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London Urban Gentrification, a Scourge or Progress? – A Personal Perspective by Lawrence Hair

  • Blog
  • 15th October 2014
  • By Lawrence Hair
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For a growing number of South Londoners ‘Gentrification’ has become a filthy word; associated with overpriced coffee outlets, gastropubs and purveyors of vintage furniture. Locals feeling isolated in their own community and losing a shared sense of identity as older businesses are pushed out by soaring rent prices; drops in trade due to new clientele is just the beginning. What seems like a relentless steamroller effect of middle class culture from zone 1 to 3 is tightening its choke hold on some of the most diverse and colourful of London’s tight knit almost village like communities.

Take Brixton for example, an area with a long history of social and economic change. Way back between the 1860’s and 1890’s it established itself as a middle class suburb when the first rail networks made connecting with central much more feasible. In turn a plethora of beautiful Edwardian properties sprang up around the area, and some still stand today, most noticeably the Ritzy and Lambeth Town Hall. Around the 1920’s many of the larger more luxurious residential houses were converted into flats and proved very popular with theatre troupes from the West End. This marked the beginning of Brixton’s affiliation with the arts and a wider creative culture across the capital.

Jay Joplin - Gallowglass Security

  Former resident of number 56 Mr Jopling: 
Now rumoured (by the Mail) to be worth over £100m

Surrounding art schools like Camberwell and Goldsmiths have offered names such as Emin and Hurst which were known to have hatched from the cradle of Brixton’s Shakespeare Road; where major art dealer Jay Jopling once resided. Many of the fledgling YBA’s gathered in the local area in the 90’s, which can partly account for a now thriving art scene with venues like Brixton East and the Knight Webb gallery providing a platform for the local aspiring artists.  

Things have not only been transforming culturally but environmentally. When looking at the locations like Brixton Village and Windrush Square where only ten years ago the ‘Crack down on Drugs’ campaign was in full swing with flyers stating how many dealers and consumers were arrested over the previous week, it’s no wonder the local cabinet minister Jack Hopkins can jovially claim “If ‘gentrification’ means cleaner streets and safer estates then I’m all for it.” But is it really that simple? Idealistic generalisations floating around difficult topics like Lambeth’s social divides don’t really strike the right chord with me; who’s doing the groundwork and trying to mediate this new culture clash?

Local initiatives like ‘Grow: Brixton’ look at how to effectively use derelict space to provide new social hub that would benefit everybody and the website ‘BrixtonBuzz’ informs the masses of the happenings in what is still an exciting place to live. In a Guardian sound bite one resident explains that when he moved in 20 years ago the main attraction was the fact it was still ‘edgy’ with the connotations of being dangerous and cool. By now however the area ‘changed with’ him, settling down in his 40’s, it feels more ‘sedate and...Middle class’ using comparisons like Islington and Borough market for the development of the once deserted Village arcade.

 Brixton Village - Gallowglass Security

 

As a recently adopted ‘Lambethian’, I can’t help but think my presence and inherited taste is contributing to what can still be a visibly uncomfortable atmosphere. A perfect example lies on my local high street in Camberwell; well to be more precise...what is developing into two separate High streets belonging to the quintessential tastes of the contrasting races. The waterholes of local drinkers on the average evening are becoming increasingly self-segregated which really perturbs me and the collective sense of community I grew so accustomed to in an estranged, but charming village in North Yorkshire.

London Gentrification - Gallowglass Security

Nonetheless, the cyclical yet violent evolution of the big smoke is just a fact of urban living and shouldn’t be compared to these quaint pockets of rural isolation; where buses are every two hours and a missing bar stool at the neighbouring village’s pub is front page news . Areas are always going to change and develop, but what can local authorities do to help residents facing economic eviction caused by an out of control property market? According to various spectators it’s the yuppies and hipsters who are to blame; a scourge of locusts descending on any ‘all the rage’ cocktail bar or concept eatery until all that’s left is another cultural clone zone like Shoreditch or Hackney.

But what feels different about Brixton is the independent schemes and initiatives which have gone further to help locals set up new businesses and make a mark when integrating with their community. Actually getting people involved and giving them a say in what they want to see next, like Brixton’s Future plan or the Grow: Brixton development on Station Road. It’s still gentrification but at least it feels like it’s on the people’s terms. After all, Windrush Square didn’t get its name for nothing and of all the much-maligned areas of South London, I think Brixton’s vibrant personality will survive a few extra buckwheat crêpes and craft beers sitting amongst the yams and jerk chicken without a full scale transplant; as seen in the East.

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