Dalston: Negotiating Borders21 minute read

I. Introduction

I embarked on this project as an exploration of Dalston’s landscape, believing that any environment presents to passersby a sensory narrative of place. To me, Dalston has a rich story lingering in its smellscapes and soundscapes, and I wanted to learn the area in a way that surpassed my visual impressions of the place. In selecting Dalston as a case study, I began to read the land as a site of transitions and changes. Over the years, Dalston has been an entry point for successive waves of migration; immigrants from Nigeria and Ghana settled there in the 1980s, and today, Dalston is home to a large Turkish demographic (The History of Hackney’s Diverse Communities, n.d.). Running parallel to these changes in population are economic shifts. Recently, Dalston has been the site of a gentrifying scene, with coffeeshops and new condominiums clashing with the area’s prominent Turkish presence.

The borders of Dalston can be used to gauge and document these changes. Over history, borders have constantly shifted – the fall of the Berlin Wall, the division of Korea along the 38th parallel – bringing with them political and cultural implications. In Dalston, this notion rings true; its mapped borders have fluctuated throughout history, and in addition, the smells and sounds that generate metaphysical boundaries have undergone transformations as different cultures in the area came and went. As such, this project will primarily focus on changes in three manifestations of Dalston’s borders: the official, mapped borders of Dalston, borders generated by the senses of sound and smell, and the subjective border separating myself and the surrounding area.

Figure 1 Kingsland High Street Map
Figure 1: Map of Kingsland High Street and Shacklewell, c. 1830

The delineation of Dalston’s mapped borders can be found in London’s governmental records, and these boundaries separate Dalston from its neighbors of Shacklewell, Hackney, and Bethnal Green. Historical maps show Dalston as a small, insignificant hamlet, whereas today, it commands a large space in northeast London. However, it is imperative to critique the use of maps as a communication system and its objectivity; in his work, Jeremy Crampton makes the case for maps as social constructions. Likewise, this dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity is present in the production of psychogeographical borders. There is extensive literature on the methods with which cities can be perceived, with much of it linking to Situationist theory. Guy DeBord, who founded the Situationist International, insisted on exploring the city by reacting subconsciously to his surroundings. Likewise, in my approach to Dalston, I relied on my reactions to sound and smell to welcome or prevent me from certain spaces – the distinct smells and sounds of Turkish cooking and the Saturday morning clamor of Ridley Road Market prescribing my exploration of the area. Lastly, the third boundary is perhaps the most difficult to define; in critiquing my own subjectivity as a Chinese American venturing into an area in which she does not belong, I am challenged to overcome subjectivity or to embrace it as an inherent aspect of urban studies. In short, this project investigates the histories of these three manifestations of borders as a palimpsestic exercise and identifies the patterns of location of new borders when older ones are scrubbed away, in addition to examining the relationship between borders and subjectivity.

These physical and metaphorical borders all reveal Dalston’s layered and palimpsestic qualities. The changes in its mapped borders document the history of the area’s economic growth, highlighting the notion that only the economically thriving areas are deemed worthy of being drawn on maps. Dalston’s sensed borders point to its history of being home to a multitude of cultural groups, revealing the Dalston landscape to be a continuous, ever changing site of placemaking. Finally, my own subjectivity allows Dalston a great deal of mystery, for my understanding of the place is inevitably limited.

II. Dalston in Maps

“I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. … All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.”

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

Figure 2 Hackney
Figure 2: Map of Hackney’s Ward Boundaries, 2003

Before delving into the mapped iterations of the Dalston of present day and history, it is important to contextualize the neighborhood of Dalston and its main features. Located in northeast London, Dalston originated as a rural village in the borough of Hackney in 1294 (“Hackney: Dalston and Kingsland Road”, n.d.). For much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Dalston was grouped together with its neighbors of Newington, Shacklewell, and Kinsgland. Yet, in the eighteenth century, Dalston began to represent the industrializing territory east of its two main thoroughfares, Dalston Lane and Kingsland Road (Ibid.). Inns and a hospital developed along the high road in 1745, with residential housing sprouting in the proximal area. Economic growth continued: a map published around the year 1830 depicts growing housing and commercial districts around Kingsland Road and Shacklewell Lane (See Figure 1). Later, the Second World War brought an influx of change to Dalston: shops were re-fronted, and flats developed at a rapid pace. In Figure 4, the housing and community development in Dalston is apparent; every square inch of Dalston has been divided into blocks, with roads and streets crisscrossing the area. The second half of the twentieth century also ushered in an entertainment boom in Dalston, with a multitude of cinemas (notably the Rio Cinema), musical halls, and clubs in the neighborhood (History of Dalston, n.d.). In recent years, gentrification of the area has led to an increase in property prices, while the neighborhood has seen accelerated development in light of the 2012 London Olympics.

Figure 3 Map of London 1805
Figure 3: Map of London, 1805

Boundaries define Dalston as its own autonomous object, permitting the neighborhood distinction from its surroundings. Today, Dalston’s official borders can be found in maps drawn by the Research & Statistics team of the London Borough of Hackney, with older maps delineating previous borders in Dalston’s history. While Dalston’s boundaries have never been strictly defined, its growth and development has meant that its borders have constantly shifted and expanded. John Rocque’s map of London in 1746 depicts the village of Kingsland centered around Dalston Junction, with the smaller village of Dalston further east along Dalston Lane (“History of Dalston”, n.d.). In a similar Ordinance Survey of Britain from 1805, Dalston is a small area squeezed in between Shacklewell and Hackney, seemingly bordered in the north by Sandringham Road and bounded in the south by Dalston Lane (See Figure 3). The area represented here is a fraction of what Dalston encompasses today, and the development depicted is limited compared to today’s bustling commercial center.

Figure 4 Map of Northeast London 1945
Figure 4: Map of Northeast London, 1945

In more recent maps of Dalston’s landscape, its borders are generally clearly defined. According to a map of Hackney’s Ward Boundaries published in 2003, Dalston is a region sandwiched between Stoke Newington and Queensbridge, with older areas of Shacklewell being completely erased from the map. On the north, Dalston is bounded by the intersection of Amhurst Road and Shacklewell Lane. On the south, Dalston is bounded by Richmond Road. Dalston’s western border is made up of a small area just west of Kingsland Road, the most commercial lane in Dalston, and its eastern border is more or less traced by the intersection of Dalston Lane and Ridley Road (See Figure 2). On the map, the tracks of the London Overground cut a horizontal line through the heart of Dalston, bisecting the neighborhood into northern and southern regions. In comparison to older maps, the area within these marked boundaries is clearly larger than the area depicted in historical maps, in which Dalston is typically a smallish area squeezed in between two larger areas. Moreover, this map is the only map to fence in the area of Dalston with thick, bolded blue lines, connoting an impression of immovability and certainty. Yet, despite the solidity of these borders, there is still a lack of consistency between it and other modern iterations of Dalston’s borders.

Figure 5 Layered Rendering
Figure 5: Layered rendering of Dalston’s maps (created on Google Maps)
Grey = borders found on Wikipedia
Blue = Hackney’s Ward Boundaries Red = 1805 Ordinance Survey of Britain

According to Wikipedia (Dalston, 2016), for which information is presumably crowd-sourced by residents of the area or professionals, the borders of Dalston are less strictly defined than the ones drawn in the map of Hackney’s Ward Boundaries. On the south, Dalston shares a border formed by Albion Dr. with Haggerston, an area of Shoreditch. Kingsland Road forms the western border. Dalston’s borders on the northern and eastern ends are not as traditionally defined – Dalston does not extend further north than the E8 postal area and extends in the east until London Fields.

Tourist maps of London disregard Dalston and northeast London completely.

“Sometimes a map speaks in terms of physical geography, but just as often it muses on the jagged terrain of the heart, the distant vistas of memory, or the fantastic landscapes of dreams.”

Miles Harvey, The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime

The practice of map-making, and by extension, border making, has been contentious in the field of urban studies, especially in regards to its use as a communication device. Post World War II, Arthur Robinson – the would-be author of the standard cartography textbook for the next forty years – called for a revolution that he believed to be overdue in cartography (Crampton, 2001: 235). He urged for a series of changes: cartography needed to be held to a more rigorous scientific standard, and functionality of the map should surpass the need for design aesthetics. The developments renewed the relationship between cartography and human geography, whose scholars had deprivileged map-making as representations of space and critiqued it as “problematic reflections of the world” (Ibid., 236). Much of their discussion questions the politics of representation in maps and mapping and whether maps can be usefully considered as politicized documents (Ibid., 238).

Kingsland Road E8
Kingsland Road, within the E8 Postal Code area

This discourse between cartography and urban geography brings to light the ambiguity of Dalston’s mapped borders; despite examining a multitude of maps, the streets and roads that make the boundaries of Dalston are still unclear. In the attempt to clarify these borders, map makers dictate how people should see and walk Dalston, neglecting the streets and roads in which there are private realms of community and privileging public, commercial, and bustling areas. Moreover, the transformation of Dalston’s borders over time reflect the area’s burgeoning economic growth, from its status as a small rural town on the edge of London to being known today as London’s new gentrifying neighborhood. Dalston’s older borders were never fully defined, yet today, Dalston’s borders are loudly delineated. The growth in area size is demonstrated in Figure 5, a map that portrays the layering of the borders depicted in the previously discussed maps. This relationship raises a few questions: at what point does economic status allow a region to become its own space? Do maps privilege economically well-off areas and, by extension, white and affluent neighborhoods? Dalston may not have always been a wealthy neighborhood, but its role as a culturally rich landscape in London has been somewhat neglected in maps.

III. Sense and the City

Fruit Stall Kingsland Road
An outdoor fruit stall along Kingsland Road

The common thread throughout the previously referenced maps is that they all depend on objects in the build environment, relying on streets, roads, etc. to mark the boundaries of Dalston. However, physical objects are not the only things that can generate boundaries; in fact, the senses of sound and smell often provoke a concept of spatial ordering not apparent in the physical environment. Thus, I explored Dalston by allowing sounds and smells to dictate where I could go.

This method recalls the Debordian dérive, a Situationist International idea developed in the 1950s in which one wanders the city, subconsciously reacting to the ambiance of the environment. The word “dérive” literally translates to “drift” and is the Situationists’ idea that a constantly shifting landscape forces social and experiential engagement with the geography and spatial environment (Laplace, 2003: 71). This urban practice during which one drops “their relations, their work, and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” (Debord, 1956) allows for a deeper and more nuanced engagement of the surrounding landscape. The motivation in exploring this “fixed spatial field” – in my case, Dalston – is to identify the area’s “psychogeographical articulations” (Ibid.), the critical moments where impressions are made and sensory currents can be found.

New Condo
A new condominium building with Suleymaniye Mosque in the background

The dérive emerged from a legacy of archetypes of the modern urban experience, most notably the Baudelairian flânerie. Flânerie is most simply defined as a wander, during which the flâneur gleans meaning from his surroundings. In the Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin writes about Baudelaire’s allegorical approach upon Paris life in the 19th century. His poetry, Benjamin says, is the “gaze of an alienated man” (Benjamin, 2002: 10). The city, observed from the flâneur’s detached standpoint, becomes an object to examine; the scene, considered allegorically, transcends its physical form and appears as a constant fluctuation of connotations. Moreover, the act of flânerie is restricted to a certain pace and method – slow and by foot. Baudelaire writes, “In 1839, it was considered elegant to take a tortoise out walking. This gives us an idea of the tempo of flânerie…” (Ibid., 422). As such, the ability to observe in flânerie is limited to the speed of travel through an environment.

Thus, I argue that the dérive is a more deliberate form of flânerie. It is an exercise of observation that one chooses to embark one and requires, as Debord says, an empty schedule and the liberty to follow spontaneous cues from the environment. In addition, a dérive necessitates the recording of events; attention is given to both the environment (like the flâneur) and to the act of wandering itself.

My wanderings in Dalston are the result of a dérive; the smells and sounds that have exerted the greatest pull upon me have made their way into this project. My access to spaces – and my restriction from spaces – has determined what I have written about.

“…the wonderful slightly burnt woody smell of the timber yard leaves a trace of the area’s historical light industry in the nose. Without a doubt though, the most notable smell in the area is the smell of Ridley Road market. The smell is a melange of sweet melon, the turpentine inflections of mango, marijuana, mint, incense, cumin, cardamom, dried smokey fish and the metallic bloody smell of the butchers…”

Time Out London

I predominantly explored the length of Kingsland Road from Farleigh Road in the north (stopping just short of Stoke Newington Police Station) to the intersection of Commercial Street in Shoreditch, in addition to some blocks east and west of the high street. This nearly three mile stretch, I felt, was ample enough to discern Dalston from its neighbors through simply auditory and olfactory avenues and experience a variety of senses within Dalston itself. It soon became clear that those three miles of Kingsland Road was a place of distinct sounds and smells. To me, the smells of meat grilling on Turkish oçak grills, honey-soaked baklava, aging fruit on stands by the sidewalk, floral perfume, metallic parking lots, exhaust fumes, and the musty scent of charity shops conjure up an image of Dalston that is traditional, multicultural, and urban. More importantly were the senses that pulled me towards something or prevented me from entering a space. The reggae music drifting from Afro-Caribbean stalls at Ridley Road Market drew me towards the crowd that congested the middle alley of the market, vendors flapping open plastic bags with loud snaps. The hum of muted indie music lured me into an independent artists’ fair at Epic Dalston. Car honks and tire screeches from the congested traffic at Dalston Junction station forced me to scurry through the commuting crowd without pause. The smell of baking bread mingled with the overpowering scent of cumin at TFC on Ridley Road made me feel like my allergies were flaring up.

The smells and sounds within Dalston seemed markedly different than the ones found in Shoreditch– on the southern end of Kingsland Road, the sounds of traffic were much louder, and instead of the smell of roasting lamb, it was the smell of roasting coffee beans and baby’s breath (from the nearby Columbia Road Flower Market) filling the air.

“Its difficult to fully describe the riot of colour and noise that is Ridley Road market for anyone who hasn’t been there. Places it reminds me of are the medina in Marrakesh, Electric Avenue in Brixton, and the old Moore Street market in Dublin…”

Yelp Review of Ridley Road Market

Smells and sounds are stimuli far more invasive than visual imagery. The streets contain them and, when sensed, they provoke the process of place-conception. Smells and sounds are also temporal and intangible, but they act as cues that summon up food groups or musical genres and can often be traced back to national origin. Thus, in addition to generating sensory boundaries, these smells and sounds can be read as a layered history of Dalston as a place of migration.

Tugra Baklava
Inside Tugra Baklava on Kingsland Road

Dalston is home to a multifaceted population of people from a range of backgrounds, with predominantly Turkish, African, and Asian cultures coalescing in the same area. Turkish people came to live in Hackney in the 1970s and 1980s, in order to escape political and economic havoc. The majority of Turkish-speaking residents belong to the Sunni sect of Islam – in fact, Dalston is home to London’s largest mosque. Similarly, Hackney’s Vietnamese population arrived after 1975, when the UK government accepted refugees from camps in Hong Kong under a resettlement scheme. A significant number of migrants from African countries of Nigeria, Ghana, Congo, and Senegal originally settled in Dalston as well in the 1960s but now live throughout the borough (“The History of Hackney’s Diverse Communities”, n.d.).

Turkish Shops Dalston
Turkish-owned shops in Dalston

These waves of migration can be found in the textured landscape of Dalston and are especially apparent in its sounds and smells. These senses form a palimpsestic ambiance in Dalston – with each wave of migration entering into Dalston in the twentieth century, new distinct, cultural smells and sounds mingle with each other, forming a sensory geography of place. Using a definition borrowed from Shallcross and Nycz, a palimpsest is the “mechanism of layering by means of erasure and inscription” (Shallcross, 2011: 12). However, I argue that Dalston’s palimpsestic landscape refrains from erasure and spoliation but instead, practices adding to what is already there. The smell of oçak grills, recalling the Turkish migration of the 1980s, mingles with reggae music that evokes the energetic beats of the Caribbean. These senses, whether or not they are boundaries to outsiders, reflect the diverse and multicultural atmosphere of Dalston.

IV. Subjectivity

In the third and final iteration of borders found in Dalston, I chose to investigate subjectivity; though it is neither a physical nor sensory border, it is a metaphysical boundary that still restricts me from entering and knowing Dalston. Perhaps, an inescapable blunder of this project was to enter Dalston with a perspective that sought meaning from its sensory elements, striving to connect the sounds and smells to points in Dalston’s migratory history. Additionally, my own subjectivity as a Chinese American, female college student starkly contrasted with those who walked the streets with me. I, admittedly, stick out in Dalston, and any resident would probably group me with gentrifying demographic of the young and affluent. Thus, this project must allow for subjectivity and even acknowledge it as an unavoidable aspect of urban studies.

The concept of subjectivity has been a recurring topic of previous literature on ethnography and urban studies, and discourse has contested its usefulness. In Subjectivity: Ethnographic Investigations, subjectivity is described as “not [an] error but [connoting] creativity, the possibility of a subject’s adopting a distinctive symbolic relation to the world in order to understand lived experience” (Biehl, 2007: 6). In other words, subjectivity is a necessary component to understand the surrounding environment – something I find to ring true, as the Turkish groceries remind me of Asian supermarkets back home, helping me understand why it exists in the first place. Yet, my understanding of Dalston is limited to my own narrow perspective. My daily schedule and distance from Dalston meant that I never had more than a half day to explore along Kingsland Road, and I will never know it beyond the months of March, April, and the smattering of days I spent there in the autumn before I embarked on this project. I will never know it in the summer, when perhaps the warmer weather creates an even more bustling atmosphere, with children off from school and sunnier days. As such, I believe this project is far from an accurate portrayal of Dalston and that this area is far from being understood.

V. Final Notes on Place and Palimpsest

A dérive of Dalston’s Kingsland Road and the surrounding streets reveals much about process through which landscape impresses upon the wanderer a conception of place. Through walking through the heart of Dalston, I have come to discover – especially within an immigrant neighborhood – an endless layering of smells, sounds, representations, and associations.

These layers are palimpsestic. Histories of migration in Dalston have been altered, as new events cover, appropriate, or erase them from the landscape. And, through this project, it is evident that these layers are not restricted to the visual realm; the way space is presented to a witness is through historical knowledge, sounds, smells, and a wide range of impressionable elements.

Along Kingsland Road, Dalston’s immigrants have employed the space as an area for placemaking and establishing their presence and existence for over a century. The high street is a medium of exchange through palimpsestic layering and is a place that displays the interactions between what it is today and what it was before.

Maps also provide a palimpsestic image of Dalston on paper. With iterations of Dalston’s borders crossing and overlapping each other in a layered image, a picture of what the Dalston “area” is and what its borders fence in is still unclear. Yet, the need for maps in exploring this neighborhood is unnecessary; if boundaries exist, then they exist physically as, perhaps, a locked door, and metaphysically as, perhaps, the sharp and pungent scent of cumin to an untrained nose.

In short, from this project emerged a Dalston that was not simply a single space – it is a place that inhabits a multitude of different spaces that belong to a variety of people. Dalston becomes multicultural and multilingual, a landscape of multiple landscapes.


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Hackney: Dalston and Kingsland Road, 1995. , in: A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 10, Hackney. Victoria County HIstory, London, pp. 28–33.

London, N.W., 1945. New Popular Edition.

Lt. Col. Mudge Tower, 1805. . First Series.

Research & Statistics Team, 2003. Hackney’s Ward Boundaries

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