One night this summer, I watched a group in evening dress walk out of a Zone 5 Tube station in search of the capital’s latest Secret Cinema venue. If they seemed disoriented, it was no surprise: not only were they lost in east London and dressed like James Bond but they had probably never been to Dagenham before.
Though it’s just over 10 miles from the City, Dagenham isn’t on many cultural maps of the capital. Morrissey’s sneering “Dagenham Dave” – a lad with “I love Karen, I love Sharon” plastered on the windscreen of his car – played to most stereotypes about the area.
The one cultural hit it is known for, the 2010 film-turned-musical Made in Dagenham, is about the Ford motor factory, which is also the only other thing most people know about the place.
The feeling seems mutual. A 2018 survey based on government data found the borough of Barking and Dagenham had some of the lowest levels of engagement with the arts in the country. It regularly appears on rankings like this – last month it was listed as the borough with the greatest number of “most deprived” areas in the capital.
In reality, Dagenham used to have more in common with industrial towns in the north of England than with the rest of London. Built around the Ford factory, for three-quarters of a century it was a proudly blue-collar place where many had lived on the same street for 30 or 40 years.
Overnight that changed. When the Ford factory stopped making cars in 2002, many of those laid off took their payoffs and sold up. One in three properties now belongs to private landlords, and the demographic changes have been huge. Between 2001 and 2011, the white British population dropped from 80 to 49 per cent. Today there are more than 130 nationalities here.
In 2006, more negative headlines: the far-right British National Party won 12 seats on the local council. “Where most of London went through that change over 20-25 years, we did it in two or three – half the street could be different – and that scared a lot of people,” says Darren Rodwell, the Labour leader of Barking and Dagenham council since 2014.
“Ford left a massive vacuum. A third of this borough was industrial workspace, and with all that going, people had to blame somebody before they could aspire to change it.”
Rodwell, born and bred in the borough, sees culture as key. Where, in the past, pubs and working clubs oiled the community, today events and arts festivals led by locals are one way people can be brought closer together.
The successful battle that saw off the BNP in 2010 “completely” informs this, he says. If people don’t think they are part of something, it can lead to isolation and even extremism. The council consulted 65,000 residents, who talked about how bad things had become, and restructured accordingly. Today, he believes the majority are feeling “more hope”.
Part of the reason the recent Secret Cinema event was drawn to Dagenham was because of the council’s ambitious project to build a film studio where an old pharmaceuticals factory used to be. A City Hall feasibility study found the 22-acre “Made in Dagenham” space would create 780 full-time jobs and bring in £35m a year for the UK economy.
Attracting celebrity glamour and day-tripping tourists would also put the area on the map. It’s hard to change people’s ideas about a place if they never go there.
The borough’s moves to replace the car industry with creative industries don’t end there. In Barking, there are concerted efforts to attract artists to move to the cheapest spaces in London. Can it grab some of the action from Hackney and Shoreditch?
For Rodwell, the aim is not to repeat what has happened in the East End. “We don’t want snobbery, which means we don’t want gentrification. We’re trying to do something quite different,” he says.
Rodwell’s real aim is to encourage the kind of “working-class aspiration” shown by the women who fought for equal pay at Ford in the 1960s. At the new House for Artists in Barking, artists will pay part of their rent by working with local residents. As with the film studio, having artists live locally is a way of showing the young in particular that the arts isn’t something that only happens elsewhere.
Can you do culture in Zone 5? Yet another list decided Dagenham had the “shittest” pubs in London, though this was offset slightly by a survey that voted it the sexiest place in the UK. More seriously, the preferred US-based backers for the film studio were reported to have second thoughts because of Brexit – a bitter plot twist in one of the few London boroughs to vote Leave.
Rodwell is pushing ahead. He cites the huge demand for London studio space as evidence that this is a project people want to happen. If Dagenham does become as famous for film as it was for cars, there is also a potential boost to its battered image. About this he remains indignant.
“The snobbery has been immense,” he says. “Our forefathers and mothers have done a lot of good here. No one has the right to look down their nose at us.”
Neil O’Sullivan is associate editor of FT Weekend Magazine
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen and subscribe to Culture Call, a transatlantic conversation from the FT, at ft.com/culture-call or on Apple Podcasts