Gentrification: Is Our Art & Coffee Costing The Neighbourhood?

Welcomed by many, but not by all: pop-up food stall on Chatsworth Road.
Welcomed by many, but not by all: a pop-up food stall on Clapton’s changing Chatsworth Road.

“It is at best a misunderstanding, and at worst a harmful lie, to portray the cultural sector as an ally of low-income groups. Campaigners against gentrification should resist every art gallery, craft workshop, or new media centre. The first art gallery in a working-class neighbourhood is a sure sign, that gentrification is imminent. “Keep them out, or they will push you out”, is the message for residents.”

(P Treanor)

POLEMIC DISCLAIMER: Hackney Tours frequents galleries, coffee shops and restaurants too. This article is an attempt to stimulate the complex conversations that we need so that change can be managed well; by and for all of us. The borough belongs to everyone that lives here.

Regeneration and gentrification: words that spark strong emotions. In Berlin they spark more than that as residents in certain areas burn cars in protest at perceived invasion by Yuppies (yes, they still use this word). The opening quote in this post, found on the internet, refers directly to the case study in gentrification that is international Berlin’s uber-hip Prenzlauerberg. Here, the trendy boutiques of Kastanienallee have long since replaced spartan shops and basic housing for citizens of the now-defunct German Democratic Republic.

Hackney is not Berlin but it shares similarities that go beyond hosting the same street artists or the Stoke-Newington-as-Prenzlauerberg fertility statistic comparisons; a glance at some of the online comments under any newspaper article on Clapton’s Chatsworth Road confirms that forceful opinions on urban change are held in this part of the world too.

Regeneration and gentrification are not the same: the former is theoretically neutral whereas the G-word signifies a displacement of the local population by wealthier newcomers. Is the cycle of gentrification an inevitable consequence of the economic system and the ownership of property? Is it progress, as would argue  the official who accused local campaigners of wanting to “Keep Hackney crap”? Or is it economic cleansing? And – by virtue of structural inequality in this country – ethnic cleansing too?

That sounds strong until you’ve heard multiple members of the Black community talk about being squeezed out and noted the change in ownership of bars, shops etc. So, should it be stopped – or at least moderated – by measures like rent control or zoning policies?

When French town planning pioneer Baron Von Haussman drove his boulevards across Paris for Napoleon III in the late 1800s, his cronies benefited from a more overt form of economic cleansing than might be at play here in 2013. There wasn’t much liberté, égalité or fraternité when the rebellious poor of Paris were moved on to locations like Pigalle and Montmartre to create the wide streets that are so admired today.

From Bow to Berlin, Barcelona to Belleville (pictured here) - it's happening.
From Bow to Berlin, Barcelona to Belleville (pictured here) – same same but different.

But as Hackney becomes increasingly en vogue itself, it seems ‘inevitable’ that people will be pushed further out in a mode that is much less dramatic but just as final. Walthamstow Village is reputed to be ‘on the up’ as people contemplate the geographical and psychological jump over the River Lea. Further east, cheaper housing may offset a move closer to the suburban hinterland that Dame Margaret Drabble railed at in the 1960s.

But given there were practically no houses in Clapton 140 years ago – just twice your Grandmother’s lifespan – the idea that the way issues like this are ‘eternal’ and ‘inevitable’ and can’t ever be challenged or amended seems incredibly fatalistic – especially in a borough known for innovation.

Berlin’s Prenzlauerberg is a much discussed example of west-east migration by coolhunters with cash in the pocket and an eye on a bargain, though the reason for its previous unpopularity was not the lack of trains or an association with poverty but a barrier that was more concrete in every sense – the Berlin Wall. Its fall led to big changes and a row recently broke out about southern Germans buying up a so-called Swabian enclave in this once unglamorous GDR workers’ quarter.

But in the globalised world this is no longer even just an intra-city or even inter-city phenomenon: it’s been said that rich foreigners are displacing wealthy West Londoners, who are in turn moving to the once unthinkable East. The prevailing winds in Western Europe blow eastwards so it’s no coincidence that traditionally immigrants and factory workers lived by their place of work in previously down at heel areas like Hackney, Tower Hamlets or Newham.

We can all tut and say what a shame it is for those who’re moved on as the cool factor rachets up rents like it has in Dalston, but what can actually be done to moderate the effect of market forces and property-based wealth accumulation on the lives of ordinary people? Googling this, I came across the quote at the head of this article, urging residents to resist the changes that begin with a coffee shop or an art gallery and end with £6 burgers and babycinos.

Under pieces reporting the gentrification of places like Washington DC, I found other citizen pundits alleging that it’s this very same ‘conspicuous consumption’ that drives the commercial juggernaut of gentrification.

Ironically, street art like this one critiquing Capitalism only makes an area 'cooler', inflating rents. What would Adorno say?
Ironically, street art like this one critiquing Capitalism only makes an area ‘cooler’, inflating rents. What would Adorno say?

By providing a demand for the new restaurants, cafes and shops that will eventually effect the rebranding of an area – resulting in higher rents and property prices as landlords cash in – many of us are unwitting agents of gentrification, they say. New businesses only come because of the people who patronise them.

By eating out as much as we do, one voice claimed, we drive a form of consumerism that results in the revaluing of our neighbourhood at the cost of its poorer residents. This very morning, watching three big delivery trucks park outside a Hackney Central supermarket at 6.30am, I thought of our expansive tastes and the exotic provenance of many of our foods today.

So what are the answers? Local currencies that keep the money close to home? More regulation? A limit on the number of galleries in a borough? A system of tokens that restricts how many times per week we eat out or buy coffee in the spaces that allegedly promote change?

The idea of tokens seems to be some kind of outrageous Stalinist restriction of civil liberties at first glance. But if we encourage people to consume less in terms of fuel, why not in other areas, it has been suggested?

Those who are desperate to eat out more could, it has been argued, buy credit from those don’t have the money to visit restaurants in the first place, in a wealth-redistribution that mirrors proposals for carbon trading? It’s an extreme, but then so is the laissez-faire approach of allowing markets to dictate our lives.

Never stop dreaming...
Never stop dreaming in East London…

In a city where the notion of eventual house purchase still rules, but the bottom rung on the housing ladder recedes further and further into the plane-filled clouds, aren’t caps and controls on buy-to-let long overdue?

Who needs more than one house, right? But, says a businessman friend, don’t you know that buy-to-let stimulated a stagnant market and has helped London prosper? These are, as ever, complex questions in the evolving city landscape.

This Sunday at London urbanism festival This Is Not A Gateway (TINAG), many of these issues will be debated, along with questions about how the Olympics have or haven’t regenerated East London and how the ownership of space is changing.

In Artists Behind the Wall: Regeneration Games in Olympic East London Hackney Tours will be asking academic Sarah Scarsbrook whether artists were deliberately deployed by shrewd property developers to reinvigorate the pre-Olympic Hackney Wick. And what their role will be in the future? But the conversation will doubtless expand into a bigger debate on where our city is going. I’ll be playing the part of the big bad gentrifier.

In Berlin, protective residents leave direct anti-'Yuppie' graffiti. How long they themselves have been there, we don't know...
In Berlin, protective residents leave direct anti-‘Yuppie’ graffiti. How long they themselves have been resident, we don’t know…

“The truth is that ‘artists’ (in a general sense) have been the prime agents of gentrification in east Berlin, above all in Prenzlauer Berg. It was a classic case of new cafes and art/cultural centres, including some squats, in run-down industrial buildings. Now the area has risen in status, the ‘artists’ are indeed being displaced by the bankers and civil servants, because the area is convenient for the new Government zone around the Reichstag.”

There is no Reichstag in Hackney. But post-2012, seminars for investors refer to East London ‘cool’ alongside brochure references to new assets like ‘Europe’s most connected building’, on the Hackney edge of the Olympic Park in a better connected East that’s only two hours or so from Paris.

Across the Hackney Cut, ‘Europe’s highest concentration of artists’ face an uncertain future in the Victorian warehouses where the previous avant garde, pioneers of industry not art, invented petrochemical products and processes like plastic and dry cleaning.

The last was invented by a Frenchman. Back in 1800s Paris, zoning mastermind Von Haussman was eventually dismissed for financial irregularities; an expression comes to mind: plus ca change.

But if we can learn from history, if the economy picks up and the Stratford area booms in an Olympic Legacy-based uplift that currently appears to exist only on PowerPoint presentations, maybe the artists of Hackney Wick can ride out the gentrification wave and stay where they are. And maybe London, maybe those who are not valued as ‘agents of gentrification’, will be able to take something from that.

(Copyright Hackney Tours 2013. Find us on Facebook or @hackneytours on Twitter)

If you’d like to come and hear the talk, have your say, throw in an idea or just generally be part of the ongoing conversation, please come down to the Bishopsgate Institute library at 5.30pm Sunday 27th January, where This Is Not A Gateway runs all weekend. It’s free (donations welcome). We can’t promise you answers, but we can promise you some interesting questions. We hope many of you will have your own ideas on this big subject.

If you’d like to explore these changes yourself, add your name to the list for the next (Spring) Olympic Borderlands walking tour. Please email us at hackneytours@gmail.com so we can let you know.

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