Words like “gentrification” and “regeneration” are no longer fit for purpose. We should stop using them

The Heygate, Elephant & Castle: one of London's more controversial estate regeneration schemes. Image: Getty.

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.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.