In May 2016, Artists working in Stoke-on-Trent were invited to take part in a discussion about how we can identify and prepare for gentrification. Stoke-on-Trent is often accused of being 20 years behind other cities in the UK. But instead of seeing this as a negative, it was my idea to reframe it as a positive opportunity to plan for more sustainable growth in the city, positioning it’s local artists as the vanguards of this vision. Since many criticisms are leveled at artists’ involvement in gentrifying regeneration schemes, Letters from the Gentrified was a targetted attempt to counter this assertion. Debate centred around 3 number of ‘letters from the gentrified’ written specifically for this event by Artists working in Margate, London and Manchester.
From Dale Lately, Cultural Critic and Writer From Manchester
Let’s stop pretending. We creatives also have a hand in gentrification
Stop me if this sounds familiar. According to the city’s newspaper, “The first floor bar will be crafted by an expert joiner in the style of an antique yacht, while the wall will feature vintage radios – harking back to the building’s history” while there will also be “New York style pizza, burgers and salads, alongside a selection of craft beers and cocktails.” The walls will be “brought to life” – need we say? – by local graffiti artists, while the blackalicious Spotify choices and iPod DJs will be playing reggae and funky house. I could go on. But you already know what I’m talking about. This is south Manchester, but it could be pretty much anywhere.
My friends moved to Levenshulme around 10 years ago, back when it was still largely a low-rent wilderness of squat terraces and dodgy Irish pubs, back when you could still get a pint for a quid fifty in the local, back when a new bicycle path had just been carved out of a disused railway, winding beneath old stone bridges and tumbleweed to connect the trailing estates of the city. There my friends – artists, musicians, film-makers – rented shitty house after shitty house, working in bike shops and dodging dole queues to survive, making experimental – or perhaps just mental – music, orchestras constructed from disgorged bicycles, weirdo films, basement gigs featuring blindfolded harpists and atonal crockery percussionists. Eventually they were given rooms for approximately 11p a week in a huge housing co-operative just down the road from another (vegan) housing co-op, and Slade Hall, an artist’s commune in an incredible listed building. There was a lot to be said for Levenshulme.
You know what’s coming next.
The new cafes and bars open up. Scuffed bare wood tables and regulation- uncomfortable benches, “Locally soured and organic” with the usual seasonal dishes and rustic sourdough. A place called the Buttery serving steak and kidney pies (£10); a gritty street market offers a selection of artisan food, drink, arts and crafts as well as excellent wood-fired pizza; a “pop up pie shop”, coffee shop and art gallery appear, as well as “regular gigs, quiz nights and light bites from local traders.” (Pies are made locally by an outfit called “Life of Pie” – which at least in name must represent the hipster Ground Zero for traditional working class food). Meanwhile the newly opened Dice Lounge “adds a touch of glamour to Levy” with VIP room, DJs, champagne and cocktails, (both “bling and affordable”). A photo shows sexy women being served by a dapper suited barkeep in stylish neon; “Is this Levenshulme’s first VIP area?” a hyperlinked subtitle drools in the Manchester Evening News’s website. That the whole thing used to be a run-down pub – the Railway pub, based, as per the name, in a rattling locale opposite the crumbling station – and is now a “swanky champagne and cocktail bar” says everything you need to know about Levenshulme 2.0.
And so it goes on. The neighborhood’s civic baths – a beautiful crumbling Art Deco gem that costs a fortune to maintain – is left to rot while swimming and bathing functions are now parceled off to a leisure centre run by the Arcadia group, at substantially higher prices. The forlorn local campaign to save it is doomed from the start. Another beautiful oddity too expensive to preserve. The Levy street market goes from strength to strength, with arts ‘n’ crafts Etsy entrepreneurs crawling out of the woodwork to man things like the arty plants stall Succulent Utopia, retro book stands, Signature Soap, Ola Vintage, plus all the militant twee you could possibly imagine – Baked With Love, Lemon Drizzle Tea & Cakes, “extraordinary butties” from North West Game, and big burgers from What’s Your Beef. (Beard-stroking pale ale snobbery comes courtesy of Brothers Of Beer). Interactive activities are planned. The opening weekend will have – you guessed it – live ukulele.
Now, here’s the thing.
I have a feeling you may have read the above few paragraphs with a certain expectation in mind. You may have felt you knew how this piece was going to go. After all, here was a “real”, authentic, working class community. And now – hey presto – it’s gone. Puff. Evaporated in a haze of locally-sourced coffee steam. Or if it’s not gone it’s going, to be replaced, priced out, socially-cleansed. Gentrified.
But I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to do that because I don’t think it’s that simple. In short, I think many of us – and especially many of us creative workers – are more complicit in the process of gentrification than we like to admit.
Now, this might not be a popular view. And it might seem tough to blame creatives – those who spend most of their working lives grubbing around for grant money and generally earning breadcrumbs – for gentrification’s worst horrors.
The press do weekly scoops on the dark side of a property market that prices out locals in favour of gleaming glass “yuppiedromes” and London-style horrors such as “iceberg houses” and “buy to leave”, of absentee landlords trading ex-council houses on Tokyo exchanges. In short, gentrification can represent a particularly callous and neoliberal form of financial speculation.
But behind the developer’s wrecking ball is something else – something that lends it extra force. We call it “regeneration”. And art, creativity and cultural activity are essential to that.
In his 2014 Northern Powerhouse speech, our universally loved Chancellor outlined plans for a “creative enterprise zone”, for backing the city’s “creative clusters” and the need to compete for the “creative class” that powers economic growth (because innovators and entrepreneurs are attracted to “creative, cultural, beautiful places”). Google “creative Manchester” and the hits never stop coming. Funky webzines covering the creative scene, revamped creative MMU courses, boutique creative PR firms – everyone’s keen to show their creativity.
Now what Osborne really means by all of the “creativity” driving the “growth”, of course, is start-ups and ad agencies – pro-business and a long way from the artists and creatives we know. But even the most progressive of artists is still implicated in this process. The yarn-bombing urban weaver creating a wall-sized tapestry for a local council may think they’re doing good for the community – but that tapestry and that money also does something else: it sends signals about the space, that this is a “nice” space, “arty” and “creative”. However insignificantly, it makes that space safer for housebuyers and for developers. For speculators. For higher prices.
Art, for all its “disruptive”, left wing and protest chic, is actually gentrification’s biggest battering ram – a tool for property speculators, boutique owners and rentiers to justify pushing up prices. Look at Hoxton, a wind-torn shithole off a roundabout right up to the mid 1990s. Look at Bristol’s Stokes Croft. From Shoreditch to Salford we see a familiar narrative: artists move into derelict area; artists make derelict area trendy; developers develop derelict area; developers price artists out of area. But a closer inspection reveals that it’s less a case of simple exploitation than an uneasy – and guilt-ridden – symbiosis.
So my arty friends, who complain how the drinks cost more than they used to in Levenshulme, are the same people who go to the gentrified Post Office deli round the corner that sells croissants by day and German craft beer by night, both for a small fortune. The same bohemian pop-up retailers – Etsy retailers, face painters and artisan breadmakers – who moan about the gentrification of their neighborhood are nonetheless glad when the street market fuelled by that gentrification gives them a chance to flog their stuff. And so on. Nobody’s saying that a 20-something with an ethically sourced jewellery stall at Levy market is on a par with a rapacious housing developer. But neither are they alien to the dynamic of urban improvement. Put simply, are the poets and painters who deride the prettification of their neighborhood not also glad when cafes open that will host open mics and display their work?
These contradictions go much wider than northern England of course – and the debate can be a lot sharper. In Boyle Heights, a traditionally poor Latino area of East LA, a visiting experimental street opera group were actually pelted by local schoolkids because they were seen to be representing the same kind of gentrification. On the one hand this seems a little unfair; surely it’s not experimental street opera performers but rather, say, Wall Street financiers who are the ones to blame. But on the other hand perhaps there is a kind of logic at work – because it’s precisely the presence of opera groups, dance troupes, poetry nights and all the rest that makes the place “safe” and “vibrant” for developers. We’re faced with a weird contradiction between intention and effect – one that we as creative folks have a responsibility to address. I’ve no doubt that the people making the street opera felt like they were “helping”, doing something socially-minded; but when it comes to gentrification, the “helping” may be part of the problem.
I should say that I don’t in any way want to attack creative workers (or pelt them with stones). Most of my friends work in the arts after all, and so do I; I’ve actually written quite extensively elsewhere on the appalling economic conditions for modern creatives. What I would like is for us all – writers, artists, musicians, performers – to think a little harder about our role in all this.
There’s a whole popular movement in urban theory spreadheaded by Richard Florida that explicitly calls on local authorities to import artists (along with gay people and software developers) to an area because of their effects on “desirability” – what might be called the “creative / coffeeshop co-efficient”. But we don’t need to look for urban theory, because the urban reality is there all around us. Salford’s Islington Mill – to take just one local example – may well be a haven for its community of artists, offering them an affordable way to live and work. But it and the other converted industrial spaces surrounding it will also have an effect in raising house prices. Stoke-on-Trent is seeing an explosion of communal art spaces from its combination of cheap rent and acres of disused industriana, so much so that I saw it mentioned for the first time recently as one of the “towns to watch” for creative lifestyles. A creative “town to watch” is classic shark-bait for urban loft developers; you can bet that people are already making calls. Would any of that have happened if it hadn’t been for the artists moving there?
My friends in Levenshulme have been there for nearly a decade now. When I caught up with them recently I asked them whether they recognize that their own role as middle class creatives is implicated in the gentrification of the area. “It’s terrible when locals are priced out of the area,” came the reply.
“Yeah,” said another friend.
There was a pause.
“Mind you, it is possible to get a good coffee now,” he went on. “I have to admit that’s a big plus.”
Gentrification’s like money. None of us are entirely innocent.
From Dan Thompson, Artist and Writer from Margate
I live in an elegant if unkempt tower block on Margate seafront. The first people moved into their flats here in 1964.
That year was a good one for sociology, an emerging practice then, and an art as much as a science. Two sociologists separately gave us two ideas that now seem so obvious, it’s hard to see how anyone hadn’t already thought of them. While Stanley Cohen watched Mods and Rockers fight on Margate Sands, Ruth Glass was looking at the country’s inner cities.
From his observations Cohen identified the phenomena of folk devils and moral panics. Folk devils, I’m sure you know, are strong stereotypes, oversimplified, so easily identifiable. The actions and importance of these folk devils must be exaggerated and overblown, he said, to cause a moral panic. And then society can hunt them, trying to stop them ahead of their next act. But folk devils are a diversion from the real problems a society faces.
I always identified most with the Mods; there was nothing wrong in what they were doing, in their clean living under difficult circumstances. I think I have a Mod soul.
And while Cohen watched newspaper photographers encourage the clean living mods and greasy rockers to hit each other with deckchairs, Glass was concentrating on the problems facing Britain’s cities as society changed. And she identified a process she called Gentrification:
“One by one, many of the working class neighbourhoods of London have been invaded by the middle-classes. Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly, until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”
A couple of years ago, I moved to Margate from Worthing. In those two years, Margate has filled with (mainly) Londoners – DFLs, colloquially, Down From Londons. And they have changed Margate’s character. Every press article (and there have been many in the last two years) connects Margate to the hippest London districts. Margate is Hackney-on-Sea, Dalston-sur-Mer, Shoreditch at the seaside.
Margate right now is a place of hyper-gentrification, accelerated beyond reason. It’s impossible to track the change. I have been out of town for a week, working in Southend; I couldn’t tell you what’s opened or closed while I was away. Tea rooms that do yoga, boutique homeware stores, vegan cupcakes, photography galleries, a shop specialising in horror movie soundtracks on vinyl, studios and coworking spaces everywhere.
Of course, we’re told that artists are leading the regeneration here. That somehow, artists are responsible for all this.
But really – am I, and are you going to do the same to Stoke? Are we responsible for gentrification?
Most artists earn considerably less than the national average wage; a worrying number earn below £10,000 a year. Those are incomes that put artists well below the poverty line. Be honest; what are you really earning?
And what are you saving? Few artists have savings, and despite the trustafarian stereotypes, few have additional income. There is little employment protection for artists, no standard rates of pay, no pension scheme, and no strong union. Most artists are working from job to job, walking a financial tightrope. I certainly am; one job after another, and when one falls through or falls apart (as it did earlier this year), I have no safety net. Economically, artists are really working class, even if the arts infrastructure around them is run by the middle classes.
So I rent my flat, and have always rented; even in good years, my income isn’t certain enough to convince a bank to lend me money. Most of my artist friends rent, with many living in awful conditions, or on uncertain leases. Part of the reason I moved from Worthing, away from family and friends, was because rents there were rising so fast. The town is twelve miles from Brighton, and is effectively becoming a suburb of the larger city down the coast.
Brighton and Worthing both appear regularly in the media, but not, like Margate, for their cool; they feature in lists of property hotspots, places where living on an average wage is unaffordable, places where the gap between the property-rich and the working poor is growing wider. Commuter suburbs, the new Metroland, further out than you thought. One by one, my friends have moved away from Worthing – to Wales, to Scotland, to outlying corners of England.
So like them, I moved away from the town I’d lived in all my life – because of the gentrification happening there.
Right now, artists are the folk devils in a national discussion about gentrification. We’re seen as the enemy in an emerging class war, the footsoldiers for the people behind us who buy up the big homes. We’re the people that other people get angry with.
But really, I think, we’re more gentrified against, than gentrifying.
From Katie Kinnaird, Director & Edit Producer from Walthemstow
I’m a northern girl that moved to London in 1994. I lived all over the city, never quite finding anywhere that felt truly like home.
10 years ago we bought our beautiful, victorian flat in Walthamstow – the home of boy band, E17. We instantly fell in love with the area. It was pretty rough around the edges, but a really friendly, welcoming place, and one of the most multi-cultural places it’s possible to imagine. Typical of many London boroughs, It’s residents are a really healthy mix of working & middle class, with very little sign of any wealthy class!
It’s the kind of place that you find a lot of teachers, nurses and professionals on a good average wage would move to – a place where young families could afford to live.
Despite being part of a London borough, it is very much its own town. It has an incredibly vibrant high street, with a daily ‘pound a bowl’ market and almost entirely made up of independent shops, cafes & restaurants. We do have a BHS, Asda & Sainsburys, a MacDonalds & a Subway but the rest is all one-offs.
Three years ago, things started to change. Somebody reported in the London press that Walthamstow was well-connected transport-wise and was a pretty cool place to live. Then the bearded hipsters started arriving, pushing buggies & property prices sky high.
Gentrification happened really suddenly, and it’s hard to balance up what is good with what is less so.
The good definitely comes with the fact that our local pub, which was a pretty intimidating dive, has become a really open, friendly place that welcomes families and feeds you well – it was the first of many pubs in the area to be upgraded. If this hadn’t happened, most of those pubs would probably have become betting shops (as was the trend) – although there is a part of me that misses the traditional aspect of what I would call ‘an old man pub’ … they are virtually non-existent in this area – and I do wonder what happened to all the people that used to go to them.
We now have an unbelievably wide range of cafes – from the turkish coffee shops right through to the art cafe & the veggie cafe & the Brazilian … you really can cater for everybody. Prices are obviously still low enough for people to try out what they really want to do with a cafe … we have a great variety of places that are popping up. If the prices were too high, then people wouldn’t be able to experiment.
Because Walthamstow has become ‘cool’, we are now on the map as a place for performing artists, comedians, musicians etc to visit – it means we have a fantastic variety of events on offer – and there are a growing number of interesting venues for people to perform in.
The things that I worry about are really to do with losing the true sense of community that this area has evidently thrived on for decades (if not centuries!) … the people that have moved in as part of the gentrification came because they’d heard good things, but they have to be encouraged to play a part in the community, otherwise the sense of community will just die away.
There is a real sense of ‘us and them’ from some of the new arrivals – they don’t go to the high street or the local shopping mall to do their shopping, they still jump in the car to find a Waitrose or an M&S.
We have a Walthamstow Village (which is the original hamlet around which the area grew) – it has a really small shopping area, but this has become the central point of white middle class living – delis & fancy restaurants, over-priced kids clothes, over-priced antiques & a kitchen shop. I was there recently and felt like I was in an architect’s drawing of perfection, but not my kind of perfection. It feels very much like a class divide.
The most ridiculous issue here, though, is the price of properties. I suppose we are lucky, as we bought our flat 10 years ago, but in the last 3 years the prices have almost tripled, as people compete to buy their first home.
It’s depressing, because no teachers, or nurses or anyone on a half-decent wage can afford to move here now – so what will happen to the community that helped make the area what it was? Where will those young families move to? And although we love our flat, we would love to have a house, but can’t afford to upgrade to a house and really don’t want to leave the area.
Gentrification is quite scary because it can happen really quickly, especially if there is an eager population.
There are a lot of things that have changed in the last 3 years, and overall I think it’s for the better but I think it’s a balance which needs managing – give those with money too much power & we’ll find ourselves in a world of Waitrose, M&S and other such blandness …