Gentrification, Sorry Don't You mean Trendification?
“Gentrification? I think you mean trendification….”
“Gentrification? Making sense of the ‘g’ word
Few terms are as loaded and invite such controversy as gentrification. The mere mention of the ‘g’ word on social media will almost inevitably generate a stream of turbo-charged invective that talks in terms of the total transformation of many of our towns from an occupying army of bourgeois arrivistes whose presence presages the loss of all that we know and love, whilst also anticipating the imminent and indiscriminate social cleansing of less advantaged groups. The impression given is that if you are not loaded, then you are about to be off-loaded to somewhere appreciably less pleasant, however challenged the postcode you have lived in might historically have been.
A little investigation reveals the term is not new. In fact, it has been in use for almost half a century, having originally been coined by sociologist Pat Glass to characterise the first wave movement of young professionals into hitherto unattractive and off limit inner city areas such as Camden, Islington and Camberwell in the 1960s. This generation of baby boomer urban pioneers bucked the dominant trend of moving into the monochrome suburbs in favour of reclaiming often dilapidated, unloved and multi-occupied Edwardian and Victorian properties as family homes, investing time and effort in researching, exposing or salvaging original features covered up or taken out as part of the nation’s increasingly DIY fixated craving for home improvements and smoother lined modernity.
Over time, as the pioneers were joined by large numbers of their fellow professionals, attracted by affordable property prices and the reassuring presence of people just like them, neighbourhoods with traditionally difficult reputations as somehow rather rough becoming increasing desirable, thereby commanding greater interest and still higher house prices as an upward spiral took hold. This priced some interested parties out, whilst generating ripple effects into neighbouring areas still unreconstructed by the improving middle classes. Thus, in the 1980s, as Islington became unaffordable, Hackney rose to the occasion as its newly desirable first cousin, offering similarly rich pickings for those bold enough to venture into its still unreconstructed streets. Decades later, as Hackney saturated, and opportunities for an affordable bargain declined, the shift extended further east, taking in parts of Newham and more recently, Leyton, until very recently seen as most decidedly on the wrong side of the railway tracks.
Much discussion around the g word has traditionally been centred on London and other big urban centres. However, the effect of a half century of constantly changing and ever expanding borders for gentrification, the dearth of family house building and the near continuous price rises over the past 30 years- the downturn of 2008 produced a slowing down rather than a collapse and was therefore only a marginal blip- has seen notionally comfortable ‘professional ‘audiences seek refuge outside the M25, extending the dialogue to areas that thus far have been largely unaffected by such trends.
Which is precisely why we are now talking about gentrification here on the coast, as Hastings, locked in a wannabee destination battle with arch arts rival Margate, generates significant sunday supplement coverage as the latest happening location. Indeed, barely a weekend goes by without a property or lifestyle feature celebrating our renaissance from a 1980s nadir as a hard drugs- addled benefits playground to our current premier league billing as serious cultural contender, up there with Hackney, St Ives and Southwold. There’s always an element of hype to such coverage, and an inevitable recycling of still limited palette of stories and reference to the same personalities ( think Kathryn Flett and Alastair Henty) but it is hard to dispute the buzz around those parts of town that attract the chattering classes, with galleries and coffee shops opening weekly in the Old Town, and Central St Leonards , the architecturally most enticing area currently exhibiting most significant transition from a very depressed baseline. Indeed, the word on the street is that pioneers are now extending their reach beyond these obvious frontier areas, taking in hitherto ignored parts of Ore, Bohemia Road and the still patchy stretch of bedsit land around Queens Road.
Whilst the news might be generally upbeat, there’s a continuing sense of risk and fragility around the town’s regeneration, with at least one much hyped major regenerative beacon, the OB, closing its doors after just over a year trading as a multi-purpose arts, entertainment and cultural centre. Coupled with the staggered shutdown of Brighton University Hastings campus as a direct delivery centre in favour of an attenuated arrangement involving the local further education college, the sense derived is of a town coming out of the darkest depths, albeit one still on a long-distance journey out of enduring disadvantage, with acute ongoing challenges around education, skills and the strength of the economy.
For many locals, especially those in the service sector, the arrival of the new audiences, be they Down from London (DFL), Across from Brighton (AFB) or Slumming it from Tunbridge Wells (STW), is unconditionally good news, bringing populations with spending power into an economy for so long defined by the absence of any disposable income. However, this is a by no means universal reading, and the area’s new-found fashionability attracts much adverse comment. This is mainly focused around the effects of the recent hike in property prices, both for sale and for rent, the substantial and rapid change to the look and feel of local communities, through the loss of discount shops to coffee shops and galleries, for example, and a feeling that the poor are somehow being displaced just at the point at which improvement is making its presence felt. Plumb deeper and there’s usually also a residual class-based resentment against incomer populations, who are seen as representing a fundamentally different set of interests which somehow disrespect the town’s troubled recent reputation as doughty underdog cruelly cast aside and shat upon by the forces of global capital.
Unsurprisingly, there’s an element of truth to both arguments. The recent upturn has seen high levels of new business start-ups in even grim thoroughfares traditionally given over to back to back charity stores, with an expanded range of local services and retail choice, at the same time as rising prices have restricted the choice for many local first time buyers, whose mortgage options are limited by low local earnings. That said, property prices are still keen in south eastern terms outside of clearly defined hotspots, which effectively operate their own separate residential market place. Larger social housing agencies like Amicus Horizon and Orbit are also still actively developing property for rent, witness the high-volume development on the former college site on Archery Road, a prestigious location which will be dominated by housing for lower income groups, whilst current efforts to develop a community lad trust on the site of the former Ore Power station ensure issues of affordability and access maintain a high public profile.
The issue about class is perhaps the most interesting, and most complex, effectively operating as a trojan horse, or big tent, for a cluster of issues about change, community and the role of immigration and the ‘outsider’ in geographically isolated communities as much as the ostensible headline issue itself.
Over the coming months, Coastal Action will be exploring the extent and meaning of gentrification here on the coast, using quantitative approaches to track the extent of population shift, local mapping techniques to identify the areas impacted, and qualitative methods to identify who the arrivals are, where they are coming from and whether gentrification as a term accurately describes what is going on.
If you would like be part of our research, or to find out more, please contact us at @coastAction, www.coastalaction.co.uk or at James.Prentice@live.co.uk. We are keen to talk to local people from a range of backgrounds to help built strand of coastal stories we can follow over an extended timeline.