Recently, ROAR published an article entitled The Poor Fetish. The piece argues that in cities like London, bored and alienated middle-class people working in ‘bullshit jobs’ are driving gentrification because they pursue and participate in the commodification of ‘working-class’ and minority cultural pursuits and spaces. While I agree that this process of commodification exists, I want to counter some of the ways in which the author uses general observations about class and culture to draw incorrect conclusions about the social and cultural exclusions and enclosures that occur in major cities today.
As someone who researches and organizes around the displacement and immiseration of those of us on low incomes, I think that at least a basic understanding of the political economy of cities is essential for the effort of formulating an appropriate answer to gentrification and displacement.
Hating on hipsters
The article, like several others that have been doing the rounds recently, follows some of the common themes of what I call the ‘hating on hipsters’ critique of gentrification, according to which it’s the consumption patterns of individuals that are ultimately to blame for the displacement of working class communities. I don’t have any substantial dispute with the claim that people often practice a form of cultural tourism (while at the same time trying to keep other cultures at arm’s length) or that for most people in the cities of the Global North work is emotionally demanding, demeaning and pointless. However, a critique of forms of consumption and affective labor doesn’t get us very far in correctly and powerfully understanding the violence of gentrification.
It is true that people who are not poor get off on poverty chic and it is also true that that this appropriation can be hurtful if you happen to be poor (and I mean poor in many senses, rather than just having little money). It is also true that people make money from that desire for a certain kind of consumption; this is a form of commodification. But we should avoid the assumption that we profess to despise: that there is somehow an ‘authentic’ culture which can only be produced and consumed by the poor, people of color, and the underclass. The logical extension of some of these arguments can be fairly damaging.
For example, alongside some persistent, intersectional and effective organizing around social and private rents in Berlin (another hotspot for both cultural appropriation and gentrification), there have been attacks on middle-class students and foreign workers in the name of ‘anti-gentrification’. These incomers represent a ‘hipster’ dweller resented by those who see themselves as ‘indigenous’ and authentic to the area, and rightly or wrongly see their claim to that area under threat. Here we see that even in the multicultural cities of the Eurozone, culture-based analyses of gentrification can lead to xenophobia.
In another example, a recent US blog on gentrification in West Coast cities recommended its middle-class, incomer reader to combat gentrification in their neighborhood by shunning culturally appropriative spaces like chic lo-fi coffee bars and instead stick to ‘mom and pop’ shops that had existed in the neighborhood before they moved in.
The problem is that a consumption-based analysis of gentrification leads people to attempt to preserve the ‘authentic’ nature of a particular area. If only all of us had lived long enough to understand that in no meaningful way are cities ever like they were before. As this excellent piece on aesthetics and gentrification puts it, “the failure to challenge the formal identity between aestheticisation and commodification makes any attempt by first-wave gentrifiers to somehow ‘stay true’ (on an aesthetic level) to the spirit of the areas they are gentrifying seem ludicrous, if not… downright offensive.”
The urban middle class: privileged or precarious?
My main issue, however, is with the author’s claim that “with intimate knowledge of how the other half live comes an ugly truth: that middle-class privilege is in many ways premised on working class exploitation. That the rising house prices and cheap mortgages from which they have benefited create a rental market shot with misery.”
Here, the author equates ‘middle-class’ with ‘property-owning’. Yet many fully middle-class professionals on higher than median wages can only ever dream of buying property, especially in London and the South-East. On the other hand, many older working-class people own their own homes. Indeed, the ‘right to buy’ council housing has been a specific policy driven by the ideology that cities must be ‘regenerated’ — in other words, placed in the hands of private (individual and business) ownership — in order to promote and expand the ‘home-owner’ class.
The class analysis of the article thereby manages to exclude practically everyone I know. The author claims that “never will they [the middle-class consumer] face the grinding monotony of mindless work, the inability to pay bills or feed their children, nor the feeling of guilt and hopelessness that comes from being at the bottom of a system that blames the individual but offers no legitimate means by which they can escape.” With the growing precarization of even previously stable forms of ‘middle-class’ labor (medicine, law, teaching, especially in higher education), few of us are really immune from these anxieties and risks. Yet according to this piece, the middle-classes never suffer wage repression, retaliatory eviction, redundancy, battles with the JobCentre, and so on.
Secondly, even if this class delineation were correct, the power over property ownership in cities like London does not primarily lie in the hands of middle or higher-income workers, but in the hands of private developers, large-scale landlords, and government itself. Gentrification, as Rachel Brahinsky puts it, is “capitalism playing out in the landscape. It is essentially our economy’s urban form.” It is a process involving time, land and rent, and it cannot occur without a planning and governmental framework to support it. The root of gentrification is the ability of landlords to command higher and higher rents after a ‘rent gap’ has been established in an area that has experienced less investment than other areas (or, in London, just that it’s not as expensive as everywhere else).
It’s capitalism, stupid!
Gentrification is therefore complex and cyclical, and undoubtedly the presence of coffee shops allows landlords to charge more to (housing and business) tenants. It also concurrently involves wholesale privatization of public spaces, especially retail. But if poverty and culture are sometimes commodified, buildings and land always are. The Poor Fetish article identifies gentrification as “different kinds of shops opening up,” but apart from its odd presentation of the significance of property ownership, it doesn’t actually talk about housing. Espresso Bars are symptoms of gentrification far more than they are the underlying causes.
The problem, of course, is that the causes of gentrification are hard to spot — by the time the coffee shop has opened, or the big art gallery, or the enormous utopian hoarding has gone up, a lot of its processes have already taken root in the area. Contracts have been signed. Money has moved. Investment funding has been leveraged. Visible and objectionable as they may be, cultural appropriation or ‘fetishisation’ is not what’s violently displacing low and middle-income people in the capital; it’s capitalism, stupid!
In my work on traditional retail markets and city center regeneration, I see how the consumption and culture-based analysis of gentrification I am critiquing here quickly becomes an argument about changing consumption preferences. This argument is then repeatedly used as a reason to privatize, reduce and displace small businesses, despite them being popular and profitable. In other words, local government and the private sector use the very arguments made by ‘hating on hipster’ critics to entrench socio-economic divisions and displace low-income businesses and consumers.
Yet even as a critique of retail gentrification, the piece fails, because it pins consumption patterns on the preferences of individuals and cultural groups, and not on the way in which regeneration and commercial rents are largely controlled by state and private actors. Indeed gentrification (in its guise as ‘regeneration’, which usually involves retail, business, leisure, other amenities and housing destruction and redevelopment) is often at its most vicious and comprehensive when conducted by these actors in the name of ‘regeneration’ and ‘renewal’.
The Elephant and Castle regeneration scheme in South-East London, a partnership between a large local authority and a large international property developer, is perhaps the most outstanding example of this in London at the moment. Have a look at wonderfully comprehensive web archives like Heygate Was Home or Ward’s Corner Community Coalition and tell me whether you still think it’s the art students shopping at small businesses and markets and entrepreneurs opening up coffee shops who are the problem here.
Reclaiming our cities as commons
Perhaps the most unhelpful aspect of articles like this one (and they are, as I have indicated, all too frequent) is that they give no indication that this situation can be changed. In the ‘hating on hipsters’ vision of gentrification, the middle classes are bound to live boring lives and their escape from these boring lives is fundamentally doomed. The working class, meanwhile, can only look on in horror as their authentic culture is destroyed. No one has any agency. Indeed the article itself, like the system it identifies, serves mainly to blame the individual while offering no legitimate means by which they can escape.
For few years now I have been working on, organizing around and thinking about how we can reclaim and rebuild cities that are, for want of a better phrase, held in common; and I see a great deal of inspiring action and a very effective push-back against these gentrification phenomena, especially in London. Thanks largely to committed, cross-tenure, networked organizing, condemned social housing is being re-occupied, tenants are staying in their homes, community-led regeneration plans are receiving planning permission, and some local authorities (mainly due to the pressure from below and their appallingly long housing lists) are actually building social rented housing.
Networks of organization around the principles of the right to the city are forming, recognizing that we are all people who live, work and purchase things and experiences. There is not always a simple class struggle in this process, but there are alliances and commonalities around the principles of displacement, community and the public housing system which bring together huge numbers of people who are realizing what they share. Those who stand in the way of these commons are now being named: large private developers, politicians and unelected council officers, and complex multi-actor mechanisms known as Private Finance Initiatives (PFI).
The answer to gentrification is not agonizing over where you sip your coffee, snort your coke (if you must) or choose your cauliflower. If we actually want to build a city for everyone, we should support and participate in those organizing efforts against displacement, against privatization, for housing held in common and at rents everyone can afford. Those of us writing about the misery-inducing phenomena produced by capitalism have a constant responsibility to understand and explain these issues in terms that allow us the possibility to destroy, re-form and transcend them.
Gloria Dawson is a writer and researcher, focusing on housing (particularly precarious and temporary housing) regeneration and social movements. Originally from London, she now lives in Leeds, UK. She blogs at trespassingassemblies.tumblr.