Hackney is basking in the warmth of a sunny day, friends meet outside the town hall and hug, and the coffee bars on Mare street are bristling with business. Strolling through Hackney on a calm summer’s day -it seems hard to believe that two years ago the streets were full of rioters.
But just because the physical signs of the disturbances have gone, it doesn’t mean that deeper scars for the people that call Hackney home have vanished. “Nothing’s changed, not really,” says Steve Alderson, who witnessed the mayhem on Mare Street, Hackney’s main artery, from the electrical distributors he manages.
“I think it could happen again, because people took advantage of that guy getting shot, and it wasn’t just here, it was south London, Manchester – everywhere,” adds the 53-year-old. “Who knows what could start something off. You’d have thought something would have kicked off with that young soldier being killed, but it didn’t, and touch wood nothing will.”
For Cairo, 33, a local public sector worker, the riots actually brought together members of Hackney’s diverse community, which has seen rapid gentrification over the past 10 years. Property in the borough has become highly sought after and has attracted an influx of new residents.
“There were loads of people from different areas of Hackney, and if you know Hackney you know it has its troubles, they were all together for one cause. “At the end of the day you’ve got police and government putting pressure on local residents, young people, old people and they’d all had enough” he continued:“When you’ve got all these cuts to benefits, bedroom tax – they’re just making it harder and harder, and the more you squash people, the more people start fighting back.”
On Clarence Road, where the riots reached their peak on the Pembury Estate there’s reggae music playing from a pub and a small group of elderly men are celebrating Jamaican Independence Day. They don’t wish to be named but live near the estate and they say that the riots haven’t affected them much, as they’re older, but they see the impact on the young people on the estate. One of the men said that police presence has increased and more young people are being arrested.
Back on Clarence Road, the fresh plaster on the walls of some of the houses is a reminder of the work being carried out on the area post-riots.
Shianah Edwards, 18, from Clapton, would agree. She was one of the many young people caught up in the looting two years ago.
“I was walking past with a friend and coming from Clarence Road. Then someone went into the shop and shouted ‘Free – everything’s free’. My friend and I went in and took alcohol – it was stealing, we got swept up in the moment and it all happened so fast.
“I saw the helicopters above the street but I thought ‘it’s too far away for them to really see me’ when I saw myself on Crimewatch I handed myself in. I went to court and got 12 months probation. I really learned my lesson and I apologised to the owner of the shop. Seeing myself on Crimewatch was bad, I was so ashamed – I got a lot of calls, and my mum was so ashamed of me, she was so worried and thought I was going to go to prison. I did my probation, met all my appointments and did 30 hours community service. I felt awful and sincerely regret my actions.”
Shianah feels that opportunities for youngsters in Hackney are still lacking but she like so many people in Hackney is hopeful of the future, “I’m getting myself together bit by bit” she says, and two years on, Hackney is rebuilding, rebranding and moving on.
Though Hackney was spared the violence that unfolded in Tottenham and Croydon, the disorder on August 8 on Mare Street, the Narroway and Clarence Road shone an unwelcome spotlight on the borough just one year before the capital was to host the Olympics.
Walking these same streets two years on it’s difficult to believe such pleasant scenes were the very same streets where stones and bins were thrown at 200 riot officers and mounted police.
Paulette Wilsow, the owner of the R&B Caribbean restaurant on Clarence Road, has not forgotten. There were cars burnt metres from her restaurant.
“On the day it started I had to close up my shop early and I lost a whole day’s takings, I don’t get a penny. Hackney said they’d give me six month’s break on the business rate, but then after that they put it up again so now its double, and I’m struggling.”
In her small restaurant three customers eat and chat with her like old friends, she continues: “This area’s been dead. Not only because of the riots but because they changed the bus routes away from the Narrow Way that made business slow. I just get on with it. But they’re going to refurbish the shop, and that might help turnover.”
Anthony Dunn, 38, had only just moved to the area when the disturbances began just a short walk away from his home on the Trelawney Estate. “I was actually on holiday when it kicked off in Hackney. I was shocked when I heard about it. I’d only just moved here so it did make me feel different about living here, and I didn’t want to be here at that time. I thought my flat mate had made a big mistake with the flat he’d just bought. Now I feel completely safe here, and I think it did some good in ways – it has calmed it down. It could happen again – but somewhere else – lightening wouldn’t strike twice in the same place.”
The debate continues as to what really happened across the country in 2011, but for Hackney, there are many lessons to be learnt.