Will Deptford become a Hub for the Creative and Artistic?
Dubbed the cultural hub of South East London, Deptford has come a long way since Henry VII established the first Royal dockyards there in 1513. Deptford today is home to one of London’s most vibrant creative communities with more artists per square mile than anywhere else in the capital.
The geographical proximity of Goldsmiths College, cheap rent, ‘warehouse aesthetics’ and social tolerance has allowed Deptford’s historical ambience to be complemented by an exceptionally cool contemporary vibe. A walker perusing Deptford’s busy high street will almost certainly encounter a pungent smell of fish and exotic foods, and will bear witness to a stunning cultural syncretism of ethnic minorities, perennial market traders, independent shop owners, artists and students.
Deptford has been a magnet for creative talent since the late 80s. Many prominent artists who would later move to Hoxton and form part of the Young British Artists movement – Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Abigail Lane to name a few – began their careers in and around Deptford, essentially transforming the area into a Mecca for renewed waves of fresh artistic talent. With the more recent addition of the Laban Dance Centre, an internationally acclaimed dance conservatoire, in 2002, as well as the establishment of more than 20 galleries and artist-owned studios and spaces over the last decade, Deptford’s weighty cultural credentials are undeniable.
“There have been rumours that Deptford is on the way up, the next big thing, the next Brick Lane, the next Shoreditch and people are quite cynical about that, it’s like a prophecy that’s never been fulfilled”
Drawing mixed reactions from long-time Deptford residents, recent media insights have attempted to highlight various parallels between Deptford and Hoxton, with regards to their fate and cultural status. The implication is that Deptford is facing a very similar future to its counterpart across the river. Indeed, evidence of Deptford’s ‘regeneration’ is clear to see in the hairstyles and Fred Perry shoes traversing the streets. Hoxton, having been through the process already, is now so cool that it sometimes hurts.
Nevertheless, despite all the media hype celebrating Deptford’s bright cultural future, the area still remains one of London’s most deprived areas, with high levels of crime, homelessness and drug abuse. “There have been rumours that Deptford is on the way up, the next big thing, the next Brick Lane, the next Shoreditch and people are quite cynical about that, it’s like a prophecy that’s never been fulfilled” says Julia Alvarez, curator of Deptford’s Bearspace Gallery since 2001. While it is true that the area’s on-going regeneration brings a greatly improved transport infrastructure, two new Tescos and new luxury flats (most of which remain empty), Deptford is certainly a far cry from the yuppie culture, trendy bars and truly gentrified milieu encountered in Hoxton.
Deptford is certainly a far cry from the yuppie culture, trendy bars and truly gentrified milieu encountered in Hoxton.
Perhaps the main reason why no easy parallels can be drawn between the two areas is simply because they are, and have been, culturally different right from the start. In contrast to the predominantly white, middle-class population which kick started Hoxton’s Art glory in the early 90s, Deptford is the home of a community made up of a diversity of ethnic minorities (Afro-Caribbean, Vietnamese, etc). Vital to Deptford’s unique character, the majority of this vibrant community is currently relying heavily on the local market and shops for its financial survival, and is not simply a service economy to the artistic classes.
At the same time, Deptford’s creative community acknowledges an inconvenient truth: cultural gentrification can be ‘socially exclusive’. While Hoxton’s fate can bring riches and fame to some, it can deliver devastating effects to others: higher rents and taxes, ‘unstable’ residents and businesses forced out, and deprived sections becoming ever further marginalized.
The current economic climate may also provide significant reason as to why Deptford has not yet been transformed into ‘the new Hoxton’. The current government has made it official policy to place more value on the cultivation of scientific expertise rather than artistic enterprise. In such a context, it is therefore of real importance to the cultural vitality of society that creative clusters such as Deptford remain accessible and attractive to prospective talent. After all, they are perhaps the only locations that can provide a holistic environment of guidance, support and employment to students and recent graduates who are currently facing a hostile market.
Viewed through the rigid eyes of a tourist guidebook, Deptford’s prophecy as London’s new cultural epicentre may not yet have been fulfilled. However, let’s keep in mind that Hoxton’s establishment, promotion and commercialization as a cultural hotspot ultimately and ironically resulted in the forced exodus of the creative community that established its chic reputation. This is why Deptford’s artistic community and cultural strategists will have to work hard to ensure that they retain the community’s character and presence, attract new talent, and most importantly create a ‘socially inclusive’ cultural strategy that will preserve its very unique identity.