Thursday, 30 July 2015

Gentrification should be welcomed by cities not treated as a curse

One of the single most important challenges facing Bristol and cities like it as they grow their economies is how to do development without doing gentrification. I set out from the start that I believe gentrification to be a social ill.

To appreciate just how stupid this statement is, you have first to note that the man who said it was very nearly elected executive mayor of Bristol. Marvin Rees was the Labour candidate in 2012 and fancies another go at getting elected next year. And Marvin believes that 'maginalised communities' must be protected from

...the focus on a high tech economy in which the highly educated are uniquely placed to exploit the opportunities and rising property prices and rents so that historically poor areas become increasingly unaffordable to their long established lower income traditional communities and their children.

This suggests that Marvin feels ordinary working-class Bristol folk won't be able to get good jobs in that exciting new Bristol that economic growth creates - they're excluded, as Marvin puts it, from "...the city of street art, the Shaun the Sheep tour, festivals, balloons, bridges, Brunel, the hipster and the Tesco riot." What a depressing vision for a city - you can't invest in buying a house, opening a coffee shop or brewing craft beer because that might exclude 'traditional communities'.

We see a lot of this anti-growth rhetoric wrapped up in a package dubbed 'opposing gentrification'. And resisting the blandishments of people like Marvin Rees is essential if cities are to reduce deprivation, create opportunity and develop into places where people want to live rather than places people want to escape. Marvin needs to ask himself a question about those traditional communities he cites - St Pauls, Easton and Southville. Do people growing up there who succeed stay there or do they leave for a place, often not far away, that they think is better?

I recall an old colleague who was born and brought up in Chapeltown, a part of Leeds as noted for its riots as for its culture. This colleague, Robert was his name, insisted that he would stay in Chapeltown: "these kids need a role model who isn't a gangster or a drug dealer". Some while later I ran into Robert again and he had succeeded - thriving business, got married, child on the way and living in Harrogate. So much for staying in Chapeltown.

Without gentrification this is what happens - the best from those 'traditional communities' move away as success makes that possible and the gap they leave is filled by a new generation of poor people. As my colleague Robert noted, the roles models for youngsters - other than pop stars, boxers and footballers - consist of criminals, gangsters and wheeler-dealers. In a gentrified neighbourhood there's a whole load of people - many from pretty ordinary backgrounds - who provide examples of success without negatives.

It is madness to want to preserve poor communities out of some misplaced sense of social solidarity yet this is precisely what people like Marvin Rees want, this captures the lack of aspiration and rejection of opportunity that results in places remained stagnant, dying slowly from neglect. It is a recipe for ossifying the social deprivation gleefully described by Marvin in his article. Places like Bristol - in truth most every place - needs those bohemian sorts, hipsters and the like if they are to succeed:

It gets down to what I call "the eye" - certain people have it. "The eye" in this regard is really about intuition and it allows you to spot things and live well without very much money. When my wife and I were building our first brand, Red or Dead, in the early 1980s, we opened a shop on Neal Street – now a buzzing part of fashionable London, but then it had no fashion shops and was a rather dowdy area stocked full of white good repair shops. We took a risk and acted outside of the mainstream. Our approach allowed us to spot a place where city investment and mainstream money wouldn't go. And it worked. We grew our business by spotting Neal Street equivalents in half a dozen UK cities and another dozen locations around the world.

Politicians and activists - most green sorts and the 'progressive left' - want to exclude people like Wayne Hemingway from their cities or else to corral them into specific regeneration areas thereby killing the initiative and innovation they bring. Let's not get this wrong, gentrification isn't the be all and end all - if we want kids from St Pauls to succeed we need great schools, good training and a wide variety of what they used to call 'jobs with opportunities'. But attacking success in the strange belief that its investment, excitement and choice excludes people can only result in less growth, less development and a poorer place.


1 comment:

Curmudgeon said...

It's a bit strange seeing a Labour candidate complaining about an influx of bohemian left-wing hipsters. "The poor feel excluded from the Tesco riots" - what planet are we on here?