Gentrification is often described as a tale of David and Goliath where local residents and local businesses struggle to keep their heads above water against a rising tide of global corporate chain stores and heartless property developers.
It is the ground offensive in capitalism’s war on the poor, a street by street up-marketisation of shop fronts, housing, public space, goods and services. It is market speculation and commodity trading in culture and community that drives inequality and class segregation.
Developers, estate agents, big landlords and pro-business politicians look at property, neighbourhoods and housing like the editor of LondonlovesBusiness.com: “London homes are investments on steroids”. They seek out and seize locations and expressions of culture, community, and self-organised activity and transform them into commodities and marketing tools.
Capitalists must constantly expand, take over or create new markets. They must develop new ways to exploit people (workers), places (land and the built environment) and things (goods, services and natural resources).
Capitalist marketisation expands, seeps and nestles into our cities, neighbourhoods and communities in the form of gentrification.
People with little or no money live, or were settled (remember council housing?), where rent is less expensive. Those people invest time, effort, care and creativity to build a vibrant community and make it inviting, maybe even cool.
But property developers, estate agents, landlords and businesspeople will also value the area for the investment potential and profit margins that a desirable, “up-and-coming” area can yield.
Property values are inflated by estate agents, developers and greedy landlords until the local residents and shops are priced out and it’s flooded with corporate chains, boutiques and luxury apartments.
Gentrification is driven by state subsidies, tax breaks and incentives for the rich. It’s protected by political lobbying and the bundling of bad debt then repackaged and sold on as a commodity. We see bailouts and bonuses for bankers and mortgage brokers; waiting lists, means testing and eviction notices for the poor.
As cities expand, what were marginalised communities full of low paid workers become strategic “regeneration” areas where expansionist property developers swoop in.
This ignores the poor who already live and work there, and sells their community off to people who almost always already own multiple properties. The process results in what Mike Davis in his book City of Quartz, called “spatial apartheid…a new class war…at the level of the built environment.”
Gentrification is driven by and feeds on fear, displacement, inequality and racism. Communities are at their best when they are diverse, welcoming and vibrant. In sanitised, insular playgrounds for the rich, the poor are only welcome to toil away in low wage jobs.
The Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games and the London 2012 Summer Olympics had a massive impact on huge areas of the east end of both cities. Two east end clearances targeted poor areas and swept away what the council and developers saw as the unsightly inconvenience of poverty.
Investment on a scale previously unseen in these areas turned them into global sporting amusement parks emblazoned with business branding and a flimsy narrative about legacy.
This illustrates the vicious nature of gentrification as a business and a sport for the amusement and profit of the rich. It also shows the scale of investment and regeneration that is possible when there’s a will to do so.
There are countless inspiring examples of fighting back against gentrification. The anti-bedroom tax campaign in Scotland, the New Era estate victory in Hackney and the Focus E15 campaign for “social housing not social cleansing” all strike directly at housing policy.
The Reclaim Brixton demonstration in April, the National Gallery strike against privatisation of public services and access to arts and culture, and the Glasgow homeless casework strike for fair pay for front-line services take up the wider questions of gentrification.
The fight against gentrification will be most successful when it’s part of wider political struggles against racism and scapegoating, struggles for trade union rights, a living wage, public housing, public services, the NHS and the welfare state and the fight for working class representation and political accountability of elected politicians.
Communities that are involved in collective struggle are strong communities that do not just survive, they thrive.