Friday, 8 August 2014

In praise of gentrification...

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When we look at the worst examples of urban decline we see two sorts of thing - the desperate nature of life in such marginal communities and the sense of human spirit, the little glimmers of brilliance that suggest something better may emerge. But the reality of life in the slums - whether it's in East London, Merseyside or Detroit - is not served by pretending that such communities are worth sustaining.

Yet by attacking gentrification this is precisely what we are doing. By arguing that a process of improvement driven by new people arriving in a place is a bad thing we think the place was fine as it was. Let's be clear from the start that by gentrification I don't mean slum clearance and the forcible relocation of a poor community so as to replace them with a more 'suitable' population. Gentrification is a process driven by individual choices made by free consumers not a planned and directed change under the guidance of architects and urban designers.

And wherever we see this process there are voices raised against it - voices made more 'authentic' by being from the 'community' that gentrification dislocates:

Places such as Kingsland Road and Mare Street have become the trendiest places to be, but that has bought unrest of a different sort. The people who live here are not happy.

There are a lot of issues with the social cleansing that is becoming increasingly evident around here.

I try to keep away from the word 'hipster', and call them trendies instead. But it all means the same: gentrification. This means cleaning an area up and saying if you can’t afford to be here then you have to leave.

So says Pauline Pearce the women who famously stood up to rioters from her 'community' as they looted and pillaged their way through Hackney. Now she says those same young people cannot afford to stay in the area because the 'hipsters' (worse still the article is couched by Guardian sub-editors to portray the change racially charged - black versus white - rather than merely rich against poor) are charging £5 for a cappuccino.

What Mrs Pearce is discovering is the reality for a lot of young people. Not just the young people from poor black communities in inner London but young people from the leafy suburbs. Does she really think that a young man or woman brought up in Chislehurst or Cheam can afford to stay there other than by squatting with Mum and Dad? So they move and take with them their hipsterish ways with some - pale and wan - landing up in Hackney. Where they set about making their mark on the place with cafes and restaurants, bars and shops that suit the lifestyle.

And the existing inhabitants - the ones who haven't sold up to enable that hipster immigration - look on wondering what's happening, how (as Mrs Pearce puts it):

It has caused real problems for the youngsters. A lot of them don’t know where they should go now, or where their real communities are. Many of the venues they would have enjoyed in the past have shut down. Instead, we’ve been left with these trendy places that nobody can afford to go to. 

Gentrification changes places. I remember East Dulwich and Peckham from my youth thirty-odd years ago - one a slightly tired, dowdy place, the other somewhere you just didn't visit. So when I read Helen Graves' Food Stories it is with a sense of wonder that these places, once so tatty and dangerous, are now filled with fine eateries and vibrant life. Such is the process of gentrification, a process where people move to the margins of their tolerance in order to afford life in London.

When I left London it was because it had lost its appeal. For sure there was still the West End and a pretty decent nightlife but the choice was living on a train shuttling back and forth to work from Gravesend or Basildon, or finding a pokey flat out east where you needed three locks on the door and daren't go out at night. And the life we glimpse in Pauline Pearce's moan and Helen Graves' celebrations simply didn't exist.

Now London seems to have found its spirit again. Partly this is about migration both from overseas and from elsewhere in the UK. But mostly it's about gentrification - those hipsters, bohemians, trendies and what have you. I see little sparks of this process now escaping from London to places like Salford, Leeds, perhaps even Bradford. And this is a good thing, it is how urban places evolve. It is much better than the soulless, organised new garden cities that the planners would have us living in with their neat lawns, keep off signs and concrete shopping centres.

It's important we accommodate existing communities rather than force them to another place. But their presence should not be a signal to try and prevent the process of change in urban places. Indeed, this change presents opportunities for that community not just for the incoming hipsters and trendies. The change is not a threat but a challenge, gentrification should be a boon not a bone of contention.

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1 comment:

Paul Perrin said...

Gentrification : taking 'afforadable housing' and upgrading it so it is no longer 'affordable'.

If you are going to gentrify, where is new 'affordable' housing to come from?

Funny that Prescott as deputy PM bought up and destroyed loads of affordable houses (cheap - unsellable!) but at that time called that affordable (cheap) housing a 'market failure'!!