Whatever’s happening, it ain’t gentrification

By - Tuesday 15th October, 2013

Susan Oliver wonders whether those embroiled in whole Croydon gentrification debate actually know what real gentrification looks like

‘Saying NO to Starbucks’
Photo by Manny Hernandez. Used under Creative Commons license.

I guess I’m a Croydon gentrification denier.

To my mind, gentrification works something like this:

You have an empty warehouse or a part of a city that has been neglected for years.

One day, you walk by and see that a bunch of artists have moved in and put up batiks in the broken windows. They’re carting in their own water, bless, because the water pipes don’t work. They host parties and cheap art sales and funky happenings. Other artists move in. More parties. A dance studio opens; a couple grunge bands rent rooms. A bunch of folks perform folk tales featuring large paper-maché puppets. Someone opens a little café that serves over-sized banana and raisin muffins and coffee in mismatched mugs.

You think of the wonder of youth, of opportunity, of new beginnings, of the blossoming of the next generation. There’s a bit of anxiety as the thought forms “how many people are sharing one toilet?” but it quickly passes as you appreciate that young creatives are still able to get a foot-hold in society. You buy a cup of coffee from a young woman who puts down her crocheting in order to grind some beans. You sip slowly, with a smug satisfaction that comes from supporting a new shoot growing out of concrete. Maybe this world isn’t as bad as you thought it was.

“It’s nice to know artists can make money, can be successful. That’s cool.”

A few years go by. It looks like the artists are taking themselves more seriously. The landlord has repaired the windows and the batiks have been taken down in favour of blinds. You see printed leaflets advertising workshops and art shows but everything is still affordable. The theatre is putting on a play written by their resident playwright. The multi-piece band you hear is practising complicated rhythms and has vocal harmonies. A ground-floor shop is shared between a 30-something dress designer and an artisan who creates hand-made leather bags. The casual café has upgraded and is selling food such as spinach omelettes, quiche, and burritos with homemade salsa.

Your money doesn’t go as far as it used to. You can’t use your credit card (which you like because it means it’s still an avant-guard neighbourhood) but you’ll have to remember to bring more cash next time. You think, “It’s nice to know artists can make money, can be successful. That’s cool.”

A few more years go by. The owner has done some serious investment. The whole building has been re-fitted and a web designer owns part of the first floor. The other part is divided into three flats as are the second and third floors. The fourth and fifth floors still have a few artists but you see that they are represented by dealers. There is no music and the craftspeople and thespians have moved away to more affordable climes. Your beloved café now takes credit cards and has duck on the menu. A few other cafés have moved into the neighbourhood: one specialises in colourless teas, the other caters to cigar-smokers.

What’s happening in Croydon isn’t gentrification; it’s just plain old boring property development

You curse capitalism. You question success and all its trappings. You wonder at what stage it could have been stopped, if it could have, if the landlord could have been bribed to be satisfied with what was. You shop for batiks, trying to regain that sense of renegade-ness. You spread it on your sofa and sit, staring at the rabbit sculpture you bought there too long ago, remembering the conversation you had with the sculptor when you exchanged a few twenties for it.

A few more years go by. No more artist studios or small businesses can be found – it’s just flats. You see a well-dressed couple coming out of the building with that ultimate symbol of middle-aged respectability: children. You walk down the road to discover the old car-park has been taken over by a Whole Foods, a swanky interior design place selling £50 door handles, and – that-which-cannot-be-named – a St*****ks. It’s all over. You know that every drop of creativity has been sucked out of the area. You swear never to come back.

You see, this didn’t happen in Croydon. We start at the end here. What’s happening in Croydon isn’t gentrification; it’s just plain old boring property development.

Gentrification teases you. It pulls at your heart-strings. And it takes time. It also involves people who don’t realise they’re participating in the ultimate sell-out of the area.

Same old, same old, same old property development. It’s what Croydon has been relying on for a long time.

  • Liz Sheppard-Jones

    A delightfully acute piece of observation. As a middle-aged person with children hopefully still skirting around respectability, I genuinely enquire – do you consider that all financial success ultimately involves sell-out? Is integrity therefore only be found in lifelong failure?

    • Susan Oliver

      Thank you Liz. Gosh, some huge questions.

      The concept of selling-out is based on both individual and collective stories about what wealth is. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to think a person can make money by doing their craft or doing something they loved, and I’m sure some stock brokers love what they do, too.

      Selling out is really about thinking that money can be a substitute for your passion. That’s because the idea of money is incredibly powerful in our
      society. In fact, having money is considered to be more important and more virtuous than being skillful. This is somewhat tragic because the only way most people can make money is by being skillful.

      There is simply no substitute for getting up in the morning with an eager desire to start the work-day. I mean, even with a Porsche and a mansion, you still have to get up in the morning and do something. Why isn’t this enthusiasm, this get-up-and-go-ness, for doing stuff more valued?

      The ability to live in a house or own a car does not mean you can participate in the economy. It’s not our ability to own stuff that creates an economy, it’s our
      ability to do stuff. (This is why I’m not convinced that big building – particularly housing – projects are the saviours of Croydon’s economy).

      Being skillful is made easier if you love what you do – this is the whole idea behind having a passion. But this is obviously dependent upon knowing
      what your passion is. I really believe that if we were all encouraged to know what we loved to do (in other words, if our culture embraced the idea of having a passion rather than the idea of having money), this concept of selling-out would not even be a consideration or a possibility.

      The problem is, money is still quite alluring because the myth is too strong,
      and it’s also becoming harder to live modestly.

      Our ideas of success and failure are so easily swayed by what’s in fashion, (or what we think other people think). I guess I don’t believe in the ideas of success or failure anymore. I’m middle-aged too, and perhaps by the time you’re this age, you become dubious of what passes as success and what ends up being judged a failure.

      • trypewriter

        I don’t think the term ‘sell out’ is particularly accurate. By all means rail against the ‘latter end of the project’ entrepreneurs who buy in only after the area has become established, but don’t diss the visionaries who started it.
        Even the late in the day entrepreneurs have their place, much as it grieves me to say so.
        However, change of this sort is inevitable, and once you become a person of a certain age in our society, it is equally inevitable that you will have seen it.
        More than that, by being even the first foot fall you have been an agent of that change.
        You will have told friends of your experience, you will have bought back holiday snaps of that delightful, unspoilt Tuscan hamlet. Word gets around, the picturesque becomes less picturesque, the dream of perhaps retiring to, or even moving to that cherished place flees as it becomes more developed, more expensive.
        But do you want the alternative? To keep the peasants in grinding poverty so that you can still get your stuff cheap?
        This is the difference between a visitor, as described in the article, and someone who lives the life 24/7.
        It doesn’t break my heart when someone gets electricity or clean water or manages to make a living. I’m happy for them.

  • Anne Giles

    I’m not really into avant-guard neighbourhoods at all. Reading your first couple of paragraphs, I would have avoided an area like that like the plague. :-(

    • Christian Wilcox

      Viewpoints like this are common in Croydon. Hence why our town is near-dead.

      You base too much on appearance, and not enough on actual facts.

  • Christian Wilcox

    Yeah, I can relate to this. The artists I knew around here as a kid are now down Brighton-way or out in Wales. Why?

    They don’t earn much, and would actually like to be happy ( rather than half-starved ).

    Croydon did have an art-house movement. But it died as the millennium approached and the City Centre got more violent. Violence isn’t cool.

    And now prices are as high as they are it won’t be coming back any-time soon. There may be possible patrons showing, but if you can’t afford to set up locally as an artist then, well, no local trade will happen. Set up in a spare room? Bedroom Tax… Nope, there are no real options any more. Not unless you are SERIOUSLY lucky on who your parents are.

    Pup-up shops might solve this for a bit, but art is unpredictable. Hence why it needs cheap premises to really survive. Cheap premises that simply does not exist any more.

  • Mario Creatura

    Wonderful article Susan. I don’t agree entirely with it, but very well written.

    If being middle-class is a factor in assessing whether or not an area is gentrifying or not, then there must be a self-perpetuating element to the ‘gentrification’ of an area if we are attracting more higher earners to the centre of the town. This seems logical to me.

    Perhaps the issue, as you point out, is that we are freely using the ‘gentrification’ in place of something else. Most of the articles on this subject on The Citizen seem to be debating, in a roundabout way, individual interpretations of what ‘gentrification’ means. Depending on your definition, depends on the extent to which you think it’s happening in Croydon.

    Again, a very entertaining piece. Write more!

    • Susan Oliver

      Thanks Mario. Yes, this piece was simply a way of describing my own personal ideas of what the word “gentrification” means. I really didn’t try to do anything else. Perhaps I gave a romanticised view of the process, and in doing so, gave a little bit away of what I value and what I think true wealth is.

      • Liz Sheppard-Jones

        I love your observations and your writing here. However, finding myself siding somewhat with Mario’s view on this :) , I have a problem. It’s clear that you like and admire what another respondent calls ‘avant-garde areas’. I know exactly what you mean.

        But the reason young, groovy metropolitan creatives move into particular areas is that the poverty, poor housing stock etc in such areas makes them affordable. The experience of those already there is of unstylish, uncreative hardship and lack of opportunity. For the artists and thesps it’s a lifestyle choice, and a temporary one – they’ll move on up, and it’s no surprise that prosperity follows where they lead. They were, after all, grinding coffee beans all along. Jarvis Cocker lampooned their elitism rather nicely in the 1996 Pulp hit ‘Common People’. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuTMWgOduFM .

        What I want to happen in Croydon is an increase in prosperity for all – and just because that’s never completely achievable doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be striven for. I welcome our proposed re-developments because they will bring jobs, (16,000 in total, we are told) and I want as many as possible to go to local people to support the recovery of the local economy. My fear is that while the new prosperity will happen for some, other groups will be left even further behind. Social exclusion will increase in Croydon as in so many other parts of London.

        But I can’t consider the end of poverty to be any kind of loss. What, exactly, is being sold out? The cool young incomers will never understand ‘what it means to live your life/without meaning or control’, and no-one ever should. Should we not rather be saying : bring on acting lessons, spinach omelettes and colourless teas for all!

        • Anne Giles

          Colourless teas? Spinach omelettes? Why? Espressos and a nice juicy steak for me.

        • Mario Creatura

          Careful agreeing with me Liz, people will start to talk…

  • Tom Black

    A witty and extremely thought-provoking piece, Susan. Brings a lot of us down to earth again, much like James’ piece last week! I very much look forward to more contributions from you in the future. Without hyperbole, I can say this is already one of my favourite pieces on the site.