‘Frontiers: Inside the Outsiders’ is Pi Comment’s very own column tackling social issues from the perspective of students. Karolina Kašparová delves into the sinister process of ‘gentrification’ – not just a hipster-bashing slogan, but a true displacement of communities.
Gentrification is a buzzword, much abused, but little understood. Complaining about this phenomenon has become an integral part of any culture or community calling itself alternative. I have grown used to hearing friends bemoaning the loss of their favourite ex-alternative pubs, which have recently become filled with norm-core-looking people who are more than willing to pay twice as much for a pint or toast topped with healthy vegan goodies. These changes are, naturally, very sad for many people. Yet there is something even more sinister – and much less hipster – behind the processes of gentrification.
Ruth Glass coined the term gentrification in the 1960s and her example was – unsurprisingly – London. Glass wrote about how previously working-class residents were being displaced by the middle-class in districts such as Islington. This might seem common knowledge, but one should take into account that these processes have many phases. Indeed, in recent years it has not even been easy to determine who is meant by “the gentry”, with gentrification continuing to a point at which the old “gentry” are substituted for a new one, no longer just middle-class, but wealthier and wealthier.
When do we start to notice the process of gentrification? Ironically, the initial critics are the first gentrifiers – those who started the process in the first place. I do not want to pass moral judgement here – it is natural that many (mostly) young people, especially artists, feel inclined to move to cheap places with a distinct spirit. These first gentrifiers simply wish to share an inspiring place separated from the more commercial streams of party culture. Even though their presence can gradually trigger the influx of wealthier citizens who propagate the process of gentrification, we cannot ban others from living in creative clusters just because it might attract investors. But what could be changed is to start focusing on the effects of gentrification, not at the point when the first gentrifiers themselves are negatively impacted, but much sooner. How do the people who had lived in the district before the onset of gentrification feel about it? If we wait too long, we run out of time for anyone to answer this question.
In certain contexts, let us use the word displacement instead of gentrification. Displacement might be understood as a consequence of gentrification, and some argue that this phenomenon is often not in fact so severe or that there are other positive consequences of gentrification. Even though gentrification is surely an ambiguous issue in itself, it seems only fair that at least sometimes, we should focus not on the gentry, but on those who had to pack up and leave the area in the first place. We all theoretically understand that such people exist, but in certain cases it is often easier for gentrifiers not to admit this to themselves, until they find themselves facing the same problems.
To criticise a group of predictable hipsters can be an amusing evening activity (how else to declare that you are not one of them!) but it does nothing to help anyone. The initial gentrifiers are not necessarily rich, but they at least have a voice in media, engage in activism or know how to address politicians and local pillars of the community. They also have contacts, which means that when the gentrified district becomes unbearable, financially and atmospherically draining, they know very well where else to move (and spark off the whole process again).
We cannot expect the investors in up-and-coming areas to talk about the negative aspects of their investments – that would not make any economic sense. But the complaining gentrifiers could do a bit more – when we complain of displacement, instead of gentrification, we will bring attention to those original residents in an area who are often invisible in the media.
This change in term will also highlight many other issues, for example that displacement often hurts ethnic minorities to a much greater extent, and London is no exception. Displacement not gentrification – this linguistic trick in itself will not solve the problem, but it could help to change the perspective and give this issue the gravity and respect it deserves.