The Joiners’ Arms and Gentrification

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In areas like Shoreditch and its peers around the globe, the cosmetic renewal of a portion of the crumbling urban core coincides with continued – or intensified – infrastructural decline. The reactivation of dormant (or low profit sweatshop-occupied) industrial properties first as artist’s spaces and later as bars, boutiques, apartments etc has made many landlords even richer, but the area’s large tracts of public housing, services and transport facilities remain in a deteriorating condition and/or are sold off to the private sector. Gentrification takes from the poor and gives to the rich. Anything residually ‘public’ will either be reclaimed for the middle class or left to rot. 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 creation and rapid extinction of cultural ‘incubators’ – clubs, art spaces, etc. – by more lucrative investments in areas like Shoreditch at the same time intensifies bohemian settler’s efforts to maintain that crucial ‘edginess’ which is the USP of the area’s marketing.

The piece this quote was taken from (“Shoreditch and the creative destruction of the inner city“) was written over a decade ago yet remains the most insightful commentary on what’s happening in the East End of London (and beyond) that I’ve seen. I’ve referred to it in the past, not least when Dazed & Confused insultingly posed the question of whether East London was ‘dead’ because the ‘creatives’ were finding it a bit expensive. The writers at D&C were completely useless on gentrification, presenting it both as a new phenomenon and as something somehow removed from magazines like their own and its endless articles presenting the East End as a hub of cool, edgy creativity. Both were and are a nonsense. No brand better sums up the “bohemian settler’s efforts to maintain that crucial ‘edginess’” than Vice which, like Dazed & Confused, launched in the early 90s and bought Shoreditch’s Old Blue Last pub in the same year Benedict Seymour’s essay was written. It’s become a shorthand signifier for an edginess that is “one part actual intelligent, progressive, boundary-pushing journalism to nine parts nihilistic misogynist awfulness” and it’s not irrelevant here that one of its co-founders is a reactionary dickhead. Vice was and is aimed at a young, self-consciously ‘creative’ reader for whom it offers a titillating taste of transgression. Today Vice has posted an article on the impending closure of The Joiners Arms, a Hackney gay bar which it’s fair to say has been an institution in London’s LGBT scene. Entitled “The Joiners’ Arms is Closing and It’s a Travesty’, the piece is fascinating in its inadvertent revelation that these people still really, really don’t understand what’s happening in London. As with the previous D&S piece, gentrification is presented as some nebulous external force that is encroaching on ‘proper Hackney’ and “pushing out those that can no longer afford to stay”. Yet the article itself documents some of the logic and processes behind gentrification, even though it clearly doesn’t realise it. Seymour’s piece explains how the wave of ‘creative gentrification’ which saw Shoreditch “celebrated as the heart of London’s creative and artistic scene in the ’90s” led to it becoming “the apple of urban policy makers’ eyes in the late ’90s”. As he puts it:

Shoreditch was held up as an example of how the ‘inner core’ of the city, allegedly abandoned after the flight of working class inhabitants to the suburbs in the ’60s and ’70s, could ‘come back to life’ if the area’s ‘residual’ population of deadbeats were supplemented (that is, supplanted) by a lively group of dynamic and entrepreneurial cultural professionals. From the beginning this notion of new ‘life’ served to obfuscate whose life was being discussed – not that of the area’s economically challenged majority, it would seem.

This is a narrative which Vice follows precisely. The Joiners’, we’re told, opened in “proper Hackney territory” which apparently means it was “surrounded by empty shop fronts and council estates”. Notice that ‘council estates’ are clearly implied to be a bad thing here. It goes further – The Joiners’ was “a haven from a traditionally homophobic part of town” and it “flew the rainbow flag proud” despite aforementioned council estates. In the space of a few sentences we’re implicitly but clearly given the notion that Hackney was a declining working-class area and this is linked to homophobia. Was Hackney ‘traditionally’ viewed as homophobic, more so than any other area of London? Even this brief ‘gay history’ of the East End suggests otherwise, with this section concerning a pub literally minutes from The Joiners’:

Another vital meeting place for the East End gay community was the Royal Oak in Columbia Road, Hackney. While researching local history, Columbia Road resident Linda Wilkinson learned about Lil and Maisie, a transvestite couple, who lived in Hackney throughout World War II and performed at the Royal Oak while the bombs were falling. What’s remarkable about Lil and Maisie is that they were accepted by their neighbours. No stories have come to light of a similar working class gay couple anywhere else in London at this time. Lil and Maisie were still performing in drag at the Royal Oak in the 1960s.

No-one could possibly deny the certain existence of homophobia in Hackney when The Joiners’ opened, just as no-one could deny it now, but to suggest that it was a refuge from the homophobic working-class hordes around it is insulting. It is, however, an easy assertion because it appeals to familiar prejudices while claiming for The Joiners’ and its denizens that all-important edginess. Indeed, the article goes to pains to document The Joiners as “battling the encroaching diktat of political correctness” and offering “raucous mischief.” Yet rather than offering a radical disruption of the surrounding area it’s more likely that The Joiners’ opened as part of, and then furthered, the gentrification which was already occurring in Shoreditch. Although we must take note of the complexities and avoid generalising, research suggests a link between gentrification and a significant influx of LGBT people – in the Vice article we’re told of a writer who moved to Hackney in 2009 and “chose my flat partly because it was across the road [from The Joiners’]”. The flats directly opposite The Joiners’ were only build in the late 00s and most certainly weren’t social housing. To again return to the Seymour piece:

While Shoreditch’s magic circle was in the media spotlight the most massive and significant changes in the borough of Hackney, and indeed the city as a whole, were scarcely discussed. The social cleansing of working class communities across large swaths of London’s inner core, vicious cuts, privatisation, and Eastern European levels of poverty coincided with the highest number of housing privatisation ballots in the country. The latter, advanced in the name of ‘regeneration’ served to hasten the theft of the city from its true ‘creative class’, re-engineering former industrial areas as a playground for young middle-class consumers of surplus value. Although it is notoriously difficult to get precise figures, I would guess that as much as 40% of Hackney’s working class population have been pushed out of the area through the combined effect of rising rents, evictions, demolition and transfer of council housing into the hands of housing associations.

This is perhaps one of the central issues with gentrification – we never think that we are part of it until we feel victimised by it. For example, the Johann Hari-led attacks on Muslims in East London a few years ago owed much to the lazy prejudice which the Vice piece appeals to and owed much to gentrification. There’s no doubt that neither the owner of The Joiners’ nor most of the people who went there (including me) harboured any Machiavellian scheme to ‘claim’ the area but the process has been clear and ongoing for anyone who deigned to look. It was gentrification rather than ‘evolution’ which led to The Joiners’ becoming “basically…East London’s hottest new late night gay club”. It must be said that the article is utterly disingenuous in its failure to note that The Joiners’ did its best to capitalise on this – the notorious door charge is glossed over but it and drastically increased drink prices made the venue one of the most expensive in the area within a quite short period of time. This was combined with a door staff who were quite renowned for their aggressiveness – speak to anyone who went there with any regularity and they’ll at least know of a story. I found it amusing, then, that Vice repeats the familiar tropes about The Joiners’ (and the East End) presenting a:

…raucous, welcoming (unlike many Soho haunts, there had rarely been a “you’re not gay, you ain’t coming in” door policy), messy and character-rich up-yours to the stuff going on a few miles down the road in W1

Soho has long been the bete noire of East End LGBT venues, the great bogey man which they seek to define themselves against. Yet the complaints offered – that it’s too exclusive, too expensive, too homogenous – are ones which are repeated simply because they’re trite rather than because they are true. As the East End has continued its gentrification the venues and nights which have sprung up, such as East Bloc and Sink The Pink, have been as expensive and homogenous as any West End venue you could mention (if not more so). East Bloc on Saturday costs £7-10 while the next Sink The Pink costs £22. G-A-Y, in contrast, is typically free or up to £5 if you can’t be bothered picking up one of the many flyers. Yet the LGBT scene in the East End clings evermore to that ‘crucial edginess’ – despite its price Sink The Pink presents itself as a response to “recession with a Conservative government at the helm”. More disturbingly, these evenings delight in an aesthetic which is frequently racist and/or misogynistic – witness the gruesome yellowface at the top of this post – a trend which itself owes much to the colonial logic of gentrification. The Joiners’ Arms, then, finds itself victim of a rapacious gentrification which it once benefited from and which the East End LGBT scene has been/is complicit in. Yet we continues to ignore it beyond the most superficial level: Vice tritely complains of “an area that has been flat white-d and artisan burger-ed within an inch of its life” with zero comprehension of the processes and history behind it. The Benedict Seymour piece is an essential place to start in beginning to understand the ‘creative destruction’ at work here. When Pauline Pearce complained about the damage gentrification was doing to Hackney, pushing out the poor, driving up prices and eroding the area’s diversity, it was met with a furious response. Yet the closure of The Joiners’ is just the latest example of how this logic has no boundaries and, if left unchecked, the vast majority will suffer as the poorest in society are right now.

My letter to my local councillors regarding the ‘Hackney Fashion Hub’

I have lived in Clapton for almost 7 years and am writing to object in the strongest possible terms to the proposed ‘Hackney Fashion Hub’ at Hackney Central. It absolutely beggars belief that £2 million has been allocated from the GLA’s ‘riot regeneration fund’ to further hand the area to wealthy private developers who have little connection to or interest in an area beyond the profit they can derive from it and the cachet it can offer their portfolios.

The transformation of large swathes of Central London, from much of the so-called ‘Olympic zone’ to Westfield and the Shard, into private for-profit areas is an immense problem for our city. These developments parachute into areas in order to attract wealthy consumers and offer little but tick-box nods to long-standing residents and businesses. This is especially the case in an area of huge inequality such as Hackney, where the levels of deprivation and poverty make it almost grotesque that anyone could think this was a serious response to the issues raised by the riots. In fact it suggests that the desired aim is to quicken the pace of gentrification and price ‘undesirables’ out of the area rather than invest in far less glossy, but far more meaningful, initiatives to begin to tackle the area’s many complex problems and (most importantly) keep it accessible and relevant to the people who actually live there.

The process of fractured, ill-thought out gentrification which has gathered pace in London does not remotely begin to address poverty – it merely displaces it. This ‘Fashion Hub’ will contribute massively to this while further fuelling the inequality which played such a large part in the riots – indeed, it cynically seeks to capitalise on the area’s ‘edge’ while offering little of practical worth in return. Investment in local business, local start-ups and training/education for young people should not be an after-thought addendum to a mega-development which almost no-one in the area seems to have asked for but is instead the pipe dream of local politicians. They should be the fundamental starting point – particularly for a fund ostensibly aimed at addressing the aftermath of the riots. We are already seeing the squandering of the Olympic ‘legacy’ with broken promises re: affordable housing and the creation of what are little more than gated communities completely removed from the surrounding area. The Olympics saw large swathes of land and public money being handed to private developers and enormous multinational corporations who little needed it – the Fashion Hub shows that this shows no signs of abating. The alienation and frustration which this project has the potential to (further) fuel is potent and a further example of the very processes which contributed to the riots.

I’ve no doubt that many voices opposed to the Hub will be characterised as being against ‘change’ or preferring that the area ‘remains poor’ rather than ‘attract’ big business. These facile arguments rest on the notion that it’s a zero sum option between this absurd project and nothing, which is patently a nonsense. All of us who live in Hackney want to do well by the area – we do not want it to become the plaything of wealthy tourists who come for a few hours to shop, spend their money in businesses which quickly move most of the profits out of the area (and indeed no doubt do their best to avoid paying tax on much of it in some cases) and taunt the local residents who couldn’t dream of affording most of what is for sale. Like many others, I felt real fear and despair during the riots, just as I feel fear and despair at the direction the United Kingdom is travelling under the auspices of ‘austerity’. A Labour council in an area such as Hackney should be using this money to offer real investment, real hope, real change to the residents who need it most – not handing it over to already-wealthy developers and businesses.  If this Hub goes ahead it will be nothing less than a scandal.

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’.

Dazed and Confused is worried about gentrification