Mary Wakefield Mary Wakefield

Gentrification is far from our biggest problem

A Hackney development was meant to herald a new age of public spaces with fun for all. No one told the drunks

The late afternoon sun fell on the anomalous pine trees of Gillett Square, London N16, and on the wooden decking below, giving it a fleeting look of lunch in the Alps. To the east, just visible at the far end of Gillett Street, the Kings-land Road ran its usual choppy course: hipsters and the homeless, Jamaicans and Turks, Vietnamese up from the Shoreditch end and the odd Haredi Jew heading north to Stamford Hill.

Gillett Square is Hackney’s great regeneration project. Once a disused car park full of drunks and dealers, after 25 years of funding drives and architects, bulldozing, building and PR, it’s now Dalston’s ‘town square’. In the beginning, it was the first of Ken Livingstone’s ‘100 new public spaces’ and a model for future development. Its proud parent, Hackney Co-operative Developments (HCD), calls it: ‘A place to walk through; a place to sit; a place to share; a place to meet; a place to see, hear, feel, smell, taste and discover wonderful and incredible things.’ HCD puts on events almost every day: on Monday you can play ‘giant chess’. On Thursdays through the summer it’s a ‘pop-up playground’. ‘Durable and intriguingly shaped equipment transforms the square into an adventure wonderland for children to discover, create and enjoy’, says HCD.

The sun fell on the pine trees, on the platform, on the multicultural food stalls and, that Thursday, on what looked like a scene from a zombie movie. My small son and I approached from Mildmay to the east. As we arrived, a man lurched out of the doorway of the Vortex jazz club and into the path of the pushchair. He had a tin of Foster’s in one hand and a scarf wrapped right up from his neck to his hairline. To get the can to his mouth he had to push it up under the scarf, which he did.

Behind him, an Irishman stood, shouting and swaying.

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