Let’s Talk About Gentrification


When the term was first coined by Ruth Glass in the 1960s, gentrification referred to the absence of housing opportunities. (1) What occurred was the migration of the rich to “deteriorated urban neighbourhoods” in light of new luxury property, cafes and redeveloped public spaces, and the “displacement of lower-income families and small businesses.” (2)

The word is “vilified by many for the displacement of the poor, the influx of speculative investors, the proliferation of chain stores, the destruction of neighbourhood authenticity; praised by others for the improvement of school standards and public safety, the fall in crime rates and the arrival of bike lanes, street markets and better parks.” (3)

It is almost impossible to discuss property or contemporary cities without the word gentrification being used to explain the deep social division and exclusion. (1) However, in recent times, the symptoms of gentrifications go beyond this. Nowadays, gentrification is synonymous with a hipster holding a Starbucks in a converted art gallery. Take the hipster restaurant Cereal Killer, for example, which sells bowls of cereal for 4 pounds in a borough where “thousands of families can’t afford to feed their children.” (4) Shortly after it opened, “Riot police were called in to defend [the cafe] in Shoreditch after it was targeted by a large crowd of anti-gentrification activists.” (5) Despite this, the counter argument goes that instead of trying to “build empires,” hipsters are “just the latest stylisation that fits perfectly with the rediscovery of the (economic) value of place.” (6)

However, regardless of the word’s newfound connotations, the issue of gentrification began long before hipsters did. Jeanne Haffner notes, “The process of displacement of society’s poorest members is, of course, not a new thing. You can trace it back centuries, to a time when there was a literal gentry responsible for social cleansing; when the bailiffs were on horseback and “artisanal” was a descriptor of a pre-industrial social class, rather than vogueish hipster branding.” (7)

Dan Hancox agrees in that it isn’t the hipsters that are ruining our cities, it’s the property developers. (1) Take Portland Road for example, which now boasts “multi-million pound houses, three-stories high.” Neighbouring the new developments lie a “beauty spa, a wine bar and a gallery selling artworks that cost tens of thousands of pounds.” It’s difficult to believe that this used to be “one of the worst slums in London.” (8)

Fears about the scale of rising housing prices in London are growing, which has prompted Sadiq Khan to “launch the UK’s most comprehensive inquiry into the impact of foreign investment flooding London’s housing market.” (9) The extent of the topic was highlighted by the Guardian earlier this year, when news was revealed of how a “50-storey block of 214 luxury apartments by the river Thames in Vauxhall was more than 60% owned by foreign buyers. In one of the starkest examples of the impact of foreign investment, it found that a quarter of the flats were held by companies in secretive offshore tax havens, and many were unoccupied.” (9)

It seems as though the general topic of gentrification is heating up amongst Londoners, but is excluding those it affects most. For example, Amal, “a victim of domestic violence and now a single mother, lives with her three young children in grimy temporary accommodation in Tooting, south London.” (4) A response to her borough’s housing crisis [was] “to spend £5m on properties for poorer families, hundreds of miles away, while across the borough, the Meccano scaffolds rose up for the £15bn development in Nine Elms, where most flats will cost more than £1m.” (4)

Perhaps less focus is needed on hipsters and property developers, and more focus is needed on providing better solutions, because what once was an “academic argument” has now become “the people’s protest.” (4)

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  1. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/28/hipsters-property-developers-gentrification-cereal-killer-cafe
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gentrification
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2023/sep/29/gentrification-global-problem-better-solution-oliver-wainwright
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2023/jan/12/gentrification-argument-protest-backlash-urban-generation-displacement
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/sep/27/shoreditch-cereal-cafe-targeted-by-anti-gentrification-protesters
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/sep/13/hipsters-artists-gentrifying-capitalism
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2023/jan/12/gentrification-argument-protest-backlash-urban-generation-displacement
  8. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18394017
  9. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2023/sep/29/london-mayor-sadiq-khan-inquiry-foreign-property-ownership

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