What is “Gentrification”?

Gentrification, and its associations with the so-called ‘flat-white economy,’ hipsterism, cold-pressed juices and shabby chic interiors has firmly secured itself as a defining process of our times. As a term, gentrification was coined by the Marxist sociologist Ruth Glass in the 1960s who observed that ‘one by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class [..] until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.’

The term is now comfortably settled in mainstream conversation in the Western world, used by artists, estate agents and tenants alike in varying degrees of derision or pride. The Cereal Killer protests in Shoreditch and prior attacks on a branch of Foxtons in Brixton bring into focus the wave of opposition to the perceived forcing out of London’s working classes as the capital becomes increasingly changed. Overpriced cereal, dished up to the so-called ‘creative classes’ seems an easy target for criticism; but clearly the real culprit is the way in which land is developed in London. It’s the nature of huge real estate firms backed by international capital speculating on London’s property market.

The key ingredients in the gentrification cocktail conventionally include a slightly run-down, ideally formerly industrial area where low rents allow inhabitation by artists, subsequently gaining notoriety. The ‘coolness’ of the area turns into a brand-like status until the tipping point is reached where it becomes a valuable real estate asset. Utilitarian high streets made up of hardware shops, convenience stores and laundrettes become delis, wine bars and art galleries, all to the relief of the local Councillor. But let’s not linger on the visual clues in gentrification… or we might miss the bigger picture!

What is truly the cause of these transformations is the continued investment based on international financial markets and the total erosion of affordable housing. As demonstrated with a Chinese state visit, Britain is now increasingly reliant on international investment in the face of dwindling public funds, in order to produce domestic growth. One such scheme which typifies the attractive property market which we continue to support, now in its fifth phase of public consultation, is Bishopsgate Goodsyard. A 50-50 venture split between developers Hammerson & Ballymore. This scheme has proved particularly contentious, with obvious physical implications regarding daylight around the series of towers, the tallest of which being 46 storeys, and what is dubbed as further ‘social cleansing’ of East London. Schemes like this can be found all over London and continue to dominate conversations among young working people, who make up ‘generation rent.’

Shoreditch was, until the early 1990s, one such shabby inner-city area of London ripe for artist appropriation of cheap disused warehouses which resulted in, albeit temporarily, a vibrant creative community. Since then, property prices per square metre have tripled, weekends are now characterised by incoming drinkers from all over the south east of England and the area is all but devoid of its original pioneers, exasperated as they are at the perceived strangling of the ‘personality’ of their area. Shoreditch has, for my generation at least, become a process in itself, a recipe deemed successful which is now literally exported around the world to places such as Dubai, where a new ‘Design District’ is set to be built from desert. Now home to powerful tech brands such as Google, Cisco, Intel and Facebook, Shoreditch now carries economic and political value to its name following the government’s recent active backing of tech communities.

While the consensus in the face of gentrification is often fierce opposition, those on the other side of the debate point towards the perks of such development; potentially better schools, badly needed infrastructural additions and improved safety. There is a healthy bank of research which suggests that gentrification alone is not the problem per se, it is the concentration of poverty which is truly the cause for concern. A paper by American think-tank City Observatory tends to follow this argument, based on the isolation of ethnic communities across US cities. The implied message here is that gentrification assumes an entire displacement of a community which may not always be the case, and besides, those remaining in the area may benefit from the change. The contentious nature of the gentrification debate leads to speedy conclusions being made on how people might be forcibly moved and the type of people who may be incoming.

Gentrification, as we know it, is fuelled by investment which does not have to be, by default, a negative thing. Where developments only generates a homogenisation of class, demographic and building type, communities invariably suffer. As with many issues in the UK, the green belt included, when gentrification and clear cut visual changes are avoided, we tend to allow ourselves to believe that things will happily remain that way, protected from changes in a false sense of timelessness. That being said, it is undoubtedly true that vast swathes of London have experienced dramatic development in recent years which has been to the detriment of settled families and small businesses. One clear case in point is the area of Elephant & Castle, and often recited story of the Heygate Estate, where thousands of residents were forcibly moved under empty promises of rehousing. The response to gentrification and the use of the term as a by-word for change does not make for a particularly productive debate on how places can be interpreted and potentially, improved.

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