Ahhh yes. The London Borough of Hackney. I currently live in it. The Land of Gun Crime, Drugs and Gangs, and Other Fun Times. Where asbonauts all fight pitched battles, and your taxes pay for Diane Abbott's chattels. (Please note that any attempt to sing that line to the tune of "Dixie" will result in you being sent to the Special Hell).
Originally derived from the Anglo-Saxon "Haakon's Ea," which means that a thousand years or more ago, some local warlord named Haakon built his hall there, probably where the big Tesco store on Morning Lane now stands, I don't know, Hackney then became a collection of peasant villages, which then got build over in the 18th and 19th centuries as London started to bloat and grow. By the end of the 19th century, it was only just above Spitalfields and Whitechapel and the Old Nichol Rookery on the metropolitan poverty index. Statistically, it's still the 3rd most deprived borough in London (above Tower Hamlets, Southwark, and Newham). However, the numbers really don't give you the full picture.
Hackney is changing, and fast.
My boss started up the law firm at which I work, which is in Hackney, about 20-25 years ago. Back then, Hackney was the wretched hive of scum and villainy that it was portrayed as in the newspapers. Apparently, back then, when the firm first started, it was dilapidated, run down, and riven with drugs, guns, and similar. Homerton Hospital, which is in Hackney in the former village of Homerton, allegedly imported trauma surgeons from Soweto in South Africa for their expertise in people being shot. At precisely 6.30 pm every day, Mare Street, the main high street analogue throughout the Borough, was always deathly quiet all of a sudden, and the shutters on all the shops came down. This was the time that Lower Clapton Road started to be nicknamed "murder mile" because of random teenagers getting shot on the ill-lit leafy sidestreets that all branched off it. Drug dealing was rampant. The local Council was also slightly to the left of Arthur Scargill, or so I'm told, yet adopted a policy towards its tenants that made an 18th century aristocratic landlord look positively benevolent. My boss was also criticised and publicly degraded (and had she been there, it would have been Alfred Dreyfuss style, no doubt) in one of the Council meetings, allegedly, because the firm had cost the Council almost a quarter of a million pounds in one tax year from in damages and costs from bringing disrepair claims.
Even ten years ago, things were still pretty faeculent. The local schools were so awfully mismanaged that the Council was forced to hand over running of them to a special body, The Learning Trust, directly answerable to the Minister for Education. In 2003 a colossal Housing Benefit fraud was discovered where Council staff were basically nicking from the Borough's social security coffers and funnelling it to their pals. Many of the local pubs and nightclubs (the ones that didn't have flat roofs) were awash with violence and drug dealing.
Then, at some point around 2006-9 or so, something changed. The hipsters who couldn't get into Shoreditch or Stoke Newington started coming into the borough. They set up independent bicycle stores, achingly expensive cafés in the former Clapton tram depot (DO NOT GO HERE - I went for a grease stop there, it was two hours in the making, wrong, and tasted of cardboard and they had the TEMERITY to charge me eight quid for it; I'd have done better at the transport caff), independent bookstores, art galleries, dispensaries of organic food, holistic medicine outlets and similar woo-mongeries, and suchlike. There' still the Cash Converters and pawnshops and bookies and offies, but these are rapidly being crowded out. Why is this, I wonder?
I can advance the following reasons for this, and firstly, there's Operation Trident. This is an initiative set up by the Metropolitan Police in the mid 2000s to battle the rising tide of gun crime between deprived black youths in London. Hackney was one of the main beneficiaries of this and to be fair, the "murder mile" is now less murderous. However in people's minds, you still think, "This is Hackney, sir. People carry guns." So it's inexpensive for well educated people of limited means (by London standards, that is), yet still has the cachet of being rough as a bear's arse in the minds of their wally mates. Furthermore, if you're of a Bollinger Bolshevik bent, you can mouth some platitudes about how you're living with real people and raising their consciousness (which you aren't - I actually do deal with the locals in my job, and trust me, they don't want anything to do with you folks). This is also having the knock-on effect of boosting your house prices (and how - a Victorian terraced house near London Fields was going for £675,000.00 last year) so if you buy in, you've got a nice little leg up on the property ladder (if the banks will lend to you, that is) as well.
I also think that the architectural character of the place has something to do with it also. Unlike other statistically deprived bits of London, it doesn't have Newham's grey half-light air of neglect, Southwark's concrete high-rise dystopias, or Waltham Forest's dreary suburban pretention. Walking around the area doesn't make it look unpleasant or deprived at first glance. It almost looks like a lick of paint might fix things (although the firm I work at still repeatedly brings disrepair claims against the local authority and housing associations on behalf of their tenants, so trust me, it won't). There aren't used needles in underpasses, teeth-sucking yoofs squaring off against each other, or similar. However, with gentrification comes increased prices, which means that hard-up locals who can't afford it any more end up looking for places to live outside the Borough, probably in practice Zone 3 or 4.
The other thing of note about Hackney is its politics. In keeping with the character of the locals, it's gone from being a little concrete-covered North Korea to being, well, home of la gauche caviar if you will. It continues to be the haunt of Diane Abbott MP, a nasty piece of work who is known for racially abusing Finnish nurses, sending her son to a private school while crowing about how private education "entrenches privilege" then playing the race card to get out of criticism, racism against Nigerians (see here) (are we seeing a pattern here?); calling for compulsory opt-in internet censorship of adult content (see here); and demanding a ban on fried chicken emporia, of which, admittedly, Hackney has plenty (see here). (The last of these I actually agree with her on, but only insofar as none of said places serve chips & gravy, which is inexcusable.) In short, Diane Abbott, who, worse luck, is all but part of the furniture as the Honourable Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, is one of that loathsome breed of career politicians who Knows Better Than You, and astoundingly, people vote for her, because she's one of the few candidates who appeal to both the hipster transplants and to the local old-Labour types.
Which, in a way, is why I wouldn't want my children to grow up in Hackney, to be fair. When even the local MP who's part of the furniture and prides herself on sticking up for the locals won't send her son to the local schools, I too would think twice about it. In fact, I'd think twice about having children in the first place without being sure of being able to afford to educate them privately or move into one of the bastions of the state grammar system, because I don't trust my friendly local Bog Standard Comprehensive to do a proper job (See LeoDV's excellent writeup on how educational funding is bullshit for further information and know that there is a very similar system to that he describes here in Britain; I have neither time nor inclination to digress into this point.) That, and there are still drugs and gangs about and the violence as a result of this is still existent and does still make the papers (albeit not as often as it used to), most recently when a 16 year old girl named Agnes Sina-Inakoju was shot to death in a fried chicken shop when caught in the crossfire between two drug dealing folks.
Give it another 10 years and it'll probably be as expensive and trendy as Shoreditch or Spitalfields or Clerkenwell is now.