While Londoners whine about gentrification, other cities long for it

The as-yet-ungentrified Little Maltings. Image: Niall Crowley.

A canal cuts through an urban landscape. It’s overlooked by angular facade of a Grade II listed Victorian brewery. It’s been sympathetically converted into loft apartments, live-work spaces and artist studios.

The canal bustles with life. Boats, barges, a floating bookshop, even a floating cocktail bar. Strollers, joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers and meanderers all negotiate their way along the narrow towpath. A strip of independent shops, cafes, bars and a theatre look out onto the park from the west. It’s a short 10 minute walk from the railway station; there’s even a canalside pub – The Bridge – with its own microbrewery.

It’s an urban success story. Or at least it would be, if it was London. The place I describe is Langley Green, a small village-like corner of the Black Country, a few miles north of Birmingham where I grew up. The theatre, the pub with the craft beers, the canal, the Grade II Victorian brewery are all there.

Or at least they were. 

Langley Maltings, was never transformed into loft apartments, as developers once promised. It’s now a burnt-out ruin, having twice been attacked by arsonists. The once-popular pub with the micro brewery closed its doors a couple of years ago, and has since been demolished. Only a part of the front elevation remains.

The only life the canal sees is the occasional dog-walker, and the high street, like many around the country, is in steady decline. The theatre and the cobblers (run by a father and son since the 50s or 60s) are thankfully, still there. 

It’s a world away from my adopted home of East London, where much-maligned hipsters and creatives have helped transform rundown areas where, not so long ago, few people wanted to live. The Regents Canal, on the edge of my estate, does bustle with life. Here, you can browse second-hand books and buy cocktails on canal barges. And the canal-side cafe does sell porridge for around £4 a bowl, though don’t tell that to Class War. 

Nearby Shoreditch Park, which borders “gentrified” Hoxton and Old Street, is well used and loved by locals, who come to meet up, read, hang out, picnic and play. Overlooking the park is not a Victorian brewery but the old Gainsborough film studios, now a gated apartment complex (which also overlooks the canal), where a one-bedroom flat will cost upwards of £500,000 and one of the newly-built townhouses on the other corner of the park start at £3m.

Many years ago I spent a weekend on the estate where I now live, visiting friends who were squatting in a tower-block. It was, and still is, a sprawling, ugly 1970s estate in a then unfashionable area.

Back then many of the flats lay empty, which is why the local authority eventually allowed squatters, including my friends, to take up legal residency. Now it seems everybody wants to live here. In gentrified east London, even this dreary old estate is now de rigueur.

Only there would you  find, say, a young Japanese fashion student living next door to a born-and-bred London postman; hear the sound of  a violin rehearsal waft in through an open window, while your neighbour’s hip hop tunes vibrate through the walls.

Here, the kid spraying graffiti all over the lift works for the props department of the production company filming on the estate, and the stage play showing at the local ‘community centre’ is sponsored by the Royal Court and stars two Oscar-winning actors. Here, there’s always somewhere new to go, something new to do. You can eat, drink or dance most times of the day or night, any day of the week. 

Still, some people complain about hipsters, “greedy” developers, social cleansing and about gentrification. When I returned to live in Dalston a few years ago, after a period away from London, I was stunned by how much the place had changed and by how vastly improved it was. “Wow! Hasn’t Dalston changed?” I said, in wonder to a member of staff at the trendy new Curve Garden.

I was equally stunned by his negative take. “It’s not all that bad.” he groaned. Maybe people have short memories? Or maybe those doing the complaining were in fact the previous generation of gentrifiers who now want to lift the drawbridge on the rest of us?

In Langley Green, where I happened to be when anti-gentrification protesters attacked the Cereal Killer cafe in Shoreditch, people don’t complain about hipsters, gentrification or rising house prices. And they definitely don’t complain about overpriced cereal bars.

But I wish they did. If moustachioed  hipsters and creatives were opening oddball coffee shops and floating cocktail bars; if developers were breathing new life into old Victorian breweries, then I suspect people in Langley, and other rundown parts of the country would welcome them as a sign of some much-needed economic dynamism.

For what underpins the revival of former undesirable areas of London is the city’s relative economic success over recent years. Now the rest of the country needs an economic revival. And that won’t happen without massive investment in new industrial sectors and large-scale infrastructure projects.

When that happens, maybe people in the rest of the country will have the luxury of complaining about their high streets being filled with art galleries, brasseries and overpriced cereal cafes. 

Niall Crowley is a writer, designer and former bar-owner based in London. He is speaking at “Gentrify this! The pros and cons of urban development” at the Battle of Ideas festival on 18 October at the Barbican.

CityMetric is a media partner for the festival.


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.