For decades, London’s rare achievement was its mixed-income communities. These came into being thanks to a post-war history of town planning, which set out to ensure that no area of affluence could become an island, aloof from the hoi polloi. Some of the resulting mix was deliberately engineered, and some of it was accidental. In recent years, however, it has been plain to see that this covenant — which envisioned people of different means and walks of life living in the same communities as neighbors — has started to crumble.
In my other life, I do occasional work as a landscape gardener, tending the lawns and flower beds of south London’s more affluent inner suburbs. Last month, a neighbor wandered up to me to bitch about the homogenization of her neighborhood. Next door to where I was working, a newcomer to the street had commissioned an overhaul of their recently acquired semi, and the excavation conveyors were churning all day long, puking up London clay to make space for a new basement. “When we moved here 40 years ago, I was a junior legal researcher, my husband was an assistant lecturer,” the neighbour said, over the din of the machinery. “This road was all teachers and police officers. Public servants. Now it’s just bankers, bankers, bankers. What the hell’s happened?”
Ask any cynical long-term Londoner, and they’ll likely offer up any number of answers to this question. The erosion of London’s social-housing stock, which once inoculated the city against the creation of rich and poor ghettoes, is certainly one. The increasingly globe-trotting tendencies of the super-rich is another. Disproportionate city incomes have furnished a portion of residents with the financial leverage to re-fashion an area overnight if a neighbourhood happens to become popular with a certain well-monied milieu. Meanwhile, the suburban dream, which only 20 years ago still lured people out of the inner city, has long since expired.
Together, these processes have combined with London’s chronic housing shortage to transform vast swathes of the inner city over the past decade. To walk through certain parts of London today is to enter an eerie dystopia of late capitalism run amok. All over town, from Battersea to Stratford, vast welters of towers are in the throes of construction, invariably encircled by billboards depicting attractive white people at rest and play. But longtime Londoners know from experience that these towers are not really homes to be lived in but bricks-and-mortar commodities, investment opportunities that until recently were seen as safer than any government bond. If you ever find yourself walking through developments that have been recently finished and sold, you’ll discover street-level plazas devoid of people or even much evidence that many people are ever here. Meanwhile, in the golden postcodes of Westminster, Chelsea, and Kensington, the streets of old money have become a magnet for global capital of dubious origins. A government report published in May said the city was awash with “dirty money.”
In her 2017 book Big Capital, Anna Minton described this scramble for prime London real estate as the catalyst of a “domino effect,” whose effects ripple outwards across the capital and beyond.
“The super-prime market displaces established communities to new areas, driving up property and rental prices elsewhere,” she writes. “And as current policies are geared to attracting foreign investment and building luxurious apartments rather than affordable homes, there is nothing to act as a counterweight.”
When a city changes this fast and on such an inhuman scale, it is impossible to live here without feeling unmoored.
The sense of apartness precipitated by these developments is in large part architectural. London used to be a low-slung city, but many of these luxury towers are vertiginous and imposing, dwarfing the besieged remnants of what came before. But arguably more significant than this aesthetic discordance is the social upheaval it augurs. As more and more towers have gone up, so too have socio-demographic lines that once felt blurred become abrupt and partite, as the runaway cost of housing manoeuvres people into economic enclaves, and poverty is pushed outwards into peripheries and ghettoes of disadvantage. Traditional places of commonality, where shoulders rubbed, have been replaced by pockets of consumption. High-streets that once displayed a multifarious range of shopfronts and establishments have evolved to reflect more stratified times: the poorer areas with their betting shops and pawnsters, the wealthier ones lined with estate agents, restaurants, and prim cafes. Our civic spaces and landmarks have been commodified as cash-strapped councils look to make up budget shortfalls by monetizing their assets or repurposing public libraries into private gyms. Boundaries, both physical and social, have started to rise across the city.
Now, the streets feel more fractious as established communities dissipate. People in their 30s, unable to afford the cost of raising a family here, are starting to leave in droves. And we who remain are left with a curious sense that we are an inconvenient vestige of a city that no longer exists, like obdurate stone buildings amidst gleaming pavilions of glass and steel.
Today’s London remains successful in many ways: as a summer playground for the super-rich; as a giant laundromat for the global kleptocracy; as an iconographic background for tourist photos and the glossy pages of a Hong Kong realtor’s brochure. But as a constellation of neighborhoods? No longer. Certainly not so much as before. Quickly — almost too quickly to track — London’s covenant is coming undone.
The trauma this has imposed in the places where the last dominoes tumble is all too easy to ignore. The most obvious victims of rising housing costs and hollowed-out communities — the minimum-wage workers trundling in from distant outskirts to service the offices, the growing number of homeless in doorways, the social-housing tenants relocated into cramped temporary accommodation when the bulldozers move in — remain largely voiceless. Their abasement, like so much of that which afflicts the London underclass, is hidden away in the backwaters, in food banks concealed behind council estates or displaced out of town.
But to focus exclusively on these ostensive miseries is to miss a wider, more inchoate, malaise — a sense of a city adrift, changing in ways its residents don’t condone and feel powerless to prevent.
We have become a paradox: the progressive city nostalgic for the past.
This more universal condition can be best described not as displacement but dislocation. It’s the feeling of being abruptly estranged, be it emotionally or physically, from your existing state or place. Cities are always transitory, prone to endless flux, but when a city changes this fast and on such an inhuman scale, it is impossible to live here without feeling unmoored.