Urban Lab Walk: Hackney — Aftermath of Regeneration
During the Spring of 2022 UCL Urban Lab curated a series of walks across East London, as a means of exploring London once more following the Covid-19 ‘lockdowns’ which had enforced the cancellation of so many in-person events, and linked to its annual theme Emergency. One of these walks, through the London Borough of Hackney, was led by Ashley Hickson-Lovence, an author and born-and-bred Hackneyite. In this blog post, UCL Masters student Chloe McFarlane documents where the walk led us, and what insights she took from it.
On Sunday 6th March, Ashley Hickson-Lovence, author of “The 392”, led a walk through Hoxton and Dalston, exploring local landmarks and the ongoing impacts of gentrification on the area. The route followed that of a fictitious 392 bus route central to his novel; which was itself a journey heavily inspired by Ashley’s very own lived experiences in the area. The novel is divided into many short chapters, exploring (in a witty but insightful way) the perspectives of passengers on the 392 from a wide cross section of society.
Stop 1- Hoxton Station
We started at the entrance of Hoxton Station. Ashley mentioned that opening of the station in 2010 was a massively instrumental factor in the redevelopment of Hoxton. After a short intro, he flipped open his book to a chapter titled “Barney”. Barney, one of the novels many varied characters, is a blonde-haired political figure (that might remind you of somebody…), taking the 392 through the area in the direction of Islington.
“There are more new builds sprouting up on street corners, arty students in double denim and Doc Martens, clusters of trendy coffee shops and cafes. To the right, there is a strong single market, but one that is only open on weekends it appears. What’s for sure though is that the Overground has done its job in putting Hoxton on the map. It feels alive.” P57/58
The extract above illustrates the types of changes Hoxton station has galvanised—for better or for worse — from the new builds to changing demographics, shops, and amenities. The overground station has greatly enhanced the visibility and branding of the area, inviting a lot of curiosity and speculation…
Stop 2 — New City College
We swiftly moved on from Hoxton Station, walking west across Kingsland Road to New City College. The college is a key stop in ‘The 392’. Ashley mentioned that he grew up knowing the educational facility as Hackney College before, like many others, it merged into a federation and was drastically revamped. For a short moment, he lamented about the origins of the book…The book was initially called ‘Journey’ and was submitted as part of an anthology — to which it attracted the attention of a few literary agents. Following this interest and excitement, he contemplated turning this body of work into a novel about gentrification and the local area. Signing up to an agent in 2017, 1,500 words quickly turned into 20,000 words… Coming back to the present moment, he flicked the book pages to a chapter called ‘Natalie’. Natalie was one of his favourite characters to write about — a young mum in an urban area, somewhat mirroring his own mother’s situation in his early childhood years.
“The roads of Hoxton are small; the driver makes the bus bounce off the pavement as we go past the gym and the car park. Roadmen doing GCSE retakes look at us like they want to either fight us or chirpse us, standing outside New City College with their hoods up and screw faces. Their heads go from left to right like CCTV cameras as we drive past.” p.6/7
Stop 3- Crondall Street
Quickly taking in the glimmering exterior of New City Collage, we moved further west onto Crondall Street. Again, Ashley paused momentarily to reflect upon the book’s development. “Now that you’ve got to 20,000 words, you can get to 60,000 words” he strikingly recalls from a conversation with his literary agent. The juggle of working, marking, and writing a book simultaneously was a challenge, but the characters of the book, inspired by people he’d seen in the area through the years, came quickly. He discussed the difficulties of authentically capturing the lived experiences of Hoxton and then weaving these characters into a fictitious but believable bus route through the area. Glancing up the high street, he stated the “the [real] bus wouldn’t come here because of Hoxton Market”. Despite that, he mentioned that Crondall Street is still significant regarding representations in popular culture and media, as documented by another 392 character and football fanatic ‘Ray’.
“The journey so far: Kingsland Road, left, Falkirk Street, right, Hoxton Street, left, Crondall Street. I could do the whole route. Back in the day, I used to live on Haberdasher and strut down Hoxton Street wearing wallabies and barging into people, thinking I was Richard Ashcroft in the Bittersweet Sympathy video.” p.15
Stop 4 — Pitfield Street and its very own urban changes
We walked on to the end of Crondall Street, stepping onto Pitfield Street. Here, Ashley elucidated on the real-life bus route which provided inspiration for ‘The 392’. In 2001, the Shoreditch Hoppa mini bus used to operate in the Hoxton area. Years later, an entirely new bus route was created and serviced by TfL — the 394, taking passengers from Shoreditch to London Fields and Homerton Hospital. Ashley expressed that the fictious 392 is a protest route; his way of ensuring there is a bus going down Pitfield Street, which would of been of great use in his youth. After this we continued north along Pitfield Street, soon encountering the new Britannia Leisure Centre (relatively affordable), the new Shoreditch Park Secondary School (which opened in September 2021) and bollards/planters in the middle of the road — a characteristic feature of increasingly popular but contentious Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in London. Continuing up Pitfield Street, we walked past a roundabout where the iconic ‘I love Hoxton’ Sculpture is stationed. The artistic installation was created in 2001, with 51% of local residents wishing to retain it in a subsequent stay of execution. Amidst all the urban regeneration happening in the area, he adamantly stated that Hoxton Street will always be the heart of the area, and that to him as a local, Hoxton Station itself wasn’t really even in ‘proper’ Hoxton.
Stop 5 — Kingsland Towpath, by Regents Canal
We continued north up Whitmore Road, then turned left onto De Beauvoir Crescent. Ashley then ushered us into a mini passageway, with views of idyllic Regent’s Canal to the left and views of De Beauvoir Estate to the right. Resting against a graffitied wall, Ashley detailed the next milestone in the production of ‘The 392’. By Christmas of 2017, he reached 55,000 words, discretely printing off a copy at his school. He mentioned that he received good feedback — the multiplicity of voices and depth of narratives was highly praised. On this note, he turned to a chapter called ‘Diamond’.
“Paigey Cakey is so beautiful. She’s mixed race and she can rap and she’s an actress; I swear, they have all the luck. She wears the nicest tracksuits and has the best kreps in her videos and her hair looks so nice too because she always gels her baby hair in such a nice way with the curly bits that are always so neat. One of her videos is filmed on Estelle’s block — Estelle’s so lucky she has a photo of them together when she came to shoot her video in De Beauvoir that time….” p.124
Stop 6 — Kingsland Road and its very own urban changes
Reflecting on his words, Ashley led us through the De Beauvoir Town district (full of many heritage relics — residential wharves and fashion warehouses) and back onto Kingsland Road high street. We skirted past the indie Burley Fisher Book Shop, where he launched ‘The 392’. The launch event illuminated the novel’s distinct observational, poetic, and racy style. Ashley also hinted towards the novel encapsulating 30 mins of the 392 journey. Walking in the direction of Dalston, Ashley additionally gave a nod to The Jago live music venue. In a similar manner to Hoxton, the Overground has spurred drastic change of Dalston’s urban landscape, including places for entertainment and leisure. ‘Barney’ candidly speaks on the situation:
“There’s that Haggerston pub, busy bar downstairs, birthday venue up top. And that shop selling cacti plants, Prick. Despite protests, Passing Clouds has closed down. The 76 no longer goes down Stamford Road. The shop (not) selling (social mobility) scooters is still there in the corner, so is the Oxfam. And there’s Creams, seems London has gone dessert diner crazy.” p.60/61
Stop 7 — Dalston Junction Station
10 minutes later, we reached the ‘termini’ of the walking tour — Dalston Junction Station. Ashley mentioned that in 2010, the station officially opened, costing approximately 73 million to develop, and once derided as the most expensive bus stand in history’. For a long time the ‘interchange’ was only used by the 488, and Ashley led the 392 through to add a bit of extra traffic, even if not actually real. For the final time, he flicked across the pages of his novel to a chapter titled ‘Shelia’. As a bus driver, Sheila shares her utopian (though slightly apprehensive) vision for bus journeys around London.
“Because this bus is so small, far smaller than the double deckers I’m used to driving, I dreamt of a unity between us, like driving a people carrier. I imagined passengers joking with each other, making friends and taking selfies. Instead, it feels odd, divided. Tension lives in the air like a bad smell, something chemical” p.164
Reverberating on this final extract, Ashley concluded the walking tour by stating that the book richly dwells upon the diverse, complex and nuanced lived experiences of Hoxton and Dalston. Smiling, he enthused that the book is for anyone, and everyone.
Chloe Michaela McFarlane is an MRes Interdisciplinary Urban Design student at the UCL Bartlett Planning School, with a background in community consultation in London.