Are artists the shock troops of gentrification – or just another of its victims?

Carradale House, with Balfron Tower behind it. Image: vasilissdimos/Wikimedia Commons.

Editor's note: This article draws heavily on the work of the housing writer Dawn Foster, particularly this article in the Guardian. We are happy to make this clear.

Balfron Tower looms over Poplar like only a 1960s brutalist tower block can. To some, it is a work of art in itself, bold and uncompromising.

The block of modernist flats was designed by Ernő Goldfinger for the London County Council in 1963. Today it is owned by Social Landlord Poplar HARCA, who took over ownership of Balfron Tower following a ballot of residents in 2006.

Poplar HARCA originally undertook to bring all of the dwellings in the estate up to the last Labour government’s “decent homes” standard. In 2015, however, it was announced that the properties in the Grade II listed building were to be sold as luxury flats.

Residents of the block were decanted during the refurbishments, and artists occupied the tower in their place. It was an example of what Mark Aeling, owner of MGA Sculpture Studio and president of the St Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District Association (WADA), describes as “art washing”: a phenomenon in which artists are used to increase the attractiveness of an area and the value of properties.

A Balfron Tower Redevelopment Video posted on YouTube in July 2014 by the Balfron Social Club, which campaigns on behalf of social residents, shows the plans for redevelopment. They include a cocktail bar and cinema. The video makes no mention of where the former social tenants will live.

Hannah Nicklin was one of these artists – a “storyteller in residence… as part of the Social Housing Arts Network working alongside Poplar HARCA”, according to her website. On Twitter, the Balfron Social Club accused her of art washing.

In a blog post response, Nicklin said that artists “sometimes work with partners within communities and the world in general… who are playing a damaging role in the lives of many of those same communities”. She also went onto say that “Art and artists often plays a role in gentrification”.

In other words, artists are being co-opted to facilitate gentrification. The presence of artists in Balfron Tower during its transformation from social housing to luxury flats appears to be a natural part of the process. Londoners are familiar with abandoned factories becoming galleries or studios, and then luxury homes. Grayson Perry has described artists as the “shock troops of gentrification”.

But are they benefiting from the changes to the social fabric of London? Or they also the victims of rising property prices, as much as the social housing tenants?

Aside from a few household names, the majority of artists do not have a large income. It is therefore necessary for them to locate where accommodation and studio space is cheap. This movement of artists is a reflection of pressures that rising rents in London are putting on creative industry workers.


Artists have also been inspired by social housing, even if they are not themselves social housing residents. In 2007, Catherine Yass filmed tightrope-walker Didier Pasquette’s attempt to cross the 45-metre gap between the two blocks of Red Road Estate in Glasgow. In 2010, the residents of Balfron Tower featured in Simon Terrill's Balfron Project. From the use of Thamesmead in A Clockwork Orange to Jonathan Meade’s documentary on brutalism, social housing has inspired many works of art. The relationship between artists and social housing goes beyond the need to find affordable space.

Do artists benefit from the process of gentrification? When organisations like Poplar HARCA offer space to artists, it is understandable that they accept it, even if these spaces had formerly belonged to social housing residents.

So the relationship between artists and property owners is a complex one, because artists depend upon support from companies and on cheap housing. Their presence changes the perception of an area, adds value to the assets of property owners – and eventually makes the space unaffordable for artists themselves.

“It’s a vehicle,” WADA’s Mark Aeling said. “[Artists] don’t generally have economic resources, they have creativity. Their energies often get utilised and they, to be honest, get taken advantage of.”

Artists are very much a part of gentrification, and it is understandable why residents who are concerned about rising rents are wary of artists moving into an area. But artists are often as much the victims of gentrification as the benefactors, as rising property prices threaten their livelihoods.

The artists will leave Balfron Tower when the work is finished. Like so many of the capital’s residents, they will continue their migration further east in search of affordable properties. But there is no guarantee that they will be able to find anywhere to re-establish their community.

And why not buy Dawn Foster's book, Lean Out?

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What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.