Don’t blame hipsters for gentrification: blame neoliberalism

Gentrification in Streatham. Image: Getty.

Here are some things you should know about me: I am a 28 year old freelance writer who lives in Hackney. I am precariously yet creatively employed, work in a co-working space, and have spent the better part of my twenties living in flat-shares where the freezer hasn’t been defrosted since the mid-nineties.

For this dubious privilege, I pay far more than 50 percent of my income in rent each month which is, according to recent data, three times more on housing than my grandparents spent.

This is all to say: I am a gentrifying hipster. And while I know my demographic is a much-maligned harbinger of change, sometimes I start to feel like it’s the agent of change. Indeed, the canon of internet hot takes stating that “hipsters ruined such-and-such” is rich and varied – and usually written by property-owning individuals who have plenty of extra in their Sub-Zero freezers. When I report on the issue, the outraged internet commentariat writes comments like “Pretentious, expensive nonsense. RIP our inner city communities.”

Others beseech me to be a “responsible gentrifier,” taking care to spend just enough money to support the local economy, but not too much to attract unscrupulous developers. Even Vice, the simultaneous arbiter and enabler of hipster culture, informs me that daring to visit a chicken shop in a neighbourhood that I haven’t lived in my entire life is verging on cultural appropriation.

I’ve always known that a fixation on blaming the aesthetic indicators of gentrification – millennial pink coffee shops, vegan bakeries, art students in chicken shops – was a massive misdiagnosis of the problem. But when it came to countering that argument, I’ve always felt I was grasping. It was only after reading Anna Minton’s book, Big Captial: Who is London For? that I began to see that this misdiagnosis is not just intellectually amiss: it also helps further the aims of a government that has willfully created the conditions for our current crisis of displacement and housing shortage to arise.

The narrative that hipsters cause gentrification tends to come from two sources. One is the established communities who quite rightly assume that the “regeneration” projects that ruthlessly sprout up in their neighbourhoods are not intended for them. (Though I should say, in my own reporting I’ve found the viewpoints of established communities to be far more nuanced than the media generally gives them credit for.) The other is the pundits and editors who – whether it’s intellectual laziness or a thirst for clicks, I don’t know – know that headlines with “hipster” in them traffic well. But, no matter the source, these charges ignore both the structural underpinning and socioeconomic context of neighbourhood change.

So what does cause gentrification and, by extension, the housing crisis that affects nearly everyone in the capital? At least according to Minton, the process is multi-pronged. An intentional dismantling of the social housing through mechanisms like right-to-buy and buy-to-let since Thatcher has meant that the social housing sector is now dominated by private tenants receiving housing benefit – rather than people simply being housed in purpose-built social housing, which hasn’t been built meaningfully for years.


This drastically reduces the amount of affordable homes available for the middle class. This market-led social housing practice also contributes to inflationary pressures on everyone’s monthly rent payment.

At the same time, an influx of wealth from high net worth individuals at the very top of London’s property ladder – those “safety deposit boxes in the sky,” as Minton calls them – creates ripple effects throughout the market and links our country’s housing market to global capital flows. Meanwhile, the “we are building more housing!” cries from the Tories are essentially empty when market conditions push developers towards erecting gleaming luxury developments in place of dilapidated “sink estates”. Defining “affordable housing” as up to 80 per cent of market rent – or the Conservatives starter homes, worth up to £450,000 – means that these new builds might as well not exist for most normal people who actually need housing.

The process unleashed by this is not gentrification as it was originally defined, but a “state-led hyper gentrification” that is not just allowed, but abetted by government policies. In 1964, when sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term to describe the phenomenon of middle class families moving into and renovating working class cottages in Islington, the rate of change, for better or worse, was organic and the pocket books of those individuals served as a kind of upper limit. But now, as Minton write, “the speed of capital flows into places between the 1960s and 200s bears no comparison to what is happening today. It is these rates of return on property” – boosted by the policy of the government and councils – “that are driving the reconfiguration of London.”

Let’s be clear: those Dubai-like towers sprouting up in Dalston Square and Woodberry Down are not populated by hipsters, most of which live in dastardly flat-shares like the one I’m all too familiar with. They are largely populated by the investors, bankers, and overseas buyers who can afford to throw down half a million on a studio. As Minton notes in the book, during Stage 1 of sales for Elephant Park, a new development that replaced Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle with roughly 2,700 luxury flats (a mere 82 are for social housing), 100 per cent were sold to foreign investors.

So if hipsters aren’t the ones actually selling or buying the luxury flats that are replacing long-time communities, but are rather opting to move to the only neighbourhoods where they can afford to rent a room and perhaps start a small business, why are we getting all the shade? Minton told me part of the reason is councils who, bereft of funds thanks to austerity, are keen to capitalise on the “up and coming” reputation that hipsters bring with their avocado toasts and street art. She told me:

“Hackney is in the throes of this kind of slower gentrification and state-led hyper gentrification. It hasn’t been done as brutally as what’s happened in Southwark and is planned for parts of Lambeth but the direction of travel is clear.

“Apparently a Hackney councilman was overheard saying ‘I think it’s great you can find artisan bakeries where you can find sourdough that’s £5 a loaf.’ There is no doubt the council is actively encouraging that kind of environment.”

Indeed it’s rare that you hear someone state the obvious: places that are in the throes of change with a diverse range of people living cheek by jowl are, in fact, quite exciting. “But that tends to drop off quickly,” Minton hastens to add, when the government does nothing to prevent complete and total displacement.

What doesn’t drop off quickly is the lack of “ontological security” that everyone from housing benefit claimants to millennial hipsters feel when their housing situation is insecure. Studies quoted in Minton’s book found that “prolonged periods in temporary housing” and “spending more than 30 per cent of income on housing” are associated with reduced mental health.

In short, blaming hipsters – or hipster culture or hipster food trends or hipster art – for the crisis of displacement and substandard, expensive housing ravaging our capital is a red herring. It amounts to the age-old “kids these days” critique of youth culture, without any recognition of the neoliberal market forces at play – and lets a government that has systematically neglected social housing for a couple decades conveniently off the hook. It also makes developers rich. 

“Whether you’re a hipster in a shared house in Hackney or a banker who’s just bought a luxury new build, I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault that established communities get displaced – it’s the structural underpinning that’s at fault,” Minton told me. “We’re all operating within this property economy and the putting it on the individual is just part of the individualistic neoliberal approach that’s got us to where we are with the housing market.”

Rosie Spinks is on Twitter as @rojospinks.

 
 
 
 

On boarded-up storefronts, muralists offer words of hope

The murals on closed storefronts aim "to end ugly wall syndrome." (Courtesy of Beautify)

In Los Angeles, Melrose Avenue has a new mural that reads: “Cancel plans, not humanity.”

It’s an artwork by Corie Mattie, a street artist who kindly reminds us of our togetherness under quarantine. She and many other artists are putting murals up across the US as part of the Back to the Streets campaign, which aims to add some color to the streets – specifically on boarded up storefronts and abandoned streets that feel deserted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The goal is to bring some beauty to the streets while everything is boarded up – “to end ugly wall syndrome,” says project founder Evan Meyer. “It’s to get people to care about their communities, be part of the process.” 


Many of the murals are painted on plywood panels that cover the entryways to independent businesses that have shut down during the pandemic. The project aims to prevent a sense of decay, especially as some businesses start to open back up while their neighbours remain closed.

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places quickly, when places are abandoned and don’t feel like they have love or life,” says Meyer, who is also the CEO of Beautify, a company that connects artists with places to make murals. Among the murals made during the pandemic, one at a department store says “Togetherness,” while another says: “You can’t quarantine love.”

“We’re seeing messages like hope, positivity and community,” Meyer says. “More than ever, it’s a time for community.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

With artist-led projects in L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Pasadena, and others, the goal is to get 1,000 murals up across America. Murals are also being painted in small towns in Iowa, like Council Bluffs and Dubuque, and an earlier mural in New York City’s Rockaway Beach was created in 2014 with the same goal of bringing some life to neglected buildings that needed renovation after Hurricane Sandy

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places with broken windows, tagging and crime,” says Meyer. “A lot can happen if a place feels like it’s unwatched.” 

Los Angeles councilmember David Ryu endorsed the initiative in a recent blog post, saying it has helped boost morale on the streets of L.A. “When we brighten blighted walls, we improve neighborhoods,” he wrote. “It’s critical to have more business owners enlist their walls here to bring some much needed love and recognition to their establishment and their neighborhood.” 

The effort stems from a sister project called Beautify Earth, which has helped address a litter problem in Santa Monica’s commercial district. In addition to a cleanup force, the project has painted more than 100 murals on walls, dumpsters, utility boxes and garbage cans across the city.

On the Beautify website, artists can find business improvement districts, real estate developers, landlords and business owners who want to see something on their empty walls. Each artist who gets a commissioned wall through the Beautify website is paid 78% of the stipend, and Beautify takes a 22% administration fee. 

Meyer says he often explains to business owners that art can help their business.

“A lot of people have white empty wall space on their liquor stores, condos, park walls, even residential spaces,” says Meyer, adding that many are afraid to put something on their walls. “It’s not a liability, it’s an asset. Art protects walls, it is a graffiti abatement strategy.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

Beautify isn’t alone in its field. Among the other cities that have similar mural projects, ArtPlace America has supported over 200 art murals across the US. Wynwood Walls, a public art project in Miami spearheaded by local developer Tony Goldman, has helped create a popular public art hotspot with murals by artists Shepard Fairey and Ron English. 

Chicago’s city government, too, has publicly funded over 500 murals through its Percent-for-Art program, which pays artists to paint walls on municipal buildings. A grassroots street art project in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, has artists painting murals in violent and marginalised neighbourhoods. Similar crime prevention ventures have been initiated in Topeka, Kansas, in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Toronto, Canada, which has placed over 140 murals across the city over the past decade. 


Artist Ruben Rojas has painted murals saying "You Can't Quarantine Love" in several spots across Santa Monica, California. (Courtesy of Beautify)

One artist working with Beautify’s project is Ruben Rojas, who is overwhelmed by the response to his mural, “You Can’t Quarantine Love,” which has been painted in several spots across Santa Monica and beyond.

“Every day, I see the shares, photos of my murals, amazing captions and direct messages from folks that are truly heartwarming,” Rojas says. “I’ve seen this particular mural go around the world with ‘thank you’ messages from Johannesburg, Germany, and Italy. It really is humbling.”

Meyer says that kind of social media engagement shows how a mural can turn a plain old wall into a landmark. 

“Murals get seen,” he says. “People take photos and share them on social media. Nobody takes photos of your ugly white wall. Murals are the story of the local community.”

Nadja Sayej is an arts and culture journalist based in New York City.