The so-called “hipster lifestyle” of East London has sometimes been (fairly deservingly) lambasted for how out of touch it often seems with to be with economic reality. There’s the “Cereal Killers” store’s £2.60 small bowl of Shreddies. The confusingly named stores like “Triangle” and “Everything but the Dog” that decorate my local high street (neighbours to your more traditional East End betting shops and that poorly disguised brothel). The pet shops that sell luxuries for pampered pooches and kittens at a price that plenty of people would think twice about spending on themselves. Everything is given an artisanal, instagrammable feel, the kind of instant consumerism that seems at once so aesthetically pleasing and heart-wrenchingly vacuous.
Newspaper articles talk about communities under siege from the mustache-twirling, glasses-wearing, often-beard-having. A Hackney Citizen article, from a few years ago, suggested that residents are locked in ‘a battle for Clapton’s soul’. Of course, nostalgia for the East End – as it was just a decade ago – has that rose-tinted feel which suggests people have forgotten the seedier, rougher aspects of places that were given affectionate nicknames like “Murder Mile”. My mum has an anecdote that she tells (with alarming fondness) about how I used to inquisitively poke my fingers through the bullet holes in a glass storefront window on my way to primary school. Now that same shop sells organic fruit, local veg and an assortment of healthy snacks suitable for the vegan and non-gluten consumer. In Hackney, the statistics of crime, congestion, education and pollution have all improved over the last ten years as the borough has become more gentrified and this is the reason that gentrification is sometimes controversially incorporated into urban planning schemes.
The heart of the problem with gentrification is that, while it appears to solve endemic sociological problems, it does so by the displacement of those in lower income brackets. If you can’t keep up with the rising house prices or surging local costs then, inevitably, those who do not meet the economic standards are squeezed out. Traditionally, gentrification happens in impoverished or neglected areas where there is a potential for profitable investment (since this has fallen behind the rest of the city or region). An increase in culture and art, in an area, is inevitably accompanied by an influx of more residents (at first, those who are ostensibly bored with the tedium of suburbanization). This signals the start of “space” in this area becoming more valuable and thus increasingly commercial. As this progresses, eventually the creatives and artists who began the process will be “priced out” too; last year, the Guardian ran an article on ‘London creatives’, such as the photographer Jenny Lewis, who are being forced to move out of areas like Hackney.
This speaks to the ever-tenuous relationship between art, culture and profit which can only really co-existed for so long. Already, you can see this reflected in the steady growth of real estate agents, as if one spawns another and – emptied of the character of its East End origins and divorced from any artistic value of Gentrification – the future of Hackney, as nothing more than an investment portfolio and “good school” district, looms closer. A post-gentrified Hackney, no longer hipster “cool” in the way that it has been is so 2019 but, by that point, the damage has already been done – people will already be forcibly displaced, like the E5 mum’s who were told to “move to Hastings” when the Olympic development was underway. In times when the literal gentry was responsible for the land, and Henry VIII’s palace was where Lea Bridge Roundabout stands today, this might have had a more direct name: social cleansing.
Of course, this is a dirty, ugly term today that no one would ever cop to, but it exists nevertheless as the underlying result of foreign investment conglomerates, luxury high-rise developers and buy-to-let investors free reign. It happens when housing is treated as an investment opportunity rather than viable living space. All of this is exacerbated by the fact that the government does not seem to see social housing or affordability as a priority – and councils have been forced to sell properties in order to fund the “Right to Buy” scheme that has been criticized for it’s limited scope and failure to help those most in need. This is the track record of the Tories’ “Housing and Planning Bill” and, given the trajectory of government politics, it’s unlikely that social protection and housing welfare will see any progress in the coming years.
Ultimately, gentrification and its aftermath are more of an economic problem than a social one. It’s less about cocktails served in mason jars to hipsters, and far more about tax-dodging corporate holdings that should be subject to much greater scrutiny and regulation. There are even benefits to gentrification; merits to a safer, more eco-friendly and sociable area, but this needs to be shared by everyone, not just those who can afford it. And we’re still waiting for a blueprint that accomodates that need.
Words by Sunita Rai