Poor fetishes, poor critiques: gentrification as violence
Date Written: 05/01/2016
Year Published: 2016
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX18557
Hating on hipsters is not the answer to gentrification. If we want to reclaim our cities, we should organize for genuinely affordable housing in common, argues Gloria Dawson.
The power over property ownership in cities like London does not primarily lie in the hands of middle or higher-income workers, but in the hands of private developers, large-scale landlords, and government itself. Gentrification, as Rachel Brahinsky puts it, is "capitalism playing out in the landscape. It is essentially our economys urban form." It is a process involving time, land and rent, and it cannot occur without a planning and governmental framework to support it. The root of gentrification is the ability of landlords to command higher and higher rents after a rent gap has been established in an area that has experienced less investment than other areas (or, in London, just that its not as expensive as everywhere else).
Gentrification is therefore complex and cyclical, and undoubtedly the presence of coffee shops allows landlords to charge more to (housing and business) tenants. It also concurrently involves wholesale privatization of public spaces, especially retail. But if poverty and culture are sometimes commodified, buildings and land always are. The Poor Fetish article identifies gentrification as 'different kinds of shops opening up,' but apart from its odd presentation of the significance of property ownership, it doesnt actually talk about housing. Espresso Bars are symptoms of gentrification far more than they are the underlying causes.
The problem, of course, is that the causes of gentrification are hard to spot -- by the time the coffee shop has opened, or the big art gallery, or the enormous utopian hoarding has gone up, a lot of its processes have already taken root in the area. Contracts have been signed. Money has moved. Investment funding has been leveraged. Visible and objectionable as they may be, cultural appropriation or fetishisation is not whats violently displacing low and middle-income people in the capital; its capitalism, stupid!
Perhaps the most unhelpful aspect of articles like this one (and they are, as I have indicated, all too frequent) is that they give no indication that this situation can be changed. In the hating on hipsters vision of gentrification, the middle classes are bound to live boring lives and their escape from these boring lives is fundamentally doomed. The working class, meanwhile, can only look on in horror as their authentic culture is destroyed. No one has any agency. Indeed the article itself, like the system it identifies, serves mainly to blame the individual while offering no legitimate means by which they can escape.
For few years now I have been working on, organizing around and thinking about how we can reclaim and rebuild cities that are, for want of a better phrase, held in common; and I see a great deal of inspiring action and a very effective push-back against these gentrification phenomena, especially in London. Thanks largely to committed, cross-tenure, networked organizing, condemned social housing is being re-occupied, tenants are staying in their homes, community-led regeneration plans are receiving planning permission, and some local authorities (mainly due to the pressure from below and their appallingly long housing lists) are actually building social rented housing.