Last weekend, streets in some of the fashionable parts of east London seemed as busy as ever. But back in March, when the UK went into lockdown to combat the spread of coronavirus, locals say there was something of an exodus.
"Everyone who lives here and goes on about how great it is, as soon as it locked down and as soon as they could, they got out," says Hannah, while queueing for falafel on Broadway Market, a street just south of London Fields in Hackney.
Hannah, who did not want to give her last name, was among them. She decamped from her flat in Whitechapel to go and stay with her boyfriend Alex in Bristol, where there was more space to work from home and Clifton Down's vast greenery on the doorstep. Now she is back in London, with Alex in tow. "If people could get back to their parents' house, they did," he says.
At the peak of the outbreak, demand for properties in Hackney dwindled. During the first 10 weeks of lockdown, searches on Zoopla for homes in the suburbs increased sharply, while Hackney Wick, Haggerston and Hoxton were all among the 10 least-searched-for locations in London.
Local rents have also slumped. New data from Hamptons International shows that across Hackney, the average rental price is now £1,740 ($3,439) a month, nearly 10 per cent lower than what it was last year.
Hamptons says this is due to renters leaving when the pandemic hit, and to a flood of properties that would normally be let through holiday rental sites such as Airbnb going on to the long-term rental market when lockdown brought tourism to a sudden halt.
So what does the future hold for Hackney's gentrified neighbourhoods? Will normality return as restrictions ease — or will the pandemic spell the end for trendy east London?
Unrecognisable places, unrecognisable prices
Haema Sundram, a family lawyer who lives on the border of Clapton and Stoke Newington in north-east Hackney, first bought a property in the borough in the 1990s. She has bought and sold a few times since and, she says, the change in the market has been striking.
"It was sort of a no-go area 30 years ago, but now it's lots of media types and their families that tend to live here."
Wedged between two parks and close to Stoke Newington's villagey Church Street — an area it is hard to picture as once being "no-go" — a neat Victorian four-bedroom family home is on sale with Hunters for £1.17 million.
The price tag reflects how much demand has leapt in recent years: at £1,092 per square foot, it is more expensive than a similar home in the long-established, affluent south-west suburb of Putney. There, buyers could also live close to a common and quaint high street, but for £780 per square foot. According to Hamptons International, average house prices in Hackney have risen by 97 per cent in the past decade.
The area's popularity has also been fuelled by young professionals, many of whom work in the technology sector that has clustered since 2008 around Old Street roundabout — also known as east London Tech City or Silicon Roundabout.
Just north-east of there, towards Hoxton Overground Station, a two-bedroom penthouse with double-height ceilings and exposed steel supports is on sale through The Modern House for £1.3m.
As the offices sprang up, others followed: in 2018, Hackney had 55 per cent more businesses than it did in 2014, according to official statistics. In the five years up to 2017, nearly 250 cafés and restaurants opened in Shoreditch, in the southern tip of the borough next to the City of London.
A quieter future?
While workers still avoid the office and social-distancing guidelines limit the number of customers, many of the cafés, restaurants and bars that have become one of Hackney's main selling points are under threat. Hackney's club and performance venues, meanwhile, still do not know when they might reopen.
"We really needed to open when we did," says Anne, who works at a café near London Fields. "We've been busy since it's opened but it's really weather dependent."
If the night-time economy were to shrink, it would not have much effect on demand, says Tommaso Gabrieli, a professor in real estate at University College London. "Even if the next two years are described as a very negative scenario, I'm pretty sure that there will be other renters and buyers interested in that area," he says.
But where the interest comes from might change.
Hackney's population is already predicted to become proportionately older by 2050, partly because of its increasing expense. That, coupled with the fact that young people are likely to be disproportionately affected by the economic fallout of the crisis at the end of the furlough scheme in October, means Hackney's after-hours scene could become quieter, attracting an older crowd to the neighbourhood.
"It may not be the young start-up person, it could be a banker," says Gabrieli. "It wouldn't be the story of a collapse of those areas but a story maybe of change in the type of buyer or renter."
For now, the liveliest areas in the borough will be pinning their hopes on the young population wanting to restart their social lives in bars and restaurants. If Broadway Market last Saturday is anything to go by, the desire is there.
"Hackney Wick last [Friday] was chaos, it was absolutely mobbed," says Alex of the buzzy but less-developed area near the site of the 2012 London Olympics, where there are numerous canal-side bars.
There, in a modern high-rise development overlooking the water, a two-bedroom unfurnished flat is being let for £1,733 a month through Hurford Salvi Carr. Across the canal, a four-storey Victorian house with a home cinema and Koi carp pond overlooking Victoria Park — an 86-hectare space bordering the boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets — can be rented through Dexters for £5,499 a month.
As people like Hannah and Alex flock back to the Hackney heartlands, the areas are back on homebuyers' minds as well. The number of searches on Zoopla for Haggerston, London Fields and Dalston has been more than 30 per cent higher in the past 10 weeks compared with the 10 weeks before lockdown. Searches for Stoke Newington and Hackney in general have risen by about 50 per cent.
And for some young people, certain hotspots in Hackney never lost their appeal. While Hannah says the pain of lockdown was evident in Whitechapel, which was quiet throughout the period, and Sundram describes Stoke Newington as having been "ghostly", Kieran, a graphic designer who has lived in the area for seven years, says that in Broadway Market he noticed little change.
"This street was pretty much the same, it was always rammed," he says. "A lot of the places did takeaway as soon as you could get takeaway beers." At the top of the road in London Fields, multiple illegal raves took place until alcohol was banned temporarily at the beginning of July.
"People don't care around here, they were just thinking it was the holidays," says Ali Asad, who works at Bradbury's Ironmongers, a small hardware store on Broadway Market. "It was crazy. I think there was no lockdown, that's what I say."
Written by: Antonia Cundy
© Financial Times