Many years later, while sitting at my parents’ home during the first national lockdown of the coronavirus pandemic, I would remember the late afternoons in school uniform, returning to Blackstock Road to find refuge in my mother’s café. Back then, Finsbury Park, an energetic municipality of north London, was not a destination where people sought “good” food, at least not to the level of the early TripAdvisor critic. Rather, its high street was lined with more utilitarian fare: bustling electronics shops, barbershops, and newsagents. Merely a handful of restaurants decorated the street with vivid shop fronts and a variety of cuisines, bringing a visual relief to a north London grey. These establishments were founded and frequented by a multicultural and multi-ethnic immigrant population, enriching the community with its diversity.
At the convergence of three London boroughs, Finsbury Park is an area synonymous with London’s inner-city multicultural communities, built on families and businesses of people from all over the world. However, these culinary hubs and the respective communities they represent, have been tied down by the shortsightedness of those who are intimidated by the area’s restless rhythm and low-cost focused businesses. Also, the illicit entrepreneurial endeavours of a few individuals, combined with an external unwillingness to address the matter, have limited the area to a single narrative lined with cynicism for decades. The image has been skewed by headlines constantly focusing on the criminal minority, leading to the danger of associating the area’s criminality with its varying members of the large migrant population, reinforcing hostile rhetoric echoed throughout many sections of British society.
With regard to crime levels in the area, 2020 was not the best year. In addition to the pandemic, the year opened with a supposed road-rage-motivated stabbing resulting in the death of a 30-year-old Algerian delivery driver, to which the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and other MPs paid their respects. It added to the 609 total violent crimes that took place in Finsbury between December 2019 and November 2020, including the stabbing of a 23-year-old man at the end of my road.
The news from the area is so limited to violent events – whether in newspaper headlines, social media posts, or disheartening comments by passersby – that brings the area to fall victim to what the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie refers to as “the danger of the single story”. It condemns the area and its residents to a rigid, often negative, public perception. In this project, I wanted to consider how the single story may be imposed visually as powerfully as it can be in writing. How the numerous violent visual experiences witnessed in Finsbury Park, in addition to a classist dismissal of low-cost businesses such as fast-food chains, may have typecasted the area to an unflattering narrative that overshadows the many positive facets of its story. I wanted to question who decides this narrative and why many struggle to look past the flaws of a community such as Finsbury Park and further, how these narratives may be echoed in the numerous other corresponding communities across London.
As a lifelong member of the community, I am conditioned to an environment that others may view as chaotic, allowing me to see the area for what it is. I think back to the days when I sat by the front window of my mum’s cafe. You could witness then, and now still, the animated group discussions between the local Algerians that painted the concrete pavement with a thick Maghrebi cadence. Scattered outside shopfronts, the unfailing presence of these symposiums alone was enough to earn the area its moniker of Little Algiers. The east African community’s presence was much smaller than in comparison to what it is now. The hub of their community on Blackstock Road was an Ethiopian delicatessen, from which coffee-centred conversations would pour on to the street, washing the tarmac with therapeutic tones of Amharic.
Today, these members of the Blackstock Road community still flourish, represented by several businesses along the high street. Nevertheless, both communities continue to bear the weight of allegations of organised crime, petty theft and drug abuse, which invite a heavy police presence to the area, only adding to further misconceptions.
One Friday evening, I witnessed the arrest of an Algerian man. It was raining when police surrounded and handcuffed him on suspicion of theft. “He’s a good man! He’s a good man! He’s one of the older ones, he’s got nothing to do with any of this stuff,” the younger members of a group of people nearby shouted. They had been sheltering from the rain prior to the police’s arrival.
Similar events have been happening to members of the Algerian community far too often. They echo the large-scale police raids of 2008, when a number of legitimate Algerian businesses felt the collateral damage of accusations regarding organised crime.
Blackstock Road is an urban attempt to challenge the negative associations of Finsbury Park and its residents, and the impact these events have had on them. By focusing on food and where it is served, the series of photographs hopes to explore and celebrate the individual stories of independent family businesses. Exploring themes of identity, Britishness, immigration, gentrification, otherness, the objective of this work is to renegotiate popular narratives by moving the attention to the culinary space and the individuals that drive them. It aims to shine a light on the community’s vibrant variety of cuisines to celebrate the area’s underlying beauty, which in this case is food, and in turn celebrate the fruits of London’s multiculturalism.
The endless hours spent photographing the people of the high street and its businesses reminded me of the ever more important sense of community I used to see through my mother’s shop window all those years ago. Next door to where the cafe stood, an independent supermarket has stored since the mid-70s an extensive range of items from across the world. On its shelves lies a single packet of infused tea that ties together ancient civilisations from South America to the Middle East, symbolic of the area’s eclectic mix of cultures. “Yerba Maté is drunk a lot in the Middle East. In Iran, Lebanon … it’s massive in Syria,” Mr Haslam, the shopkeeper, tells me. “I have customers from the UAE who come specifically just to buy this Maté. It’s cultivated in Argentina, of course – along with most other Yerba Maté products – but the Middle East is actually its largest export.” The owners, father and son, unite to source a multicultural community with products that are reminiscent of home: a generational partnership that stands as a reflection of community’s longevity.
Across the road – and not too far from Arsenal’s Emirates stadium –it’s where you can buy a hearty English breakfast, a popular choice for football fans on match day. The naan shop down the road is where the same football fans head to devour their post-match sorrows in the form of a Kurdish kebab. As the day descends into night, and most businesses shut for the day, the street’s character changeswith neon shop signs and the iridescent blue flashing lights of the shop windows.
Nowadays, the street’s reality consists of more genteel businesses copying-and-pasting themselves on to the neighbouring properties, whose facades embody old endeavours. The focus on the area’s flaws is tied to the context of the area’s “improvement” with its steady gentrification, manifested with the refurbishment of the train station, the stacking of new-build high-rises and trend-driven eateries. Either looking away from or to the future of the area, visitors sometimes disregard the beauty that lies within what the community has always had to offer.
Nevertheless, its core stands strong, with the resilience of the businesses that have withstood the turmoil and change over the years. This is highlighted by a Uyghur restaurant that sits at the centre of my northern portion of the street. Loved by many Chinese Londoners familiar with the fascinating blend of history that goes into each Uyghur dish, the family-run business embodies the qualities that a high street such as Blackstock Road has to offer. The owner, Aman Gul, and her husband – who runs another business on the street – will take you in as one of their own, offering you the absolute privilege of tasting home-cooked food from the other side of the world: all if you’re willing to discover and participate in what lies on your doorstep.