Wrestling with Gentrification
The estate agents have been circling, and a few people sent a link my way, knowing it would ignite a theme that they knew would end up with me writing a piece that would inevitably make no attempt to ground an argument, and instead offered my own externalised version of a discussion that I have been wrestling internally. Thanks to Matt Thompson, and latterly Oliver Cox as catalysts for this
The article they sent me from the evening standard, was about my own neighbourhood, Brixton, and included this passage
Charlotte Ryder, 21, said Brixton Market was one of the main reasons she chose to move to the area after graduating in politics last year.
She said that she was instantly attracted by the “multi-cultural and friendly” atmosphere, as well as the vibrant nightlife and transport links.
Miss Ryder, an associate campaign executive for Diffusion PR, said: “I’ve just got back from Thailand and Brixton Market really reminds me of it.
Apparently the neighbourhood is now the go-to place for those who want to pretend their gap-yah never ended. The area is becoming an attractive inner London dormitory for London’s young professionals.The problem I have with that is that I am both one of them and they are also everything I hate. The case for- I moved to Brixton 2 years ago with 2.1 from a Russell group university, a job in an ad agency, a vintage trenchcoat, and ray-bans reading glasses. The case against- I grew up down the road in a one-bed flat in Streatham with no central heating and my single mother surviving on benefits. I am also mixed-race, (white/afro carribean) though this is less important to the story here in Brixton or in London as it is in neighbourhoods in the US where this has been happening– though not irrelevant.
I wrote a piece last year, berating many of the more long standing members of the community for not using these new facilities- my own response to the three young men, two black and one white who walked through Granville laughing and shouting ‘this is Brixton, where the fuck have all the black people gone?’. But for many long-standing residents what they seek when they have an unstable life is stability. The constant novelty and change, and the pace and way in which it has taken place in the neighbourhood has not brought the community along with them. The constant novelty and change panders to a new influx who seek it as a counterpoise to their stable white collar world- it is not being done in a way that feels expansive, inclusive or ambitious for all.Charlotte Ryder is my current bete noire. But the pull quote above reflects my same desire to move here. Maybe that’s why in my head I have vilified a 21 year old who I don’t even know. I grew up in South London, and to me, that always was the real London. And coming in with my middle class job and wage and predisposition towards interesting music nights, eclectic restaurants and locally sourced food, I knew that these things would be there already in the community here, not in a sanitised, pre-packaged form, neatened up with the kind of shabby-chic, easily digestible pastiche of ‘realness’ that characterises so many other ‘edgy’ places.
I used to shop in the market for mangoes as a child, I used to convince bouncers to let me into Drum and Bass nights when I was 16 at Mass and Fridge and BugBar. Grandparents and Great-grandparents of mine had lived here when they first came over and got off the boat. I felt (still feel) very attached to the community. I didn’t want to move here for farmers markets and pop-up dining experiences. I wanted somewhere on the tube where there was a market and some vibrancy and most importantly there weren’t people like me. The traditional
professional dormitories such as Clapham and Balham or Finsbury Park in the north, or even 9in fact, especially) the Bow-Soho adland fixed-gear commuter corridor had little attraction. How can I ever possibly improve at a job that demands that I understand how to sell trainers to 16 year old kids on estates one day and the emotional connection between housewives in the midlands and their condiments the next if I spend my whole time surrounded by a liberal mono-culture. On a personal level, it may be what I look like, or what I do, but it isn’t who I am or where I have come from, or for that matter even, where I want to be. I want to go into the local pub and talk to retired builders, ex-cons, bankers and shop clerks and everyone inbetween. I don’t just want to talk to PR girls, graphic designers and corporate lawyers that dress like them.
So how do I feel? Conflicted. Excited to see a new area on the rise, especially one that I have always felt so close to, but apprehensive about how unevenly that rise is happening, with quality of life rocketing for some, and others feeling shut out of the party. The ‘Charlotte Ryder’* idea of a multicultural neighbourhood is a restaurant filled with clones but just enough colour beyond the plate glass to make it seem ‘real’.
Not much more than a decade or two ago, those on middle class wages were fleeing to the suburbs and beyond as fast as they could, leaving behind those who could not afford to flee. So many of these communities did what they could do get through as best as they could, studiously ignored by councils and governments. Open a couple restaurants and suddenly the flow reverses, and in run all the kind of people who would have turned their back on a neighbourhood like this even three years ago. And in they come, pricing out locals, alienating rather than integrating, as if to say, ‘Thanks for holding the fort, but you poor people can all fuck off now.’
*apologies to Charlotte Ryder for becoming my own Milquetoast or Mitty for the purposes of this piece…
Consumption and citizenship
Raiding trainer stores, stealing mobile phones, smashing into money stores and pawn shops. As many of the ‘string them up’ lobby has been pointing out online, these people are not stealing to survive. But this is not an audacious raid on Gucci. They have not been forming up in Knightsbridge to try and gain the baubles of the very elite. Nor are they stealing bread to feed their families. What is being stolen are the very middle-class comfortable, quietly aspirational things that we are told now to accept as norms. All the images of life we are bombarded with are of lower middle class to middle class comfort. It is what we should all expect- we are all stakeholders and we are all middle class now, or so we are told. But of course that isn’t the case, and these middle class paradigms of consumption that we are all meant to hold ourselves up to are unfair when actually, we don’t see the Shadow Britain for whom these aspirations aren’t only just out of reach, but a long way.
As marketers, we trade in dissatisfaction- we show people how things can help you self actualise. We actively encourage what Eric Fromm refers to as a ‘having’ mode of existence, rather than a ‘being’ mode. More and more sophisticated marketing encourages individuals to buy, under the assumption that the normative values that, if you want this, you will then have to save, or borrow or work more in order to have. We are in that respect, a pumping circulatory organ of capitalism.
The nature of what these looters have stolen the banal ‘dream small’ nature of stealing phones or non-generic branded tracksuits shows the sucess of our industry. It shows us that advertising has touched these people when society hasn’t. They have the normative values of consumption, without the normative values of what we term civil society. The Pax Accumsan relies on having both these sets of norms- I want those trainers and I will get them through socially and judicially legitimate means. If we all had simply the want impulse, we would be as beasts. Which is the sad thing because ultimately, however much self actualisation we sell, underneath it all is an appeal to the worse side of all our human nature, the selfishness rather than the compassion. But that makes the world go round.
The problem is, that without the societal norms as well as the capitalist/accumulative norms we essentially have South Park’s underpants gnomes, but with bricks and crowbars, and if society can’t reach them, then maybe as responsible marketers we need to be teaching both. A friend of mine commented that ‘The London rioters are teenagers rebelling against the only parent they’ve ever really had: the State.’ Actually I would argue that they are listening to the only guardian or parent they have had, consumption. And unless they engage with society as well as shopping, they only have step one and step three…
Reflecting on the London Riots
Many people have been guilty of a vast misjudgement. This blog has already somewhat missed the point in posts earlier this year that bragged of integration, regeneration and the cultural vibrancy of Britain and the capital in particular. Though an article ten days ago here covered the other side, a warning as to what could happen if the wealth and increase and cultural exchange in London is not inclusive, the post was both prophetic and too late. There is an alternative London, an alternative Britain that co-exists in the same space at the same time, yet is never seen, a shadow nation completely disenfranchised from society. And it is the ignorance of the chattering classes, a complacent and misplaced belief that everything is getting better for everyone that has created this.
Everything has got better for some people, and so relative deprivation has increased. Those who have not been included in the wealth creation that Britian has seen are also those who have no voice, who lack the articulacy to find one and the channels through which to express it. I cannot condone looting, but I think I can understand it. If you can feel so marginalised that society, which we all need to partake in in some capacity for it to function, it in your mind something for other people, then why would you not simply take to the streets in this directionless outcry. It’ll ruin your job prospects- so what? You will go to jail- so what? It’s not the done thing- all my friends think it is! If that is the mindset, then there is nothing left to lose. They have nothing, or rather they feel like they have nothing. Why should they be expected to rally round civil society when they feel that civil society has nothing to offer them. When a job is about nothing but money and has nothing to do with pride or purpose, why would you bother unless your rich or famous in working one. The most eloquent image for that is the girl in the Curry’s uniform outside the Brixton branch where she worked, arrested for looting.
Frankly it shatters so many of my myths about progressive, multicultural, cross class London- if the urban poor are feeling so disconnected, if the trickle down effect is such a lie, then we have serious issues- people are dissatisfied and so inarticulate and angry and disconnected from what we call societies norms that instead, for want of an eloquent way to express themselves, they have taken to the streets stealing from the most obvious symbols of what they believe is fucking them up- the shops and the chain stores and the retailers selling the things they are trained to want and can barely have. It’s very very sad that we have created a situation where this level of opportunistic criminality is acceptable. What kind of level of disenfranchisement, voicelessness, hopelessness and frustration leads people to think that that kind of behaviour is okay. We have a serious problem on our hands and it isn’t one that is going to be fixed by water cannon and a glazers bill….
I was in my local pub in brixton the other day and there was a guy braying that there was no recession in London and it made my blood boil. Go and tell that to the kids on the estates, go and tell that to the almost 20% of under 25s who are unemployed. The criminality is unforgivable and they must take responsibility for their actions But part of the cause was our collective complacency and we all need to face up to what we need to do to stop allowing people to be marginalised. And stop calling them chavs scum or thugs, if they are this, then we gave them the opportunity and often the title for them to live up to- it is a smug, nonconstructive and over simplistic view. And how do I feel about this as a planner? Just maybe, maybe we have added too much fuel to the fire of consumption and it has reached some kind of flashpoint?
Regeneration and disconnection
Apologies for a very UK-centric post, international readers, please get me on @alouneou to clarify any too-obscure UK references.
I live in Brixton. Prior to this, I lived in Norbury, and before that, from the age of 6 months, (the age I moved over from West Palm Beach FLA – yes I am technically American) I grew up in Streatham. Barring an intervening three years in a second string British city for university, I have spent my entire life in London, a city which completely skews ones view of the British Isles (here), but also one of the most multicultural, amorphous, evolving places in the world. Urban renewal has done London well- the city arguably could have become a donut by the end of the 80s- save for the City of London itself, but investment in the 90s gave London another chance. Inner city areas that were once no-go areas have become desirable places to live. But this economic narrative isn’t what this post is concerned with.
I suppose this is the point where I set out my stall, and possibly make what could be seen as an incredibly awkward conversation. For the record I am of mixed descent (or for our American audience Anglo-Jamaico-scottish-Irish-Puerto-Costa-Arawak-Londonish) so in some ways, and probably wrongly so, it partially absolves me of the the misconstruction that some may build of this.
I was going for lunch one afternoon in Brixton Market, where a previously derelict section has turned into a vibrant, multi-use commercial space, thanks to London’s largest renewal project, initially kickstarted by Spacemakers. Craft shops, artists and photographers and designers studios and a lot of very cheap, very very good restaurants have sprung up, and in the last year, you can see the Saturday afternoon North London ‘tourists’ down to check the place out.
This is undoubtedly a good thing. But a group of three guys, two black and one white came walking through while I was having lunch, and one of them turned round and shouted, part to his friends, part to himself, and part to those of us around ‘Where have all the black people gone- I thought this was Brixton. What the fuck?’ And in fairness, he had a point of sorts…
Brixton was, along with Notting Hill (!) one of the areas in the 50s and 60s that the Black community settled in. In 1981, it was the first place on mainland Britain to have petrolbombs thrown during the riots against police oppression of the community, and it has always been an important touchstone for black Britain. Yet almost all of those dining and milling around were white middle class. My first reply would be that the businesses were run by the local community, of all colours, and in a proportion far more reflective of the community. But why wasn’t this regeneration of the market being used by all the residents, rather than the new influx of those from Mosaic’s ‘Urban Intelligence’ section of the population. It wasn’t cost- It isn’t expensive. To eat at most of these places costs the same as a chicken based meal from a reputable ( or disreputable) outlet. Even if you prefer takeaway, surely you want to try something new?
Apparently not is the answer. And I think of our exasperated individual in the market’s question should have been ‘where are all the less socio-economically well off people?’ There is a serious fallacy in the idea of social mobility if we have a culture where, though the museums are free, it is primarily the middle classes who benefit. Or where you can get a 5 poundtheatre ticket to see world-class actors at the NT, but still, every time I go, the audience is the same combination of 50-somethings and drama-school kids. This is a theatre that sits in Lambeth, one of London’s most deprived boroughs. What are we doing to make sure we don’t just make sure doors are open, but that people want to, and feel they can, walk through? If we don’t, we are going to have an uneasy detente with areas like Brixton, or Hackney, or Shepherds Bush or any other place where we are seeing a migration by young professionals back to these lively, gritty, vibrant urban centres, and one that could flare up as we face a long hard grind out of this recession. We are being told that London is a world-leading cultural hub, I just hope it can be that way for everyone.