Gentrification is a hollow term, reflecting a hollow concept, but one that has quite tangible effects. It inspires hope and horror, often in equal measure; there is the optimism about the way an area might improve, but the fear that it might change in a bad way.
The link between gentrification and displacement is complex, fascinating and a bit horrible. Physical displacement is a brutal symptom of changed communities, whereby the original residents of what may once have been a very affordable area are suddenly ‘priced out’. I suppose Bethnal Green is a good example of this; whereas once it was synonymous with the urban decay and poverty of the early 1900s, now it is synonymous with unaffordable rent and it serves as a London processing centre for newly-arrived hipsters. Oh, but also, it remains very poor. It still has among the highest levels of child poverty in the UK.
Would Bethnal Green be classed as an improved community?
Generally speaking, yes. The metrics of gentrification are very much culturally weighted towards the affluent segments of a community; gentrification is less about having an effective and well-regarded NHS hospital for the benefit of everybody than it is about a gin bar and a smattering of delicatessens. A community – taken as a geographical space here, rather than as a social space – can be claimed as a good place to live, work and play despite many of the hardships persisting for many of the people who live there. Perversely, the poverty of some members of the community seems to authenticate the desirability of a gentrified area.
This is the reason why people in East London don’t flock to a placed like Wanstead, despite it having a range of bars, restaurants, pubs and shops, despite it being on the Central Line, despite it having a comparatively low crime rate and despite it being more affordable to live there. It’s too well-off, so not edgy enough.
Forest Gate, where I have worked for the last six years, is one of the places often touted as ‘the next big thing’. Located in Newham, with its well-documented high poverty rate, lack of social housing and high rates of homelessness, Forest Gate is at a strange point of flux. Within the borough, it has always had some of the nicest private housing stock, and despite being a mixed area, it has had pockets of affluence towards Wanstead Flats. A friend refers to this area as ‘The Teachers’ Quarter’ on account of the number of teachers and other public sector workers who have settled in this area.
With Crossrail on the way in, and house prices rising, there had been speculation of gentrification. Nobody can tell when it happened. To me, the changes need only to be superficial, and the endpoint is simply as soon as the place becomes a talking point. When my housemate and I were looking for somewhere to live, we explored Forest Gate; it’s an area we know well. As we were cruising around the estate agents, we kept bumping into out of towners who were describing it as an exciting place to live.
The changes needed only to be quite superficial. Whilst Coffee7 has been there for ages, it needed a few other coffeeshops, like Familia Cafe and Compotes. It needed the Wanstead Tap and Urban Orchard. It needed Corner Kitchen and the Forest Tavern.
Some food and some drink, and the house prices rocket.