Take a few moments to imagine….
You’re at home. In the neighbourhood you’ve lived in your whole life. Your Mum lives around the corner. Your old school friends are all within walking distance. The shopkeeper knows your name…..
A new family moves in next door to you. They’re thrilled to have bought a big house in such a cheap area. But they don’t approve of your local shops, take-outs, your skin colour and all the connotations that come with it….…
Ok. You can brush that off. No big deal.
But then, their best friends move in on the other side of your house. They look just like them, and nothing like you.
And then their business partner moves in across the street. Followed by their neighbours from their old (‘it was lovely, pleasant, quiet, safe, you know? But it was sooooo expensive.’) And on it goes…….
Before you know it, you don’t recognise anyone. You don’t see your old neighbours around anymore. Your corner shop has become a deli, the cafe is now a coffee shop, specialising in flat whites. No one in there looks like you, and their budgets certainly don’t match yours.
You find yourself feeling self-conscious, like you ought to dress up to go to the market. You start to worry where your elderly neighbours might be nowadays. Who’s getting their shopping and checking in on them? Where do they socialise now that the community centre is a yoga studio? And where do they get their fresh air and exercise now that the allotment has become a botanical garden?
You realise your community, your safe place, your home, has been taken over, and that in moving in en masse, the new “gentrified” crowd have taken it away from you and yours.
It’s an uncomfortable situation to imagine isn’t it?
Alyssa Cole’s wonderful book ‘When No One is Watching’ opened my eyes to the reality of gentrification.
In it, she tells the story of Sydney who is Brooklyn born and bred and Black. Her mental health isn’t great. She’s secretive and anxious about the world, which seems to be turning upside down. An estate agent won’t leaver her alone – desperate to buy her mother’s house to make a killing, her neighbours disappear overnight, she’s no longer welcome in the local shops, and her new neighbours think she’s stealing from them.
She overhears a walking tour, where the guide talks about only the famous white people to have achieved anything of note in the area, no mention of the many inspirational Black people who have made history, but not the history text books. She’s so infuriated by the white washing that she sets about developing her own walking tour. Researching the area uncovers some pretty scary truths, and in sharing Sydney’s finds with us, Allyssa Cole opens our eyes to the truth about gentrification. She makes us think about the ways that grass roots communities are having changed forced onto them and the impact it has on the those communities who happen to be on the wrong side of ‘up and coming’.
I was on the right side once. And it feels like a confession in a way, because I’m sorry to say, my eyes weren’t as open as they should have been at the time.
I bought a flat in East London when it was cheap. I liked it there too – loved hearing all the different languages, the tastiness of the takeaways, the vibrancy and 24/7 culture. I smiled to myself when my friends asked me if I was “ok” in Hackney? But I also welcomed the new wine bar, deli and Instagram worthy coffee shop. I celebrated each year as the value of flat went up and up and up.
Those East London days are far behind me, but I still hear about the continual changes in the neighbourhood. The churchyard, once home to the soup kitchen and many homeless people is now a ‘botanical garden’. I’m not even joking. Even my middle class friends have moved away because it’s become “painfully” trendy.
Educated by Alyssa Cole’s novel, I’ve been thinking more about communities and about gentrification. What is it? Why does it happen? And what’s the impact on the Black and ethnic minority communities?
So what is gentrification?
Officially, it’s defined as ‘the process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing and attracting new businesses, often displacing current inhabitants in the process’.
Or … and I would urge you to thing carefully about the implicit bias in this one …..‘the process of making something more refined, polite or respectable.’ Ask yourself who is defining refined, polite or respectable? For who are these things seen as positive? And why does it matter?
Where is it happening?
Wherever the “haves” butt up against the “have nots” you’re likely to find gentrification. The wealth kind of seeps out, as more people want to get close to the place where the “haves” live.
Anywhere that’s describes as “up and coming” is in the process of gentrification
Hackney in London, Ladywood in Birmingham, Leith in Edinburgh, Brooklyn in New York.
What is the impact?
As the middle classes take over the less wealthy communities, prices of everything go up. And it’s not just frothy coffees and vegan cheese, it’s property too. Almost overnight, rent goes up – of houses, shops and business. The people who grew up there, and these are often people of colour, can no longer afford to stay in their homes, or their places of work. Landlords benefit from the wealthy people moving in – able to pay more. The new, more wealthy residents benefit from housing that’s affordable to them, and even more appealing to them when they do them up and sell them for twice the price. Community services no longer fit, so they disappear. Cultural foods and fabrics are no longer popular, so these shops and market stalls fall by the way side. Through the eyes of the middle classes, the community gets a glow up. Through the eyes of the original inhabitants, it gets taken away.
What can we do about it?
It’s important to remember that the wealthy lens, the white people’s lens, is not the only lens to look through. Just like Black people do not need “saving” (see a previous post of mine, Save me! Save me!), urban communities do not need rescuing. The people who live there know what they want – what services they would benefit from, what issues need fixing. As a society we must ask, listen and act on what’s right for a community as determined by that community itself.
This is big stuff. It’s systemic. It’s policy. It’s town planning and economics. Where do you start, if you’re just one person?
I often encourage people to use these few skills if they want to make a difference in the world: empathy & self awareness, critical thinking, communication, self education and allyship.
Tackling this big topic is no different. It’s important to look at all sides – so think about other’s experiences when you’re enjoying a £4 latte in an “up and coming” area. Don’t assume that “trendy” is best. Educate yourself on the subject (start with When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole). And most importantly – keep talking – keep learning. It’s through conversation that we can all understand the world a little better and make it a little fairer.