Is this what gentrification looks like?

I’m not really an opinion blogger; instead I prefer to tell stories based on my reporting and research. However, every now and then, I do like to let off steam. So below are a few of my scattered reflections on the riots in London this summer, which I reported on for the Washington Post here, here and here, and for the New Internationalist here, and Legal Action magazine here.

And if you want some meaningful polemic, go read what Gary Younge says about rioting http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/14/young-british-rioters-political-actions

And Camila Batmanghelidjh here http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/camila-batmanghelidjh-caring-costs-ndash-but-so-do-riots-2333991.html

***

I hate the word gentrification. It carries such unpleasant connotations. The dictionary definition of ‘to gentrify’ is to renovate or improve a house or district so that it is in keeping with middle class taste. There is nothing wrong with improvement as such, but it does depend on who it is for, how it’s done and why it is being done.

On the radio a few days ago, the area where I live in East London was described as the UK’s answer to the Silicon Valley. The comment referenced the number of tech/design start-ups in the area. More intriguing for me is the social effect of the contrast between a new, elite and flourishing industry, and increasing hardship for everyone else as the effects of the recession start to kick in.

I have never been to San Francisco; I wonder if it really is as divided as where I live. In nearly every street you can find plenty of middle-class hipsters lounging in charming, if overpriced, cafes with identikit Macbooks and single-speed bikes in tow. And in nearly every street, living cheek by jowl to the gated communities and posh bars, are communities of much less time-rich, and significantly less cash rich, families. Add to that a generous sprinkling of neglected, mentally ill people and many long-term unemployed men.

(A random example of such disparities is a hilarious restaurant review by Giles Coren, where he ventures all the way from West London to London Fields (east London) for dinner, and is alarmed by the presence of young boys wearing hooded jumpers riding low bikes and the proximity of people on low incomes. Maybe it was a joke. Except I think there are lots of people like Mr Coren that actually live in Hackney.)

I remember researching an article looking at the effects of the British government’s spending cuts on women; within a short a distance of the Town Hall I was able to find two mothers who would both be affected adversely, except one would be cushioned by the comforts of her class while the other, an Eastern European immigrant, foresaw only a future of despair.

It is not apartheid; there are plenty of people in the middle, people just getting by. There are good schools, people running up their own businesses, excellent social programmes and a ton of working class people doing just fine. So generally it all feels quite harmonious. Every Saturday the Socialist Worker party tries to radicalize everyone by selling their newspapers on the main high streets; most people happily wander past into Primark or McDonalds or one of the aforementioned cafes. Before the riots in August, I was oblivious to any serious tensions between East London’s wildly differing communities.

And yet when out reporting on the riots, what emerged was a mess of resentment and bewilderment at the growing gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in the area.

I got chatting to a young woman in London Fields, born and bred in East London; she expressed shock at the levels of violence, though was not surprise that the riots happened. Then she revealed her plans to leave Hackney and set up a fashion business. But surely the best place to run a fashion business would be Hackney? The East London borough is a stone’s throw from the UK’s answer to Silicon Valley.  And it’s not just the next Facebook or Google that could spring from the area; artists, designers and fashion industry types all ply their various trades from the borough’s warehouses and cafes.

Yes, all that’s true, she agreed. There are all these new communities, but they are separate, “they all have degrees”. Degree-less, and from a different community, she feels unable to network or move in their circles. She was not complaining, simply stating the facts of her experience.

The inadvertent segregation that sometimes follows gentrification can breed unhealthy resentment or, as in the case above, an intangible sense of unease. This is not created not by residents living within that community, but by outside forces such as property developers, for example, creating expensive homes beyond even the dreams of those living on the estate across the road.

The media plays its role; I did not realize that the road I live on is part of a no go area till I read about it during the riots. Some of the journalists and columnists that opined and wrung their hands about this bit of London, probably live a stone’s throw away from the worst estates, but still have little clue as to what goes on there; so they imagine the worst. This bugged one teenage boy I spoke to:

“Wherever someone has been stabbed, they will now pinpoint that area and say it is a bad area and they will start bringing up articles and numbers of people stabbed in this area, and make [out] … that area is unsafe.

“But day in and day out, that area is actually good. It is not as bad as they are making out. They make it seem like it is happening everyday, which is making everyone else more scared. So it is corrupting them. If they are there to see it day in and out they will see that … it is not as bad as they are saying.”

This clash of identities in so-called “gentrified areas” was summed up best for me, when during the riots, a young man wearing rolled up skinny jeans, a fitted T-Shirt and a trilby, tried to cycle his one-speed through a crowd of rioters. The contrast between the teenage boys wearing their own uniform of hooded jumpers, baggy pants-on-display trousers, was striking.

This sharp disconnect between tribes was made more stark the day after the riots when a group of well meaning people organized a mass clean-up. An eager gaggle of people with brooms and grins descended on our street ready to sweep away the miserable mess of the riots. But the overturned rubbish bins, broken glass, remnants of the impromptu bonfires and even the blood red graffiti (Fuck Cameron, Fuck the Feds), had all been cleaned up already. By 7am, the poorly-paid cleaners had done what they do everyday; after that they duly melted into the background.

Tags: , , , ,

Categories: Britain, gentrification, inequality, society

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