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How the Young British Artists drove gentrification in Hoxton and Shoreditch

Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst.
Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst.

In the very beginning, back in the early 1990s, Hoxton and Shoreditch was deserted in the evenings and at weekends. It was deprived too - not to say poverty stricken.

This meant there was plenty of space available in the old warehouses left behind from the area’s industrial past. And this attracted impecunious young artists looking for cheap studios.

My novel Art is all about the birth of the Young British Artist scene in Hoxton and Shoreditch in the early 1990s. The backdrop to the novel is the gentrification the artists helped to drive in in the area.

 (Tracey Emin)
(Tracey Emin)

The artists could pay very low rents for large studios - or no rent at all: some of them squatted. Soon they made the area fashionable for other creatives in search of low rents and urban edge – graphic designers, web designers and architects all followed.

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Estate agents realised there was money to be made. One of the most enterprising and colourful was James Goff, who was pally with the artists and had set up a firm very early on to cash in, Stirling Ackroyd – a name dreamt up by Goff and intended to convey gravitas. It worked well.

The area remained dodgy. Gangsters and other criminals were prominent in local bars. It has to be said that the artists gave the area’s cocaine trade a mighty lift. One of the YBAs even had a close relative dealing in the drug and at least one shop was set up to launder drugs money.

Sarah Lucas's self portrait, Eating a Banana, 1998
Sarah Lucas's self portrait, Eating a Banana, 1998

As well as crime, political extremism was rife. The British National Party had its headquarters on Shoreditch High Street until the late 1980s. Far-right skinheads were a small but significant part of the clientele of the gay London Apprentice nightclub on City Road (which later became a straight club, the 333).

None of this stopped the area gaining traction with the middle classes. Indeed – and perversely –  the feral frissons actually boosted its desirability.

Where fashion and culture led, investment followed.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

At street level hipster bars, nightclubs and restaurants appeared. Larger corporates moved in and the area started to catch on with tech, at first bands of nerdy coders and hactivists, then start-ups with business plans firmly focused on exponential digital growth.

By the Noughties Old Street roundabout was rebranded Silicon Roundabout.

The area is still evolving. But if it looks like a case study for Richard Florida’s theories about boho creativity driving urban regeneration, then it is not a shining example. There is little trickle down.

There is a huge amount of dilapidated social housing in the area that Hackney and Islington Councils struggle to maintain and manage. Where locals have found employment in the new businesses it is mostly minimum wage.

 (Daniel Lynch)
(Daniel Lynch)

Most of them haven’t benefitted from insane property price inflation, or from the plum new jobs in media or tech. Instead many of them are being driven out. Social housing cannot keep up with demand, and families and individuals on low incomes cannot afford private rents in the area.

Even so, the gentrification of Hoxton and Shoreditch with all its pluses and minuses was a template for other inner London areas. It was followed initially by Peckham and other parts of Hackney, notably Victoria Park and Clapton, and later on by many others ranging from Walthamstow to Crystal Palace.

Of course the YBAs were far from the only factor in inner London gentrification. There were many others, most notably population growth and overseas investors, together with the billions of cheap money borrowed and poured into property development in thecapital after the financial crisis, and which pumped up fashionable and unfashionable areas alike.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

This year marks 30 years since the “YBA” label was coined. Perhaps they should be rebranded as the MBAs – Middle-aged British Artists. Few of them remain in Hoxton and Shoreditch; some of them have moved out to large houses in the countryside.

As for their successors, today’s young British artists mostly can’t afford to live and work in Hoxton and Shoreditch. Or elsewhere in London, or – in many cases – anywhere at all in the UK.

They are moving to Lisbon and Leipzig, and other affordable European cities. It is ironic that the success and cachet of the YBAs hasplayed a part in what is becoming a stifling of fresh creativity in London.

 (Peter Carty)
(Peter Carty)

Who could have thought that all that madness in those crumbling old warehouse three decades back could have resulted in this looming endgame for artists in the capital?

If we do not watch out, soon enough we’ll resemble cities like Zurich and Geneva, where the bulk of the art and creativity on offer dates from eras long past and is confined to museums.

 (Pegasus books)
(Pegasus books)

Peter Carty’s novel Art, which is about the genesis of the Young British Artists in Hoxton and Shoreditch, is published by Pegasus (£10.99)