Sunday 16 October 2016

Resisting Gentrification

By Phil Hubbard 

This blog offers some reflections on the recent SRO 'Rapid Response'  in volume 21 issue 3.

In my forthcoming book The Battle for The High Street, I argue policies for the regeneration of British High Streets have been accepted almost without question, to the extent few appear to be making the equation between the gentrification they are promoting and the displacement of the poorer in society. It’s this that I comment on in my Sociological Research Online paper, which is one of nine in a rapid response section of the journal on the theme of assessing the impacts of, and resisting, gentrification. While gentrification is a fairly hoary academic concept, and something that has been evident in the major cities of the urban West for many decades, this call was issued in response to the current ubiquity of gentrification as a process that has now effectively displaced the working class from central London in a manner that now demands urgent attention. Witness not just the ‘hipsterfication’ of inner city districts like Hackney, Shoreditch and Brixton, and the ironic consumption of landscapes of poverty and austerity commented on by Eleanor Wilkinson in her paper, but also the redevelopment of inner city council estate housing by cash strapped local authorities who are thrall to the property conglomerates who see little profit in constructing social housing. As Mara Ferreri and Luna Glucksberg argue in their piece, between 2005 and 2032 over 70 council estates have been or will be affected by 'regeneration' schemes, many of which require wholesale estate demolition and redevelopment as mixed-tenure, with more than 820,500 m2 of land changing ownership from public to private, affecting over 150,000 Londoners, between tenants, leaseholders and freeholders.

What is particularly disheartening for those critical scholars determined to challenge such accelerating processes of gentrification is that these processes have be represented as not just inevitable but morally defensible: the gentrifier is seen to have earned their ‘right to the city’, and those that they marginalize or displace are regarded as having lost this right. It has taken the E15 mothers campaign, and the attendant publicity they have gained, to even question this, and for at least some to come to the conclusion that working class communities might have the right to remain in the neighbourhoods and communities that they have constructed over many decades. But there is perhaps not enough said about the way the city has been taken from the working classes, and, as Waquant suggests, perhaps too much emphasis placed on the aesthetic and cultural ‘improvements’ associated with the arrival of artistic, hip middle class gentrifiers who have taken over inner London, and transformed landscapes of ‘austerity’ with spaces of spectacular, artful consumption.

This erasure of critical perspectives isn’t simply limited to London, being repeated in other national contexts. Even in the US, where gentrification has been most debated, critics sometimes appear somewhat ambivalent about urban upscaling. For example, Sharon Zukin – perhaps the most influential interpreter of changing patterns of culture and capital in the contemporary city – adopts an almost celebratory tone in some of her descriptions of the gentrification of East Village, New York, arguing that ‘far from destroying a community by commercial gentrification, East Ninth Street suggests that a retail concentration of designer stores may be a territory of innovation in the urban economy, producing both a marketable and a sociable neighbourhood node’; elsewhere she argues that Orchard Street, also on the Lower East Side, has been ‘successfully revitalized by new investment, restaurants and retail stores’, shaking off its ‘ghetto image’ with no attendant ‘crisis in moral ownership.’ Here, there’s little said about class conflicts, with the obvious onset of re-gentrification scripted as regenerative rather than necessarily driving a wedge between the poorer and the more affluent.

What seems to be happening here is a collective amnesia about why we study gentrification: that is, to expose the processes which result in the displacement of working class populations from the spaces where they live and work. A book still little known beyond those working in queer activism, but highly pertinent in this context is Sarah Schulman’s (2012) The Gentrification of the Mind: witness to a lost imagination. This is a slim but powerful book in which she makes connections between the consequences of AIDS, the literal gentrification of the city and a ‘diminished consciousness’ about how political and social change occurs. Her argument, though backed up by anecdote rather than empirical data, is powerfully persuasive, and relates to what she sees as the erasure of a ‘queer urban ecology’ due to the combined effects of deaths from HIV, in the first instance, and, secondly, the gentrification of New York. Here, she hypothesizes the injection of new middle class money into previously mixed neighbourhoods – many of which were decimated by HIV – created spaces more homogeneous in class terms than their predecessors. The eviction of the less affluent, she argued, reduced urbanity: white middle class suburban cultural values came to reign where previously diverse ones had mingled and clashed. Yet, over time, she argues these gentrified neighbourhoods became normalized as made by the middle classes, with incomers forgetting these neighbourhoods had even existed before they ‘created’ them. As she sees it, the failure of the gentrifiers – many of them gay white men – to acknowledge the previous lower class inhabitants of the area, including people of colour who had been active in the struggle against AIDS, is testament to ‘the loss of a generation’s ideas’. As Shulmann states, gentrified happiness requires the gentrification of the mind, and the forgetting of what has been suffered – and achieved – by previous generations. The physical landscape has then adapted to the consumer demand for familiarity, and adopted a bland homogeneity that, in her words, “hides the apparatus of domination from the dominant themselves”. This argument, though specific to a particular queer struggle, has considerable resonance for thinking about the wider struggles surrounding gentrification, and our inability as academics to organise effective forms of resistance to this phenomena. While not all academics are middle class, there is a sense in which we are all seduced by new emergent landscapes of middle class consumption and gentrified living.

As we wander around spaces like Soho, which Erin Sanders-McDonagh, Magali Peyrefitte and Matt Ryalls argue is now seen as edgy, but not seedy, with its mixture of chic restaurants, designer stores, and creative businesses, we are also fooled into thinking this represents true urbanity because it appears so bohemian, not bourgeois, and seems to signal cultural acceptance, diversity and opportunity. But this diversity is only available to those who can afford it, and gentrified areas like Soho are far from accessible or open to all. The middle class, particularly its creative factions, imagine their access to food, art and culture in Soho is due to their personal worth and hard work, yet their wealth is partly a function of their ability to define taste in favour of forms of cultural capital they are able to transform into economic capital. The gentrified neighbourhood of Soho sets the standard for acceptability, normalizing the tastes and proclivities of the middle-class consumer in the process and embedding it within a particular imagination of swinging, creative London. Schulman argues gentrification is the removal of the truly dynamic mix that defines urbanity, the privileging of a particular set of class dispositions and the disavowal of others. Despite initially appearing bohemian and edgy, Soho shuns real social diversity and mix in favour of an upmarket form of consumption that feigns cosmopolitanism, looks good, and feels safe, but is palpably not for all. But somehow this exclusionary logic has been forgotten. A gentrification of the mind has occurred. We still go to somewhere like Soho to experience urbanity, the juxtapositions of grit and glitter that have defined the urban condition, and taught us the importance of encountering difference. But it’s apparent that, despite nods to the contrary, Soho, like many other inner London neighbourhoods, how boasts an ersazt urbanity not rooted in any particular time or place.

But if the future of our central city is not as a gentrified bubble serving only the affluent, then what is it to be? Here, my own observations on the role of High Streets in promoting vernacular creativity, conviviality, and senses of belonging suggest that representations of incivility and abandonment should not be allowed to dominate in descriptions of working class areas. Following Suzanne Hall’s study of Peckham High Street and other ‘ordinary spaces’, I conclude it’s vital that we value working class districts as, in Hall’s words, these are ‘shared local spaces shaped by habitual associations rather than outright compatibilities’, with the ‘aggregation of small spaces and diverse groups’ often creating deeply rooted ‘local’ cultures and senses of belonging.

But quite how we might defend working class communities in the face of post-political discourses that elides questions of rights in favour of a rhetoric which equates gentrification with regeneration and, as Hamil Pearsall and Isabelle Anguelovski argue, environmental improvement, remains open to debate. The purpose of this rapid response section is to raise such questions, and to explore how diverse processes of gentrification require different forms of resistance, such as the ‘lobbying campaigns against revenge evictions, anti-eviction action, welfare cuts, housing corruption’ described by Kirsteen Paton and Vickie Cooper, or the squatting activism detailed by Sandra Annunziata and Loretta Lees in the context of Southern Europe. But perhaps they also require us all, as critical scholars, to be a bit more discerning in our own consumption and lifestyle habits, perhaps looking for more ethical alternatives to the Air B&B accommodation that is one of the prime battlegrounds of gentrification (as Agustín Cócola Gant argues in the context of Barcelona) or refusing to frequent the hipster businesses that are overwhelming some of the neighbourhoods where ethnic and class diversity previously reigned.