Say the word “gentrification” these days, and you’re likely to receive a grumpy response. It’s a popular bệte noire – but it’s become too easy a target, a word that’s used to mean too many different things.
So here’s a thought: we should stop using it.
Gentrification used to mean a relatively slow process of professionals and creative types, without vast pots of money, moving into a neglected neighbourhood and doing up their homes. It used to mean gentle waves of improved housing stock, independent shops and cafes, and gradually rising prices.
This type of gentrification isn’t to be sneered at. It brings better performing schools, lower crime, and communities where people of different income levels, class and community live side by side.
That, though, is not what’s happening now: now we have gentrification on steroids. Forget gentle waves; flats in my own corner of south east London doubled in price over four years in the mid 2000s, and have likely doubled again since.
That’s not gentrification. It’s not teachers, social workers and artists who are gradually displacing the grandchildren of people who’ve lived on my street since the 1950s. That’s a housing bubble.
That bubble understandably creates resentment in communities, which has had its own curious side effect: the “hipster” backlash, of which the most infamous example is the attack on Shoreditch’s Cereal Cafe. We can probably all agree that beating up on some beardy business owners selling sugary treats is not the most effective way of protesting market-driven eviction of almost an entire social class.
But the Cereal Cafe attack didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s farcical how predictable the wave of new business openings in a super-gentrifying area can be. The local pub gets a refit with mismatched furniture and starts selling craft beer, with a related price hike. The established sandwich shop gets replaced by a deli selling artisan cheeses. It’s suddenly hard to find a coffee that costs less than two quid.
In short, it’s not just the increase in house prices that carves out a gap where the middle used to be: it’s all the changes to local businesses that come with it. Are we surprised kids eat fried chicken on the way home from school if that’s the only option in their price range?
A few months ago, some graffiti appeared on hoardings surrounding a new development in Lewisham, south east London. “Fuck your Yuppie bullshit” it declared.
The odd thing was, that development is actually emergency housing for people on the council waiting list: it just doesn’t look anything like the usual image of social housing. It’s bright, colourful and has been given a trendy name, PLACE/Ladywell. There have been artists in residence, and toy-making workshops.
In other words, it’s exactly the kind of middle class, bunting-covered “community engagement” projects we’re supposed to approve of. What was once “nice” is now seen as the enemy.
The degeneration of language
There’s another word that’s due for the bonfire. The “regeneration” of a deprived area should be a good thing. In Tottenham, north London, there’s a large post-riots redevelopment scheme under way. Millions are being spent refurbishing leisure centres, libraries and green spaces. Up to 7,000 new homes are being built in a city that desperately needs them.
You can sense there’s a “but” coming, can’t you? The artists’ plans for Tottenham give it that familiar bland sheen. Characterless towers, patches of greenery, the odd outdoor sculpture – it could be anywhere from Nine Elms in London, to Holbeck in Leeds, to Ouseburn in Newcastle. The shops depicted are major chains and could be from any high street in any town. There’s a campaign group fighting rent hikes on behalf of 60 local traders, many from the Afro-Caribbean and Latin American communities, who fear that their pitches at Wards Corner market may soon be out of their price range.
Residents have seen how regeneration has gone down in other areas, and don’t expect Tottenham to be different. Whether it’s national chains or independent “posh” shops coming in and displacing existing businesses, or skyrocketing rents and house prices, the effect on the longstanding community is the same. They feel rapidly encircled and pushed out. That’s not gentrification as we used to know it, or regeneration in the positive sense that councils like to imply: it’s too quick, too brutal.
The idea of “regeneration” has been poisoned by its association with council estate projects, too. Improving long-neglected housing should be a good thing. All too often, however, “regeneration” involves demolition and decanting of the community, imposed from above. No wonder such projects are despised, if the expectation is that communities will be thrown or priced out of their homes.
These words are contaminated. They mean too many things, and so don’t mean anything. There are many other words that might do as alternatives: blandification, community destruction, replacement, demolition, even super-gentrification.
The words we used to describe our policies really matter. The UK, particularly London, faces a severe housing shortage. Many plans to build new homes come under the banner of “regeneration”. They need community support if they are to go ahead, and not get bogged down in protests and planning fights. And while communities’ instant reaction is all too often to dismiss any attempt at development as “gentrification” – and to mean it as an insult – it doesn’t help anyone.
Some of these schemes are bloody awful, of course, but they should be fought based on their specific problems. Protests against “gentrification” are easy to dismiss because the word can mean so many different things. Instead, we should name the problems: a housing bubble, reliance on a broken market to ease supply, the reduction of genuinely affordable housing.
These are issues that can be addressed. The all-compassing bogeyman that “gentrification” has become cannot. We should throw it out and start again.