Chrisp Street Market shows that London is finally fighting back against gentrification

Chrisp Street Market from above. Image: Loopzilla/Flickr/creative commons.

Gentrification started as a concept in a small sub-section of urban studies in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, it’s a major issue touching the lives of people in cities around the world.

It tends to be the residents of large, global hubs who are suffering the worst effects of gentrification, including displacement. But locals are quickly learning how to resist proposals they don’t agree to – and reclaim the city they call home.

In London, the tide of gentrification is moving rapidly eastwards. Canary Wharf has become the city’s – and indeed, the nation’s – financial engine, making billions for the traders that operate there. Shoreditch has moved beyond “edgy” and become pretentious. And the 2012 Olympic Games transformed Stratford into a playground for the wealthy, attracting institutions as diverse as Westfield, University College London and the V&A to the area.

This massive influx of wealth is radically changing the demographic of these areas – and campaigns such as Focus E15 and the Balfron Social Club have sprung up to defend the rights of East London natives. These campaigns, and many more across the capital, argue that local councils and housing associations have switched priorities, from providing housing for working-class communities, to allowing developers to “beautify” neighbourhoods and build more private homes to attract wealthier residents.

East End oasis

The Grade II–listed Chrisp Street Market Clock Tower, designed by Frederick Gibberd as part the 1951 Festival of Britain celebrations. Image: author’s own.

Chrisp Street Market, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, is the latest outpost of the struggle against gentrification. As the UK’s oldest purpose-built market, it’s a site of historical significance and a major hub for the local community. The market has a cluster of traditional East End amenities such as community pubs, hardware stores, independent retailers and pie shops, and a multi-cultural demographic. It’s an oasis of authentic London culture, against a growing skyline of new build, luxury towers.

In July 2016, the site’s owners – housing association Poplar Harca – put forward plans to redevelop the market into high-end retail outlets, with added housing and leisure facilities. According to the plan, existing traders would be moved out while construction took place, but have a right to return with stepped increases in rent after 12 months “based on affordability” – an approach which Londoners have learned to regard with suspicion.

When I spoke to traders on the site as part of my current research, they said they had not been told what the new rate would be – even though some had leases up for renewal. Others were informed that they needed to find new ways of making money, so as to afford to stay.

The new plans didn’t replace the car park, a blow for those who come to the market to buy a week’s worth of goods. And the new development offered a meagre increase in the number of social housing units at the site – from 124 to 129. An unspecified amount of the 649 new builds would be “affordable”, which actually means 80 per cent of market rates.

A small number of traders supported the plans outright – mostly those who had moved into the market recently. Those who resisted were not pushing back against the idea of redevelopment – many agreed that the area was overdue some improvements. It was the widespread confusion, and the perceived lack of transparency from Poplar Harca, which seemed problematic – especially in light of other development projects, such as Robin Hood Gardens and the Balfron Tower, which had brought about large-scale displacement of existing residents.

In the shadow of Balfron Tower. Image: m-lodious/Flickr/creative commons.

At a planning consultation meeting in February 2018, these points were put to Poplar Harca – and many local residents felt they hadn’t received satisfactory answers. Local councillors voted to put the project “on hold”, while Poplar Harca revised its proposal. Neal Hunt, the director of development at Poplar Harca, was disappointed:

We are at a loss to understand the council’s Strategic Development Committee deferring its decision regarding the desperately needed homes, shops and jobs that this project would provide. Especially as it means the potential loss of grant funding for affordable homes. We have been working closely with local traders, residents, shoppers and the council for over eight years. Everything we’ve been told is reflected in the proposals: indeed, the council’s officers strongly recommended approval. Our discussions continue.

Taking a stand

It’s a small victory to the traders – and one that I don’t think would have been possible a few years ago. They won the day by coming together as a united body and soliciting the help of other groups and activists in East London. They mobilised early on in the planning process, to share information, legal advice and tactics for navigating confusing consultation exercises.

The market contains a mix of independent retail outlets and housing. Image: author’s own.

This kind of strategic engagement has also brought other large-scale development projects in the capital to a halt. Earlier this year, the Haringey Development Vehicle was stopped because of local collective action. And the redevelopment of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre was ”deferred“, not least because of the intense campaigning by local community groups, and the student occupation of the London College of Communication – a key stakeholder in the development proposals.

The ConversationTales of development in London – and other major cities – can have a happier ending. When it comes to Chrisp Street, the story has certainly changed. Strategic mobilisation and collective will have protected this pocket of social and cultural activity in the Poplar area. These efforts, and others like them, prove that East End, working-class culture is as much a part of London’s future as its past.

Oli Mould, Lecturer in Human Geography, Royal Holloway.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


 

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.