The Street review: East London locals reflect on austerity’s effects

Photographer Zed Nelson’s documentary takes a detached, minimal approach to present-day problems in the UK through the prism of one London street.

Sukhdev Sandhu

The Street (2019)

The decade splutters to an end. While there’s still no consensus on what to call it, its characteristics – deformities? – are glaringly obvious. Ever-growing social and economic polarisation. Millions of people, young and old and in-between, held in existential hostage by the theology of austerity and the grinding persistence of precarity. But perhaps this kind of language is staid, the stuff of earnest broadsheet op-eds, agitprop clichés. How, then, to show what has happened – what is happening – without being mawkish or telling audiences what they already know (and perhaps head to cinemas to escape)?

Photographer Zed Nelson’s first feature-length documentary takes the minimalist approach, zooming in on East London’s Hoxton Street to see how the stresses and fractures there reflect those on a national level. The film was shot over four years, during which time there were savage cuts to social services in Hoxton, a historically deprived area in the also deprived borough of Hackney. Even back in the 1980s, as Philip Hoare has written, “The locals were quaint remnants of an idyllic East End past, with a vague reputation for violence – one thought of the ’Oxton Heavies who had attacked Quentin Crisp and the Krays’ greater outposts.”

The first third of The Street might wear the patience of even a sympathetic viewer. Nelson offers a good deal of screen time to the owner of a pie-and-mash shop, who behaves as if auditioning for a Channel 5 reality show. He regards his pies not just as high gastronomy but crusty chunks of authenticity in a world gone soft and phony. “It’s not gentrified, it’s poncified,” he says of all the changes around him. His voice is part of a glum chorus of ageing locals who talk about how things used to be so nice when everyone knew everyone, and foreigners – well, foreigners can’t even speak English.

It takes a while for a different story about the past to emerge. The female reverend at Bethel Tabernacle recalls how National Front followers would regularly vandalise her church and threaten its black congregation when it opened in the 1970s. A Muslim estate agent remembers the confidence with which organised gangs used to run the place; one morning they came to him and announced, “We’re going to break into your shop tonight to show you who’s boss.” Meanwhile, a cook confides of Hoxton, “It was a shithole, but it was an affordable shithole.”

Nelson is good at collecting characters and collating their voices: a magnificently bearded Russian called Serge, who reads The Unbearable Lightness of Being under a canal bridge; a former city trader, chiding the artists who moved into the area before him for living in industrial buildings but not “creating any jobs”. Then there’s older resident Colleen, her mind – and legs – going. Her pocked memories echo the demolition of neighbourhood buildings, the diminished lives of homeless locals squeezed (if they’re lucky) into rooms smaller than prison cells, the transformation of Christian missions into themed restaurants. 

Colleen declares, “I don’t think I’m going to be long. I want to die, I want to die.” There are other deaths – among them up-and-coming artist Khadija Saye, who interned at Hoxton’s Peer gallery and died in the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. The Brexit referendum suggests the death of a certain Britain too (immediately after the results are announced, a local businessman recalls that he was yelled at for being a “fucking German bastard”).

Nelson’s film, elegantly photographed but making excessive use of a score that evokes Beatrix Potter and afternoon scones, is measured and bipartisan. There are other recent films about East End housing – among them Emma-Louise Williams’s Under the Cranes (2011) and Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s Estate, a Reverie (2015) – but The Street is more detached, less raging and resistant. It might have heeded the words of the priest who says that his work “is actually not based on love. It’s based on anger.”

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