AN OPEN SPACE AND A STREET in the heart of Dalston. A young man saunters by a shop and threatens to stab the owner. Clinging to the shopkeeper in terror is his 11-year-old daughter.
The threat is not idle: the man, a crack dealer in his twenties, has previously punched the businessman in the face and stolen from his pockets.
The dealer hangs around in the street, confident in his apparently unchecked criminality, and brazenly completes a crack-cocaine deal.
The shopkeeper’s wife has been abused in racist and mysogynist terms, including “Chinese ****!” (rhymes with punt). The young couple are from Nepal and Bhutan, small countries north of India, and have lived in Hackney for many years.
The street is Bradbury and the square is Gillett. Over several decades local government and other funds have been thrown at the area in an attempt to regenerate it by making it a commercial, social and creative hub. Shop rents have been kept low, a music venue sits within a “culture house” and free entertainment is often staged in the square.
Regeneration has not, however, come to pass. Shops and small businesses abound, including an uber-hip radio station NTS. Yet the area is more and more a lure for drug-dealers, drawn to the down-and-outs who crowd the benches and seats of Gillett Square. From from observing the no-drinking Asbo signs, they tend to turn the space into a Rabelaisian hive of drinking, brawling, drugtaking, knifing, gang rivalry and prostitution. At least one rape has been reported this summer.
The traders in the Victorian terrace shops of Bradbury Street and the stylish metal pods of Gillett Square are fed up with the customer-deterring problems. They want action, not just meetings. Meanwhile, some of the retail pods have been vacated by their tenants.
Yared Markos, of Kaffa, a café and Ethiopian coffee importer in the square, said: “My biggest headache is the drug dealers. It’s not right: Hackney council pays them benefits while I have to pay my rent and taxes.
“It is as if the council prefers to look after them rather than me. Yet I am the one working all hours to keep a family.
“A recent day was terrifying. One of my youngest members of staff and I had to push on the door to keep it tight while outside three men fought with knives. And only an hour ago a lot of police, maybe 50, came to arrest a man right outside the HCD office.”
HCD stands for Hackney Co-operative Developments, which has de facto control over the square. Ownership of the square lies with Hackney council.
Dalston Jazz Bar owner Robert Beckford is not a fan of HCD. His views chime with those of Markos but he goes further: he wants at least one of its people sacked, claiming the person naively believes few or no offences are being committed.
Edward Quigley was made HCD’s chief a year ago. When Loving Dalston asked him about criminality in the area, he acted decisively, emailing within hours a list of ideas that amounted to a crackdown.
He was taking seriously the worries of the business people and making it clear he could not be accused of any pro-Afro-Caribbean bias, as was suspected, by traders who are themselves from ethnic minorities, of the previous HCD regime.
Then he enlarged on it on social media, with suggestions of involving specialist charities to tackle the drug and alcohol misuse so evident in the square to liaising between the businesses in the area and the council, the police and other authorities.
Referring to ambitious council-HCD plans to build a barn-like structure straddling the square and Bradbury Street that will offer premises to entrepreneurs and existing businesses, he tweeted: “Our redeveloped affordable workspaces will help deal with issues relating to our building… but if we want to #savegillettsquare then more must be done to remove criminality, violence and ASB [antisocial behaviour] from the space.
“It will be futile if those intent on criminality continue to feel that Gillett Square is somewhere they can do so without consequence.”
He told Loving Dalston: “At the very least… we have a responsibility to our tenants and those members of the community that we engage with in delivering events in the square, to represent them and their concerns.”
Dalston ward councillor Peter Snell (Labour) also moved fast when Loving Dalston asked him about the failure to regenerate the area. He went to the square on the next two evenings and a Hackney council Asbo officer went to see the goings-on for herself.
Afterwards, Snell set about organising a meeting of the council, HCD and police. The flurry of action by him and Quigley impressed the HCD tenants who spoke to Loving Dalston, although some had “time will tell” reservations.
David Altheer 030918
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