A Year in Hoxton

I originally wrote this short text for meyouhoxtontoo.net

“The power of ordinary urban landscapes to nurture citizens’ public memory, to encompass shared time in the form of shared territory — remains untapped for most working people’s neighborhoods…  The sense of civic identity that shared history can convey is missing.”  -Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place  

Shortly after returning home from a trip to the London Zoo, a large box of perfume mistakenly arrived at our door. The perfume belonged to our neighbors living above us in flat number 37. After returning the box, I asked our neighbors if I could interview them about their lives. A few days later we sat in their living room drinking tea. Going through their shoe boxes of personal photos, Carol told me how she had moved into the flat some 45 years earlier, when she was ten years old. Before moving, into the then newly build flat, her and her family lived in a ‘prefab’ home across the street. The neighborhood of prefabricated homes were located in an area that is now a neighborhood park. As I left their flat, Carol gave me a bottle of pink perfume as a gift. This exchange marked the beginning of my year in Hoxton.

Carol holding a photo of her and her two sisters standing outside their “prefab” home located in the area that is now known as Shoreditch Park.

Coming from California, one of the things I really appreciate about East London is being able to walk and cycle most places. As you walk from ‘the city’ east to Hoxton the visible layers of history are striking, ancient ruins, victorian era housing, nineteen-fifties post-war redevelopment, and glass monoliths of contemporary finance. In the 1600s Hoxton was known for its flower gardens. It was a small country village just outside the city walls of London. As the urban landscape filled in, Hoxton Street became home to some of the largest lunatic asylums in Europe. During the air raids of world war two the East London area was heavily bombed. Many of the bomb sites were filled in with prefab homes as part of a larger post-war campaign to rebuild the nation, followed by more permanent social housing estates. Hoxton is internationally known for its story of gentrification, but since the financial crisis the process of gentrification has slowed down. Hoxton Square is monied and largely identified as Hoxton by outsiders, but just up the street you find a completely different Hoxton, a neighborhood of council owned social housing estates, small turkish veggie shops, cafes, and pubs.

I saw a note posted on the wall outside our flat, for a tenant management organization board meeting. I went to the meeting, and the members of the board were so shocked to see anyone there besides themselves that they quickly offered me a position on the board. Later in the week, I approached the director of the tenant management organization, about creating an online community archive and publication showcasing personal objects and the stories connected to them. It turned out they had recently hired a web developer to build an estate website, but he left on holiday to Brazil and never returned. So I was hired to develop a website for the estate, and as an extension develop an online community archive and potential publication. As an extension of this activity I decided to organize a series of media literacy workshops for residents of the estate. I contacted PEER, a nearby gallery, to see if they would be involved. PEER invited me over for tea, having looked at documentation of my previous work, they offered to commission a project as part of their participation program. Having been in the area since 2002 they were interested in rethinking their relationship to the neighborhood, and thought the way I was working fit well with that interest.

I began walking up and down Hoxton Street, back alleys and side streets. I climbed onto roof tops, and snuck into empty buildings. I read about the history, and stopped pensioners on the street to chat with them about their memories. In the evenings I drank beer with a theater group called Retz that had taken over a storefront on Hoxton Street. Around this time the Barrel Cafe opened. The cafe quickly became my afternoon office. As the owner of the cafe took notice, we became friends, and he started supplying me free coffee. One day at the cafe, Sonia an older woman sat at a table across from me talking with a friend about a florist named Mark, and how he provided their church with flowers. I asked the two woman if I could interview them about their memories of the neighborhood. They said yes and suggested I come to church to meet an older member of their congregation. I ended up going to church with Sonia on and off for the next couple months. Not being particularly religious I introduced myself as a neighbor interested in listening to their stories. And explained that I was developing a project that was for and about the neighborhood, and that the project was being commissioned by PEER – the gallery down the street, next to the post office. I conducted several interviews and learned a great deal about politics and post-war history of Hoxton.

Roughly every two or three weeks I visited PEER to discuss the project’s development. Gemma and Norma were very supportive, and Gemma always made a fine cup of tea. If art is tantamount to religion, then these meetings were a kind of confession.
“Forgive me father for I have sinned, I have been seduced by the everyday. The earlier discussed notion of the city as archive has led me to organize a series of walks with local residents, creating a photo and story series.”

During this period I befriended Sue, the neighborhood mortician. The funeral shop on Hoxton Street was known for it’s slightly eccentric window displays that changed with the seasons, and reflected holidays and notable current events. Sue works alone, she is quite welcoming and open to conversation. On the wall of her office is a framed photo of a motorcycle with a coffin sized sidecar, and on her desk is a catalog of novelty coffins, tie dye, nasa space photos, etc. She is full of funny stories of funerals gone wrong, and has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about her ideal funeral. I met Sue at the funeral shop at the end of her working day and walked with her to the bus stop she uses to get home. She told me about how much she loved her work, and soon her bus came and took her away. As I stood there watching the bus drive off, Sonia from St. Annes church came walking around the corner with her grandson Jesse. Sonia had taken a strong interest in the project, continually referred me to different people she thought I should meet. She also lived just one building down from me, so I joined Sonia for the rest of her walk home.

One day after walking with Sonia, I spotted a poster for a production called ‘Walk a Mile.’ The poster was outside Hoxton Hall, and sitting below the poster was an Irishman named Alric.  Alric was the music director of the production, and the show was put on by Access All Areas, a theater company that works with local residents with severe learning disabilities. Several days later I came back to Hoxton Hall to attend the show. It was about world war two, and the loss of loved ones. Since most of the performers can’t read, Access All Areas’ productions are largely developed through improvisation and physical theater. I was captivated from start to finish. I stayed around after the show to have drinks with the cast and crew. Someone thought I was a member of the cast and purchased me several drinks. As everyone was clearing out of the pub, I introduced myself to Ciara and Nick, the director and creative officer of Access All Areas, and asked to meet with them.

Some days later I met with Ciara over coffee. Ciara told me she was getting ready to start a new project. She knew she would be working with Access All Areas performers in a similar workshop methodology to their previous productions. She expressed an interest in the local stories and histories of Hoxton. It was clear we had a common affinity in researching and exploring the neighborhood. We agreed that we should work together in some neighborly way.

With little idea of what form our collaboration would take, I invited Ciara over to PEER. There was a sense of confusion, matched by a willingness to see where things would go. The Access All Areas workshop group began meeting shortly thereafter. Ciara and I agreed that walking around the neighborhood was a great way to encounter local knowledge. So to introduce the idea of walking to the workshop group I led the group on its first walk. After this first walk we organize for the workshop group to be led on walks by other local residents. With feedback from the workshop members, Ciara and I identified a loose set of ideas, moments, and stories from the walks, that I then wrote into a script for a guided performative walk. Ciara used her theater training to work with performers, and during a summer street festival I led a ‘rehearsal’ walk through the neighborhood. Throughout the walk we encountered performers. While the walks were happening a story booth on Hoxton Street was set up to collect and exchange stories.

After the festival, the performers continued to develop their characters, and the script was rewritten by Ciara to incorporate some of the stories collected at the booth. Nathan, a filmmaker, had been working with the workshop members to record the walks and their experience. We then organized an exhibition of video, photos, found objects with corresponding stories, and a wall drawing of a map of Hoxton. We opened the exhibition a month later to accompany the final public walking tours. The final walkings encountered both performers and local residents throughout the neighborhood. Much of the audience was comprised of local residents, neighbors, friends, and family.

One of my favorite encounters was with Mark the local florist, who Sonia was so eager to introduce me to. He told the audience a story from his childhood. Down the street, 40+ years ago, there was a horse stables. The horses were working horses and connected to the stables was a “free house” pub. With the flow and punctuation of a naturally gifted storyteller, Mark drew everyone in close as he described one of the workmen’s winter rituals.

“They would heat their iron poking rods in the fire. It had to be white hot!” Gesturing with his hands as if he was holding the rod himself.

“They would take the white tip of the rod and slowly dip it into the top of their beer.” The white hot iron would apparently flake off and mix in with their drink.

Me You Hoxton Too, Mark tells his audience a story

Mark comes from a long line of Hoxton based florists. He has an intimate if not granular knowledge of the area. When you walk around the neighborhood with Mark he frequently points out small details, triggering explanations that blur personal memories, second hand stories, and historical readings, into an elaborately crafted story that all connects back to this small detail he just pointed out. One such example are a set of grooves on the nearby canal. As you walk along the canal’s tow-path, one passes under a series of bridges. As the curve of the bridge pushes into the walking space of the tow-path, you’ll consistently find a couple small grooves at about chest height. The tow-path and canal were originally an industrial artery for transporting goods. According to Mark the tiny grooves in the bridges were made by the ropes connecting horses to their loads as they marched up and down the path. By the late 1970s the path was opened for pedestrian use. With industrial use long gone, the canal is now marked my cafes, pubs, and expensive new housing developments.

Me You Hoxton Too, exhibition
Me You Hoxton Too, exhibition

The disciplinary differences between theater and art rarely became an issue, process oriented notions connected to critical pedagogy were a common point of interest. But while PEER was putting together their ‘press release’ for the exhibition and guided walks, Ciara from Access All Areas referred to the document as a ‘program.’ This was followed some negation of formatting and editing of the document. It’s a rather trivial point, but the formal distinctions between a gallery’s press release and a theater company’s program reflect the wider conceptual and disciplinary distinctions in how we understand what it is we are doing and the stories we tell ourselves. While I’m not about to tease out all of the issues this presented, I will reflect on my own role in the project and story I tell myself. I would say my role in Me You Hoxton Too played out on a number of levels, and on a rather meta-level my gesture was to bring two neighboring institutions into collaboration with one another. The first being a gallery that works with objects, and the second a theater company that works with people and stories. I think this is reflected in the formal quality of the exhibition and walks, the found objects and their stories, and the performative situations and their inseparable relationship with the social and material landscape of the neighborhood. In an interview with Ciara and Nick, they refer to the Me You Hoxton Too project as a ‘departure’ from their normal way of working. Whether it was a departure or an arrival, either way it was a lot of fun and I’ll always remember it as an important part of the year I lived in Hoxton.

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