Hackney is well known for being one of the most diverse areas in the country. It is a place where you can walk past Turkish supermarkets, Jamaican take-aways, fish and chip shops or Nigerian restaurants on one road. It is an area where mosques, synagogues and churches lie within five minutes of each other. Living in Hackney means having diversity at your fingertips. And living in Hackney for a long time can mean that we take these things for granted.
But I think it is important for us to recognise just how well diversity works in Hackney. It is easy to forget once you have lived in Hackney for a while that such diverse communities are living side-by-side and for the most part in a harmonious way. For me, Hackney is a microcosm of multicultural Britain. And there are many lessons the rest of the country could learn from community relations here.
Part of the strength of Hackney’s multiculturalism is its strong sense of communities. There are any number of community organisations and groups that come together on common issues, interests or identities. I am sure that many readers will be aware of these groups and the work they do, and will probably be involved in some type of community-based activity. There are two groups that illustrate well the sense of community that characterises Hackney’s diversity.
The first is the Agudas Israel Housing Association and its flagship project on Schonfeld Square. I visited the Square this month as they were opening a new section that would act as a synagogue and a day centre. The area provides rented accommodation for families and sheltered accommodation for elderly people. It is designed to specifically cater for the needs of the Orthodox Jewish community. Recently Schonfeld Square was described in “Inside Housing” magazine:
“This is an extraordinary development by a small housing association…It has been designed around a terrific square and one of the entrances in a large cupola. There is a tremendous sense of community and architectural cohesion.”
The Association is also responsible for the only Jewish mother-and-baby home in the UK. The North London Muslim Housing Association plays a similar role for Hackney’s Muslim community. Both organisations are focused on empowering the local community within their housing needs. They work with other community organisations and the Council.
The Muslim Jewish Forum, based in Hackney, has never failed to amaze people who learn about its existence. Leading members of the Jewish and Muslim faiths in London come together to discuss community issues and act as a board that members of the community can consult. Whilst elsewhere in the world the two groups are experiencing insurmountable tensions, in Hackney the focus is on common aims and beliefs. This is partly due to the foresight of community leaders who see that the experience of different minority groups in this country are often similar. It is also due to the fact that as an area Hackney has a long-standing tradition of diversity. The population here is ever-changing and residents are adept at accepting and welcoming different cultures.