Priced Out. Pissed Off.
The prospect of being forced to leave the city of my birth feels like a betrayal. This is my lament for a gentrified metropolis.
This article describes the author’s experience of London. But the phenomenon described — of being priced-out by gentrification — should resonate with people living in post-industrial inner-cities the world over.
I didn’t always feel quite so maudlin about this shiny new London. There was a point before the 2008 crash when the city’s economic success, forever proclaimed by the dozens of crane jibs quartering the skyline, felt less exclusive, as if some of its mountainous wealth was flowing down the skyscrapers’ gleaming walls and leeching into London’s claggy soil.
Back then I was a colluder. I remember shaking my head at the residents who refused to budge when the local authority began decanting the Heygate, a brutalist housing estate not far from where I live. While all the homes around them were welded shut, they clung limpet-like to their concrete monstrosity. “Why resist progress?” I remember thinking. “They’re pulling it down to build something better.”
But what seemed then like a vogue for regeneration looks, in hindsight, like the beginning of a city-wide purge. The hectare of low-cost homes they promised would replace the tower blocks turned out to be a lie. Instead? Another yuppie-arcadia of half-million pound apartments marketed off-plan as investment opportunities overseas.
Walking past the site today, with its hills of rubble where the towers once stood, I can’t help but wonder whether I was the sort of person they hoped to be rid of when a regeneration chief confessed the council’s plan to attract a “better class of people” to SE17. Because it turns out that this “Better Elephant” they are building is no more for me than it is for the scapegoat “sponger” of a hundred Daily Mail straplines.
By now, most Londoners are despairingly familiar with the narrative that’s brought us here. In the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s Right-to-Buy scheme, the city’s social-housing stock has steadily moved into private ownership. Then came the economic downturn and, as under-funded councils sold off every last splinter of public land and luxury new-builds became a fixture on every plutocrat’s investment portfolio, property prices and rents rocketed.
Gentrification, social-cleansing — whatever your preferred epithet it boils down to a simple market equation: If you’re poor, London is inviting you to quietly fuck off.
So far, so callous. Yet it was only recently, after a year that has seen property prices across the city rise by an average of 25%, that I faced up to the reality that I was standing on the precipice too.
If, like me, you’re a middle-class thirty-something in inner London, home-ownership has crept up to define and divide you. Well-paid city executives, wealth-inheritors, and that rare monk-like breed with the foresight to have saved every penny earned since they were 13 — those people may well have bought a property, and are watching goggle-eyed as their investment rockets skyward. The rest, too young to have bought a house before the market went nuclear, too old, with the shifting priorities of marriages and parenthood, to tolerate shared housing, are merely clinging on or cast adrift. Last month, a report from the Office of National Statistics revealed that more 30 to 39-year-olds are scarpering the metropolis than ever before.
And I’m here, with a pathetic deposit, two kids climbing the limited walls of our small rented flat, assessing my options with growing dismay. It doesn’t take more than about three self-flagellating minutes on Rightmove to determine that the zone 2/3 borders of south London, which I’ve always called home, can’t be home for much longer.
Steady your guns. I’m not seeking pity. Untroubled by the trauma of genuine poverty, I’d never compare my geographical displacement with the victimhood of the Heygate’s uprooted tenants. But it says something about the scale of London’s betrayal of its residents when the outlook for those one might expect to enjoy a semblance of choice — middle-income schmucks who’ve obediently jumped through the conventional hoops of success: the university, the profession, the savings account — is almost as bleak.
You don’t have to be poor to feel marginalized by poor-door London. Those headline developments beloved of overseas investors — Nine Elms, Mount Pleasant, Royal Docks, Earl’s Court — are all destined to become manicured urban spaces of close-clipped trees and brushed granite. But the computer-generated hoardings hemming in the building sites betray a vision of Stepford-smiles that many of us want no part of, even if we could afford it.
It’s too easy to dismiss such sentiments as an allergy to change. I don’t hanker after the 80s, with its gritty grey memories of dog-shit and urban decay. It’s the speed and intensity of this latest evolution — which seems to feel nothing for community — which has left people reeling. Not long ago, I’d have laughed at the suggestion that I’d ever consider living anywhere but London. Beg, borrow, steal: anything to stay in my cherished city. But when you find yourself walking down your local high street, getting rheumy-eyed about the crack-shotters who used to hang around outside KFC, you have to start questioning whether it might be time to move on.
Brixton, where I live now a mile from where I was born, has felt like a key battleground in the fight for London’s future for the last four years. At first, it was all good news: the square got a makeover; a lottery grant transformed the park; food critics began to eulogize about the smattering of nice eateries that had moved in to resuscitate the flagging covered market.
But then it went too far. The high-street noodle-house, which used to Frisbee out generous plates of chow mein for £4 a pop, closed down and, harbinger of doom, a Foxton’s estate agents opened in its place. Before long the doormat lay submerged daily under a glossy pile of estate agent’s leaflets (“We’re looking for properties in your area?”, “Are you looking to sell?”).
Spiralling rents soon did for the family next door. Their garden-flat was commandeered by three upwardly-mobile gadabouts who sit outside on summer nights hoofing lines and chuntering about Gap Year japes in south-east Asia. I remind myself constantly that they’re not to blame. Hipsters, oligarchs, buy-to-let landlords — all the pantomime villains of London’s mad-cap property market are entitled to their piece of the city. But it’s hard not to resent them when the change they embody — your neighbourhood’s sudden uber-desirability — is the same demographic shift that is seeing you disowned.
Whatever your economic background, dislocation is a sucker-punch that leaves you disoriented and angry.
In the yet-to-be-prettified Brixton, with its market-rows of knock-off clobber and Asian plastic, this alienation surfaces in an unspoken language of gritted teeth and rolled eyes. It’s there in the disoriented stares of the bystanders when some people with waxed moustaches and vintage floral dresses start an impromptu jitterbugging class on Station Road. It’s there in the shaken head of the old woman being ignored as she tries to battle her way past the restaurant queues.
It’s there in the pubs: “One of ‘em’s got a fackin’ i-Pad,” a regular at my local groaned at me recently, nodding disdainfully towards the bright young things with bulbous quiffs and turned-up rugby collars guffawing across the bar. A month later, his coterie of West Indians and south London geezers had abandoned their precious haunt. And the pub was selling drinks in jam jars.
Apologists for this revamped south London, not to mention people fed up with seeing the endless column-inches of hipster-baiting, will say that my sympathy for someone who plunges into existential despair at the sight of an i-Pad is little more than the bitterness of the priced-out. I’m the first to admit that ours is a perverse nostalgia. All too often, the anti-gentrification brigade cover their eyes to the benefits that a bourgeois influx can have on an area. Crime down, local businesses flourishing — I’m not blind to the positives. The absence of that staccato beat — “Crack?Crack?Crack?” — as you turn the corner onto Coldharbour Lane probably shouldn’t be lamented.
Somehow, though, such benefits are not enough to assuage the sense that something important is being washed away when the social-cleansing tsunami crashes through. Growing up, south London’s rough edges were part of our identity. The fact that no enclave of wealth — with the odd-Dulwich Village-like exception — could wall itself in from the less well-off was a source of pride. We revelled in our junior status, our peculiar underdog’s swagger. For reasons that are hard to articulate, some of us preferred Brixton when, as a recent Esquire article sensitively recalled, it was “run down and only famous for its prison”. A shithole, perhaps. But at least it was ours.
Samuel Johnson might never have tired of London. But Samuel Johnson never had his food served to him on a table-tennis racket.
I haven’t given up on our Hunger Games capital. In less pessimistic moments, I remind myself that this is just one brief stage in the city’s evolution. One day, when the cyclone of neophilia has died down, when some more humane planners realize the scale of their fuck-up, when a million people rise up to squat in the thousands of empty flats overlooking the river, it will swing back. Suddenly the suburbs will re-emerge as the height of middle-class desirability. But it seems unlikely, in this election year, things will rebalance soon. Alienated people are less likely to vote. And, in our property-fixated country, my home-owning friends, even those who feel the twinge of sadness at the state of things, will vote for the party most likely to safeguard their capital gains.
So, for now, I have my dilemma: stay or go? Move further out, to areas where others will perceive me as a bourgeois-intruder, part of the next invasion seeping outwards? Or fuck it all, and flee elsewhere, like tens of thousands are doing? I’ve heard that farmsteads in Bulgaria are an absolute steal.
Either way, it looks like I’m done with my old inner London stomping-ground. This commodity, this investment opportunity, this rich person’s playground. This developer’s dream that feels to me like a coma, as the city I love slips quickly away.