“Our communities are being ripped apart”, or so declare Class War, the organizers of the Fuck Parade. Horrified by the gentrification that’s reportedly transforming London into a “yuppie infested wasteland”, they oversaw a protest on Saturday September 26 which in turn led to an “attack” against the infamous Cereal Killer Cafe, an eatery which charges its patrons anything from £2.50 to £4.40 for bowls of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes and Cheerios.
Aside from redecorating the Shoreditch cafe with paint, cereal, graffiti, and — at one point — a smoke bomb, their demonstration also managed to receive a considerable amount of criticism from the media, who either urged them to “seek out the real villains of gentrification” or claimed that their descent into ‘violence’ had “overshadowed their cause in more ways than one.”
Yet for all their faults, and for all their vulnerabilities to ‘rogue’ or criminal elements, Class War had a point about gentrification. That is, they had a point, but not quite the one they imagined.
Yes, the nation’s capital is witnessing spikes in property prices and rents that are driving families out of certain areas, and yes, poorer London neighbourhoods are being inundated by shops too pricey for their residents. However, gentrification in general, as well as the gentrification taking hold of boroughs like Tower Hamlets and Hackney, doesn’t consist simply in people being forced out of their homes because of an influx of money into their formerly deprived areas.
No, gentrification as a socioeconomic process is not a straightforward matter of development at the cost of forcing long-standing residents of a locality to relocate. If it were, then groups like Class War and events like the Fuck Parade would undoubtedly be in the wrong, or would at least betray themselves as the 21st-Century’s answer to the Luddites.
But they don’t, and that’s because gentrification is in fact the process by which the very lack of development and investment is veiled behind a facade of Bohemian creativity and bourgeois chic. It’s not so much progress and growth, as how today’s Britain dissembles the absence of progress and growth.
To substantiate this claim, one need only study the makeup of the businesses which stud Brick Lane, where the Cereal Killer Cafe is based. One of them is Harnett and Pope, an independent fashion retailer that was established after its Quaker owner lied about getting married so as to receive a bank loan. Another is Truth Trading, a leather merchant that’s closing down after a decline in business and that has an owner who has seen other Brick Lane traders “open shops and then lose everything.” Finally, there’s Cereal Killer Cafe itself, whose twin-brother owners describe themselves as “working class lads from Belfast” and as knowing “first-hand about poverty.”
All of these are small businesses run by people who are not that much better off than those they’re allegedly displacing. They were set up in Brick Lane because unfavourable economic circumstances — e.g. a paucity of credit, skyrocketing rents and government cuts — prohibited their founders from beginning ventures anywhere else. Hence, rather than being a symptom of the callous intrusion of capital into a once healthy community, they’re a symptom of capital’s dysfunction and failure.
This is borne out by the economic data for Tower Hamlets, where Brick Lane is sited, and Hackney, which is also subject to ‘gentrification’. Respectively, they’re the second and first-most impoverished boroughs of London, with 53 and 41% of children within them belonging to ‘out-of-work’ families. Most importantly, this disadvantage and destitution endures despite the purported encroachment of hipsters and yuppies into their areas, strongly indicating that gentrification is less about the replacement of working-class locals by middle-class incomers, and more about disguising poverty behind a veneer of trendy shops and trendier beards.
Indeed, the absence of exiles and exoduses in many ‘gentrified’ areas is corroborated by recent research published in the Urban Studies journal, which found “little evidence of elevated mobility in gentrifying neighbourhoods.” Given such empirical support, it becomes apparent that the crime of gentrification is not merely ‘social cleansing’, but the dressing-up of poorness. It papers over the immense problems of inequality and immizeration with “retro” cocktail bars and ‘arty’ yoghurt parlours, establishments which attract attention away from all the economic issues hidden just a little further down their roads.
As such, gentrification is therefore a defining symbol of 21st Century Britain, of a Britain ruled by a government that uses spin and subterfuge to cloak the problems it’s only exacerbating. Even if it won’t be magicked away simply by plastering the word “scum” onto the exterior of a cafe, and even if blaming those who are similarly affected by its underlying causes results in a textbook divide-and-conquer scenario, it’s a predicament that sorely needs to be tackled. In other words, Class War did indeed have a point.