There’s a lively, if slightly tedious, academic debate about the nature of gentrification. Sometimes I think it’s like an elephant: hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. I fluctuate between feeling relaxed about the inevitability of urban change, concerned about what it means for the future and irritated when my local pub is packed-out with beardy types who make me feel old. Because, in a way that seemed very unlikely when I moved here 23 years ago, Bethnal Green is now the front line of London gentrification.
Maybe I’m to blame, but it’s important to disconnect the socio-economic forces of gentrification from individual morality. I’ve often heard affluent people self-flagellating for moving to a predominantly poor neighbourhood. This has always happened, alongside shifting realities and perceptions of particular areas. The classic example is Islington where the theoretical concept of gentrification was born in the mid 1960’s. My aunt and uncle lived just off the Essex Road back then. It’s strange to think that in their midst a dynamic rooted in the vagaries of the local housing market would spawn a political project three decades later. If ‘Yuppies’ were Thatcher’s children, then ‘Hipsters’ are Blairs. Just as Thatcherism promoted urban conquest by the ostentatious rich, so Blairism (and Blair was the ultimate gentrifyer) encouraged class-colonisation in the name of regenerating the city.
Ultimately, gentrification is an economic, not a moral or political phenomenon, but it’s always accompanied by aggressive cultural displacement. By a strange twist of circumstance, my family has lived in the East End for most of the last two centuries. There’s a real danger in claiming entitlement through residential longevity. I should no more claim Tower Hamlets as ‘mine’ because my ancestors lived here than a bigot should claim England. But, as with racism, it’s the appropriated identity of place that contributes to making gentrification a problem. I accept, reluctantly, that the Poplar of my parents and grand-parents has virtually disappeared. I also recognise that mine, like many working class families – and I personally – have materially benefited from the process of suburbanisation that contributed to the decline of urban areas which in turn created the physical, economic and social space for gentrification. What bothers me is the sense that ‘the new’ expunges ‘the old’. As I see another new shop selling cup cakes and vintage the East End increasingly feels like a film set, its long-term residents extras, its buildings props, its history a backdrop. Old Bethnal Green town hall is opposite where my daughter and granddaughter live, a beautiful neo-classical building that expresses the municipal pride of its time and was a functioning civic centre, with a branch of the Co-Op bank, until the late 80’s when it was mothballed as part of a murky property deal and was subsequently used (see above) as a location for feature films including, appropriately, ‘The Long Good Friday’. It’s since been ‘rebranded’ under it’s old name, but ‘The Town Hall’ is now a luxury hotel and a flag of victory and conquest has been hoisted above it.