What’s the point in hand-wringing, asks David Rudlin

David Rudlin

We all know that gentrification is bad, right? It’s something that I have written about in a previous column about Gillett Square in east London. The insidious march of wealth, pricing out local communities. House prices rising and rents going up so that people and businesses who have sustained a community for years find themselves no longer able to afford to live there.

When I was a student in the early 1980s gentrification was an issue that dominated many of our debates as we wrote essays on the transformation of places like Fulham and Notting Hill. At the same time we were set projects that sought to regenerate dockland areas and run-down housing estates in the name of regeneration which was, of course, completely different.

The contradiction was even more evident for the students in Cardiff that I saw as an external examiner earlier this summer who had been set a project to create an anti-gentrification regeneration strategy for the city’s Grangetown district. Is this an oxymoron? Quite possibly, after all, the things that we do to regenerate an area inevitably have the effect of pushing up values and rents as well as improving its image and making it more desirable as a place to live and work.

Grangetown is a short walk from Cardiff city centre and has, in reality, been gentrifying for some time. It is a lively working-class, multi-cultural neighbourhood with all the usual inner-city problems. There are broadly three parts to the community: a stable working-class core that has been there for years, a transient impoverished population that is there because it’s all they can afford, and a liberal middle class attracted by its grit and “authenticity” (not to mention the cheap house prices).

Which of these communities do we think is most concerned about gentrification? Not, on the whole, the stable core who are partly insulated as owners or council tenants and are happy that the area is finally on the up and that the druggies are moving out. Not, on the whole the transient community who never really felt part of the place and in any case have bigger problems to worry about. No, the people most concerned about gentrification are the liberal middle classes who fear that the authenticity of the place is being ruined. Sam Lipsyte put it perfectly in his novel The Ask when he wrote: “They were infiltrating, the freaking me’s. The me’s were going to wreck everything, hike rents, demand better salads. The me’s were going to drive me away.”

The Academy of Urbanism recently visited Levenshulme in Manchester as part of our awards assessments. Like Grangetown this is a lively working-class district that is being heralded in the property pages of the Manchester Evening News as an up-coming place to be/buy. On the visit we went to see the old station that is being converted by a local trust, the library taken over by the community, the church converted to a community and business centre and, most of all, the fantastic monthly market.

The university lecturer that we met, one of the people who had started the market, now worried that the huge crowds it attracts contain few local people. Others fretted that trendy people from all over the city were following the Evening News advice and buying up all the properties, pushing up prices and ruining the unique character and mix of the area. What struck us was that the initiatives that had caused the area to be nominated by the Academy, were also the reason for its gentrification – but would probably not have happened without it.

In one respect worrying about this is like fretting about the tide coming in. It is part of the cyclic process of growth and decline that affects all urban areas. Once-affluent areas fall into decline and are populated by people with less means and choice of where they live. In declining cities this can create a downward spiral that is difficult to reverse. However in expanding cities the search for the “up-coming” area creates the opposite pressure. Urban pioneers are always searching out the next gritty, authentic neighbourhood and, having made it trendy, cause it to gentrify, pushing out both the local community and sometimes themselves. If only we could arrest the process at the point when it was just right. Say Covent Garden in 1980, Camden in 1990, Shoreditch in 2000 or Grangetown and Levenshulme today – before the “me’s” ruined everything.