In this age of austerity, riots and the Olympics, you might think that those who have most to lose are those already at the bottom. Areas such as Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Lewisham remain amongst the most deprived in Europe. A report issued by the Campaign to End Child Poverty in January of this year claimed that over 50% of the children in Tower Hamlets live in poverty. The areas suffer disproportionately from crime, have rates of home ownership well-below the average for the country and have a higher than average % of their populations claiming benefits. Many believe that the coalition’s austerity drive will make these problems worse (and in fact we are already seeing it doing so).
However, it’s also a fact that London is one of the most unequal cities in the world and these areas are not exempt from this. It is still breathtaking, however, that Dazed & Confused currently has a cover questioning ‘Is East London Dead?’ and a website stating:
With the arrival of the Olympics in east London, the world’s attention has turned to the creative heartland of the capital. What does this mean for the artists, designers, musicians and publishers making their mark here, who face rising rents and an endlessly increasing variety of artisanal coffee? Dazed & Confused surveys those living and working in its own back yard, and asks ‘Is East London Dead?
It truly reads like something from the nightmares of Nathan Barley. Forget the poverty, the crime, the kids who took to the streets to smash up their neighbourhoods – the area just might not be happening anymore! There are too many coffee shops! Note the first comment, where a guy observes that people will ‘move on’ and begins the discussion of ‘where is next’. There is a staggering lack of awareness that for many of their neighbours, there is no ‘next’. They can’t just up and move on. It’s horribly close to the attitudes which were so frequently expressed by ‘trendy people with good jobs’ about the riots last year.
Now, I must confess, I haven’t read the article within. Perhaps Dazed & Confused tackles this. Perhaps it acknowledges that its launch was part of a period of intense gentrification in Shoreditch where ‘creatives’ moved in, rents went up and many of the long-standing residents were forced to move out. Perhaps it recognises that articles in magazines such as Dazed & Confused pushing places like Dalston as the new cool hubs and that people flocking to an area because it’s seen as ‘cool’ and/or ‘creative’ play a massive part in gentrification. Perhaps it understands the massive inequalities that exist in the area and that the transformation of pockets of East London into desirable hang-outs for ‘creatives’ does not solve poverty but merely displaces it. There might be pieces about Broadway Market and London Fields being smack-bang in the middle of hugely deprived areas with gang problems and all that goes with them. Perhaps there’s also an appreciation of the history of an area like Broadway Market and an understanding of the resentment many long-term residents feel when its development as a trendy, creative hub leads to long-standing shopowners being forced out in favour of bars, restaurants and art bookshops.
Perhaps it does all of these things – I would hope so, because the alternative would suggest arrogance and entitlement of sickening proportions. Some self-awareness regarding the privileges many of us have (hell, even in being able to choose to move to a specific area in the first place) would go a long way. As would an understanding that the fashion/art world does not exist in a depoliticised bubble, with the ability choose at will whether to engage with the world around it. Just as it has played a leading role in the gentrification it now complains about, it is inextricably involved in the capitalist system which lies at the root of such phenomena. Creatives are not outside of class and being priced out of areas is not something that has suddenly started with the arrival of the truly rich and the Olympics.
It’s with a perverse amusement that I link to a piece which both anticipates and annihilates Dazed & Confused’s stance, a whole 8 years early . It is about the gentrification of Shoreditch in the 90s, which Dazed & Confused was undoubtedly a part of. It’s a brilliant piece which goes into the phenomenon far better than I could, so I won’t do it the disservice of paraphrasing it. Suffice to say, you should read it. I present one single excerpt in conclusion:
Each wave of colonisers plays out the contradictions of their particular claim to space, taking sides against the next phase of gentrification in which they nevertheless conspire. The nightclub owners print huge posters declaring the area a ‘nighttime economy’ and warning potential residents not to expect ‘living on the edge’ to take place in silence. Hipsters in Brooklyn wear ‘Defend Williamsburg’ t-shirts, a slogan accompanied by a picture of an AK47 and no consciousness whatsoever of the violence of primitive accumulation in which they are always already mired up to their armpits. Acting out fantasies of radical chic and social toxicity, the shocktroops of gentrification have been much taked, in the last ten years, with images of guerilla warfare, an unconscious, aristocratic reflection of concurrent neoliberal ‘military urbanism’ in more intensively looted cities from Palestine to Iraq to Haiti. Gentrification’s vanguard are at their most depoliticised when at their most radically chic (what Simon Pope described in the late ‘90s as the Prada Meinhof), and almost seems to dream the preconditions for this low-level urban civil war through their hypertrophied ‘fashion sense’.