By Sam Hooper
One of the unintended new side-effects of gentrification in London seems to be roving bands of self-entitled class warriors, presuming to speak for the whole city when really they represent only themselves, carrying out attacks against businesses that are insufficiently cheap or “authentically” working class.
The latest victim is the Cereal Killer Cafe in Brick Lane, a quirky and charming (if thoroughly Hipster-like) establishment selling international breakfast cereals in weird combinations, which I happened to visit for the first time only last weekend.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that hipsters and their fashions can be pretentious, but marauding up and down the streets at night wearing masks, carrying flaming torches and breaking windows in response? That goes too far. And yet it is precisely the sort of behaviour we encourage when we indulge in intellectually lazy talk about the supposed “evils” of gentrification – or “social cleansing” as some are now calling it, in an attempt to fill us with the same horror we might feel about ethnic cleansing.
Just as hyperbolic talk about the evil Tories persecuting the sick and the vulnerable (or acting like the Nazis in their behaviour toward trades union) makes violent resistance seem not only justifiable but downright necessary, so talking about the encroachment of yuppies into formerly seedy (sorry, vibrant) neighbourhoods as though it were the Rwandan genocide all over again is likely to lead to an emotional and excessive response.
Unfortunately, it’s all nonsense. Gentrification is a good thing – not without its drawbacks and unintended side effects, of course, but broadly a great force for good in our city. And while there are real, legitimate concerns about the loss of public land to private developments in our cities, this is not an inevitable consequence of gentrification – most of these problems could be tackled through better zoning and smarter regulation.
Julia Hartley-Brewer puts it best in her riposte in the Telegraph:
When the Left complain about welfare claimants being priced out of expensive central London areas in what they dub “social cleansing”, they say there is something innately good about the rich and poor living side by side. But when the bourgeoisie turn up in traditionally working-class areas (or “up-and-coming” in estate agent-speak) then they are accused of stealing homes from under the noses of the poor. […] Would the protesters prefer it if they instead locked themselves and their organic kale away in gated communities in leafy suburbs and never ventured out? […] The truth is that, while gentrification heralds higher house prices, it also brings plenty of economic benefits to an area.
Hartley-Brewer is also right to talk about the increasing “fetishisation” of the working class by anti-gentrification campaigners. The slum clearances which razed Britain’s stock of dilapidated, working class dwellings of the pre-war years were a great step forward, even if they did somewhat undermine the sense of working class community which only came about because of the shared experience of living in a hovel without the basic necessities of life.
And so with gentrification, the problem is not so much that poor people are being forced out of prime areas in the city, and more to do with the fact that the failed policies of successive governments have failed to increase the supply of housing in line with demand.
Once you strip away the hysterical screaming about poor being being “socially cleansed” from inner London, it really comes down to two simple questions: should city leaders and planners actively discourage economic development and the regeneration of neighbourhoods, keeping parts of London in grim dilapidation so that they remain affordable for the poor? Should the British taxpayer be expected to continue subsidising the housing costs of people who cannot afford to live in central London on the fruits of their own labour?
The answer to both questions is a resounding “no”. The revitalisation of London districts like the docklands and parts of Hackney is a great tale of success, an achievement we in Britain should celebrate, not run away from. Some of the artisanal coffee shops may be a little too much, but they and their skinny jean-wearing customers are certainly a price worth paying for the economic development that they signify.
Besides which, London is (and our other great cities are too) a continually changing kaleidoscope, not a fixed and inviolable masterpiece on canvas. “Hipsterisation” is just part of the process where rough and often frankly unpleasant areas are first colonised by hipsters, the worker ants of gentrification, who bring neighbourhoods up to an acceptable standard before they in turn are priced out and displaced by the bankers and others on higher salaries. The displaced hipsters then move on to a new area, performing the same invaluable service for another area. It’s a never-ending cycle.
The Left do not see it like this. As with so many other drivers and signifiers of human progress, they prefer to stand athwart history (and economic development) shouting “stop!” rather than try to ensure that it delivers the most good for the most people.
This is not even about gentrification per se. Rather, it’s about housing policy in general – how many new houses are built, where they are built and who is allowed (or encouraged) to buy them. Fix those policies and gentrification becomes a welcome friend, not a sinister enemy.
But we do not seem to want to fix the problem. We continue to elect anti-growth, NIMBYish politicians who are all for a massive housebuilding programme, just so long as it does not touch their own constituencies. And the fortunes of existing homeowners are tied to ever-increasing house prices at the expense of those trying to get on the first rung of the housing ladder.
These are real, intractable problems, none of which will be solved by vandalising a shop front and scaring the terrified hipsters inside. If the mob who made up the elegantly-named “F*ck Parade London” had a brain cell to share between the lot of them, they would realise this, and focus their ire on the people with real power over housing and development in London and across the country.
Giving the trendy hipsters of Shoreditch a fright may have been cathartic, but it does nothing nothing to tackle the negative side effects of gentrification. And until they change their mindless tactics, the Fuck Parade should be seen not as high-minded social justice warriors, but the virtue-signalling thugs that they are.
Samuel Hooper is a journalist and blogger, passionate about politics, free markets, civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter here.
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