how gentrification is destroying the cities we live in
Is the London we love disappearing because of another wave of gentrification and a housing crisis are driving culture out?
The list of London clubs that have shut in the last few years makes for harrowing reading: Madame Jojos, The Joiners, Nelson's Arms, Plastic People, The Grosvenor, The Astoria. Pubs are dropping like flies, too many names. Those London boroughs that once reveled in the seediness of their immediate history have been tamed by money and real estate developments and had all the character sucked out of them. As rents increased and wages didn't, all the young creatives couldn't afford to live in Shoreditch anymore and had to move to Mile End and Homerton and Hackney Wick, and start all over again, open new cafes, vintage clothes, art book and bicycle shops.
It's easy to laugh at the perpetual death cycle of hipster, and cower in horror at its continual capacity for reanimation, because rather than simply dying it continually evolves and changes, often as much as the neighborhoods they live in and gentrify.
When I first moved to south London the area was run through with poverty, empty buildings, cheap rent, art students, and a plague of buildings that, if WOWOW weren't squatting them and turning them into thriving hives of artistic activity, had been boarded up by the council.
The danger is, of course, that we lament the changing of London without really noticing that cities, especially those as big and diverse as London, are always changing. There was a time when Chinatown used to be in Limehouse, not Soho, Midtown used to be called Holborn, and Camden was once the coolest place in the world. But it's the pace and speed at which these changes are happening that now feels frightening, and will have a lasting, negative effect upon the diverse make-up of the city. My Grandma, who grew up in Elephant and Castle, would've probably recognised the place as recently as 15 years ago, but most certainly wouldn't anymore - due to a wave of demolished builders and skyscrapers that have risen up in their places.
In the ten years I've lived in London, the rent has pretty much doubled, to the point that my two bedroom flat costs about the same as the four-bedroom house I lived in just five years ago. London house prices have risen 52% in the last 10 years, and it's hard to feel that such a change is sustainable, let alone desirable, for anyone not already on the housing ladder. It's become so endemic that we've even gained the sobriquet of 'generation rent'. And it's become so acute that even The Telegraph has described us a generation "renting our way into poverty".
When I first moved to south London the area was run through, from Deptford up to Elephant and Castle, with poverty, empty buildings, cheap rent, art students, and a plague of buildings that, if WOWOW weren't squatting them and turning them into thriving hives of artistic activity, had been boarded up by the council, their hoardings replete with promises of new estates and brighter futures. For a long time it was hard to feel like any change was ever going to come. The Heygate persisted, somehow, the financial crisis put a stop to most other building projects, a half finished block of flats sat on Queen's Road in Peckham, for about six years, the squatters in the pub across the road had been turfed out to make way for another block of flats that was never built. The pace of regeneration - that was swallowing up Dalston - seemed to halt. The unique cultural make-up persisted, just. WOWOW might've been long gone, but the area birthed, with its mix of empty spaces, cheap rents, art schools, a list of cultural achievements that belied its reputation as the dark half of London that no one went to.
The usual discourse then, starts to blame the hipsters and the artists, because it's easier to berate the beards behind the Cereal Killer café than it is to rage at the faceless world of finance.
Gentrification is the word we usually use, to describe this process of change, that naively, I thought might not have come for south east London. First the hipsters and artists move in, enticed by cheap rent, large spaces, disused warehouses, they set up, make the area more attractive, drive house prices up, more affluent people start to move in, houses prices rise even more, the community who lived there originally are displaced, house prices rise even more, the original wave of gentrifiers are then priced out and you're left with nice, dull, middle-class Islington. The usual discourse then, starts to blame the hipsters and the artists, simply because they are the first visible symptom of the process; that artisan bakery, sourdough pizza restaurant, art gallery, gastropub and over priced café are the coming signs of the change an area is about to undergo. It's all too reductive to view them as the four horsemen of a gentrification apocalypse, but easy, because the financial processes that really power these changes are all too opaque, confusing and hard to grasp to easily make sense of. It's easier to berate the beards behind the Cereal Killer café than it is to rage at the faceless world of finance.
But it boils down to two inter-related things: foreign investment and property developers and buy-to-rent landlords, and the loss of social housing. They operate under the banner of 'regeneration' instead of 'gentrification', and do it less visibly, and are the hand behind the process of gentrification's rising house prices, because of course, house prices don't rise by themselves.
This then has an effect upon the cultural life of the city we live in. Recently many column inches were given over to something devised by one of George Osbourne's economic advisors, Douglas McWilliams, a concept called The Flat White Economy.That in the wake of gentrification, springing up is a new, versatile, young, creative, workforce, ready to inhabit these new areas of London once the first wave of gentrifiers have been priced out. Douglas McWilliams, for what its worth, on New Year's Eve, was arrested in New York for assaulting a prostitute, and was filmed smoking crack in a flat on Hornsey. And, as unsurprising as it may be to find out that one of George Osborne's economic advisors is an (alleged) crack smoking prostitute assaulter, it's incredibly dispiriting to find the economically precarious situation we live in being heralded as some kind of new fantastic way of living.
And all this has a knock on effect on the creative make-up of the city, because as it becomes more expensive to live in, the people able to make a living from music, art and writing begins to be limited to those who can afford to be poor for a time.
In an article entitled, Can Hipsters Save The World, in The Guardian, "McWilliams argues that [The Flat White Economy] is defined by the types of people it employs. At the consumer end this leads to cafés and niche shops, such as the shipping-container Boxpark in Shoreditch. The new trendsetters don't have as much money as their 'loadsamoney' forebears from the financial services in the 80s and 90s, and as a consequence their spending patterns are driven by novelty rather than cost. They share flats and don't have much space… and they probably work in a job powered by the internet. The majority work in a tiny area around the Old Street roundabout." And this merely seems a fancy way of dressing up a change in the way we are now forced to work, with less rights, less security, as a generation of forced freelancers, and the effect this has on their spending habits, suggesting we are less materialistically driven because we are instead of because we're forced to be? Do they share houses because they want to or because they have to?
And all this has a knock on effect on the creative make-up of the city, because as it becomes more expensive to live in, the people able to make a living from music, art and writing begins to be limited to those who can afford to be poor for a time - who can afford rental prices without worrying about having to work. And it effects the make-up of our media too, when what was already a difficult to get into sector, is further limited by those able to do unpaid internships, work for low pay, afford to buy into the flat white economy and freelance in a café drinking £3 coffees.
Culture, though never truly democratic or open, feels even less in this climate, when the barriers to entry for graduates are even harder to surmount, university fees even higher, and benefits cuts make it almost impossible to sit on the dole, get a housing benefit check and dedicate your time to following your dream. The squatters got turfed out, the artists get priced out, and eventually no one can afford to live anywhere anymore and London will eventually turn into Geneva or Zurich.
Text Felix Petty