When painter Richard Patterson, who shows in London with the blue-chip Anthony d'Offay Gallery, moved into Hoxton Square in 1992, it was a tawdry backwater. "There were no bars or restaurants, no pubs open in the afternoon," he says. "People would go across Old Street to the Bricklayers Arms for a quiet drink." Some of the best-known young British artists of the 1990's were gravitating to this still-forlorn district. One of these was Sarah Lucas, famous for her bittersweet sculptures in which, say, fried eggs, sausages, and other foodstuffs make ribald references to parts of the body. She and her then-partner, painter Gary Hume (who would later represent Britain at the Venice Biennale with his nonchalant lyrical canvases), were already "squatting" a large corner building when Patterson moved into the neighborhood. Videomaker Georgina Starr and sculptor Don Brown followed, settling into the warren of live/work spaces on the square's west side. Patterson soon moved next door into his current studio, a spacious former Hackney Council garage and repairs depot. Almost overnight, a square with little to offer besides a discarded mattress or two and a couple of winos had art parties, Prada-chic, and cultural tourists.
A decade or so earlier, Hoxton Square seemed beyond resurrection. Dilapidated buildings and weedy vacant lots surrounded a rectangle of impoverished grass and trees. Though there was (and still is) a school and a church, the other properties were mostly abandoned or given up to small businesses. Now Hoxton's burgeoning reputation rests on a rash of notable art galleries, studios, bars, and loft conversions. It has become a must-see piece in the jigsaw of the East End's art communities, which include Bethnal Green and Bow, all within the sprawling Borough of Hackney. Together these neighborhoods may house the biggest concentration of artists in Europe. Inevitably, this includes unknown amateurs and talentless hangers-on. But among the stars are the sculptor Rachel Whiteread, famous for her casts of furniture, rooms, and a complete East London house; the abstract painter Fiona Rae; and Gavin Turk, known for life-size sculptures of himself as Sid Vicious and Che Guevara.
Patterson, for one, is rather bored with the packed bars in and around the square. But his boredom isn't likely to be alleviated anytime soon. So successful has Hoxton become in the last few years (a success crowned by the opening last April of White Cube 2, owned by Jay Jopling, the leading dealer in contemporary British art, whose roster includes Damien Hirst) that a lot of the artists are already moving out. Patterson's days are numbered, and Gary Hume has already vacated his building, recently acquired by developer and former art student Paul Daly. Another bar is set to rise, courtesy of Daly and several other investors.
"We'll knock the old place down," Daly says of his latest design project, this one pending approval by Hackney's planning department. "In its place will be a five-story building with a restaurant and bar, which I'll run, and above that offices and live/work spaces." Daly has had an office in the now-doomed building since 1989, and has slowly carved out a career as London's answer to Philippe Starck. After masterminding the interiors of some of London's hottest bars, including Islington's Elbow Room and Covent Garden's Saint, Daly is keen to tackle Hoxton. And he is far from apologetic about gentrification. "Either an area stays squalid and the residents can live there for five pounds a week," he says, "or investors can put some money into it and make it much nicer, in which case they need to get something back. It's just the natural flow, much like New York's East Village or Chelsea." Set to open within the year, Daly's yet-unnamed venture will undoubtedly be welcomed. Property developers are rife, following, as the novelist Ian Sinclair once commented, "the predatory instincts of artists who have already surveyed the ground."
For the moment, though, Hoxton is still mainly working-class, ethnically diverse, and retains some of its community spirit. The roar of traffic on Old Street, its southern boundary, soon diminishes as you walk northward from the square. Away from the sooty commercial zones that flank the square on the east and west, a handful of streets are full of character, even charm. There are, for example, fine Victorian properties packed narrowly down Charlotte Road (a reminder of an earlier commercial boom); on Buttesland Street, north of Hoxton Square, is an imposing early-19th-century terrace, the epitome of bygone London housing. But generally, the district is strewn with hideous empty office blocks from the 1950's and 60's, half-demolished workshops, and alleys piled with refuse. New buildings are often out of scale or cheaply ritzy, or both. Tour groups of slightly bewildered collectors, patrons of new art, and museum "friends" now take in the square along with the streets to the south, such as Charlotte Road, Curtain Road, and Rivington Street, where you're as likely to catch a glimpse of a Manolo heel as of a paint-spattered sneaker.
Among the most established of the area's many restaurants are Cantaloupe, a noisy spot for tapas and cocktails, and the Great Eastern Dining Room, almost opposite, run by the exuberant Australian Will Ricker (who also has the Cicada in nearby Clerkenwell). On Leonard Street, Home, with its thirdhand furniture and long wood-and-concrete bar, mixes industrial and shabby chic. The very new Pool, on Curtain Road, pumps out techno and jungle and ambitious fusion cuisine in equal measure. In more tranquil Hoxton Market, Theodore Kyriakou's Real Greek is already winning plaudits for its unadulterated Hellenic cooking, including sheep's-milk pasta. BLUU bar, occupying the former home of James Parkinson, who discovered the disease that bears his name, is perfect for a Saturday afternoon drink. Next door the cavernous, packed Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen—locals call it the Lux Bar—adjoins the Lux Centre's gallery, cinema, bookstore, and chatty, straightforward coffeehouse. Trendiest of all (for coffee or a cheap meal) is the ultra-casual restaurant Shoreditch Electricity Showrooms on Hoxton Square. If you're tired of cultural rubbernecking indoors, you can take to the square itself on a fine day and spot the victims of the previous night's debauch, lounging on the grass with post-club comedown.
Good galleries are much harder to find than restaurants, and more than a little legwork is necessary to navigate the wide radius from the lofty, pristine pavilion of White Cube 2. One of the best is American-born dealer Maureen Paley's Interim Art. In an earlier incarnation she ran Interim out of her own house on obscure Beck Road, showing unfailing support for, among others, 37-old videomaker Gillian Wearing, who won the prestigious Turner Prize for new art in 1997, and the late Helen Chadwick, a highly regarded feminist conceptual artist who died of a heart attack at 43. Also in Paley's stable, photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has a studio in the neighborhood, and, as we go to press, is a hot contender for this year's Turner. Paley's new gallery lies east of Hoxton in Bethnal Green, not far from Jake Miller's art space, the Approach, known for its artist-curated shows. To the west, there is Laure Genillard on Clerkenwell Road (who moved here after several successful years in central London); Andrew Mummery is in a handsome new space nearby, where he's recently been showing bright, grid-based molten paintings by Alexis Harding; and, nearer Old Street, the relative newcomer Gallery Westland Place.
Most unexpected was the announcement earlier this year of a new gallery for Victoria Miro, long ensconced in upscale premises on the West End's Cork Street. "It took me about three years to find an appropriate building," Miro says of her venerable-yet-hip gallery's move. "The gallery had grown so much, and we needed more storage, better infrastructure and offices." Miro, who counts among her stable of artists Chris Ofili (whose Madonna-and-dung painting incurred the wrath of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani when it appeared at the Brooklyn Museum as part of the now-infamous "Sensation" show), tracked the eastward migration of London's art interests and set her sights on Hoxton's Old Street area. The new space on Wharf Road opens with a show of German-born Thomas Demand's sleek, cool photographs. Despite all the recent activity, Miro doesn't compare Hoxton to New York's art centers, though. "We're still a long way off from Chelsea," she laughs, alluding to the small number of good galleries in her new district. "But we're getting there."