now never take place, because the conversants are working in offices at opposite ends of Stratford.”

Shoreditch has gone through a series of transformations from being influenced by various different groups; the general trend has been to displace the previous group by pricing them out of the market. A pressing issue now is whether this gentrification is stripping Shoreditch of its flavour that made it so attractive to its original pioneers. This sentiment is echoed by the campaign group named “Keep Tech City Weird,” led by former deputy CEO of Tech City, Ben Southworth. He and the rest of the community have “put a petition together to try and maintain Shoreditch’s charm and stop developers from building flashy luxury apartments instead of creative workspaces” and are calling for “developers to put the area’s people before property and profit.” The protesters are uniting to remind developers of the importance of diversity for the creative industries and to warn them that Shoreditch may eventually look just like the city.[2] This sentiment is also echoed by the hundreds of people who partook in the “Cereal Killer Cafe Protest” this September to protest against gentrification in Brick Lane. The challenge appears to be retaining Shoreditch’s character as a fringe neighbourhood and not allowing it to become a corporate tourist attraction like Camden or Notting Hill. As a conclusion to this metaphor, I believe what makes a body beautiful is its idiosyncratic quirks that make it charming and memorable. Shoreditch is the desirable location it is today because of the people on the fringes of society who saw its value and beauty and gave it its edge. By becoming commercialised and mainstream, Shoreditch arguably loses its appeal as its distinctiveness is replaced by the generic and predictable through the homogenizing process of gentrification. In other words, the reality that Shoreditch is now a some-body for everybody, instead of a some-body for somebodies, increases the chances that it will become a no-body for everybody.

[1] Doctorow, Cory. “The Slow Death of Silicon Roundabout.” The Guardian. 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.

[2] Griffith, Gabriella. “Shoreditch Tech Stars Fight to Keep the Area “Weird”.” City A.M.: 12. Jul 29 2014. ProQuest. Web. 1 Dec. 2015 .

[1] “Closing Time: The Loss of Iconic Gay Venues Is a Nasty Side-effect of London’s Sanitisation.”Closing Time: The Loss of Iconic Gay Venues Is a Nasty Side-effect of London’s Sanitisation. NewStatesman, n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2015.

[2] “The Joiners’ Arms Is Closing and It’s a Travesty | VICE | United Kingdom.” VICE. VICE Media LLC, n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2015.

[3] Nick Curtis. “Welcome to the Gaybourhood.” Evening Standard (2014): 32-34. Web.

[4] Martin, Felix. “Hipster Capital.” New Statesman May 2015: 51. ProQuest. Web. 1 Dec. 2015 .

[5] McWilliams, Douglas. The Flat White Economy: How the Digital Economy Is Transforming London and Other Cities of the Future. Print.

[6] Brooker, Nathan. “Shoreditch: Hip Or Hype?” Financial Times: 6. Apr 11 2015. ProQuest. Web. 1 Dec. 2015 .

[7] “PM Announces East London ‘tech City'” GOV.UK. Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, 4 Nov. 2010. Web. 1 Dec. 2015

[8] “KAM STAR, FOUNDER, DIGITAL SHOREDITCH, IS INTERVIEWED.” CEO WireMay 23 2013. ProQuest. Web. 1 Dec. 2015 .

[1] “Tate Debate: Can Artists Make a Living in Cities?” Tate Britain. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2015.

[2] “THE ARTISTIC HISTORY OF SHOREDITCH.” Hyatt. Hyatt Corporation, n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.

[1] Booth, Charles. Life and Labour of the People in London,. London: Macmillan, 1902. Print.

[2] Ford, Ford Madox. “V.” The Soul of London, a Survey of a Modern City. London: A. Rivers, 1905. Print.

[3] “Children in Shoreditch.” The Spectator Aug 26 1938: 323. ProQuest. Web. 3 Dec. 2015 .

[1] “YOUNG SHOREDITCH.” Examiner.3052 (1866): 468. ProQuest. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.

[2] Dilke, Emilia F. S. “AN APPEAL FOR SHOREDITCH.” The Speaker : the liberal review 1 (1890): 598. ProQuest. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.

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