Understanding the Inequality and Gentrification of London
In our romantic idealization of London, we may see flashes of bright red buses next to Buckingham Palace and fantasize about taking afternoon tea as an everyday occasion. However, while these presentations of postcard perfection slideshow through our minds, we, non-Londoners, often ignore how difficult it is to really live in London.
Once one ventures past the touristic charm, the constant juxtaposing realities of wealth and poverty in London highlight the inequality present. All one needs to do is cross the street to encounter a contradiction to the postcard narrative: one that cannot afford to live in the city. The fact the Borough of Hackney, once one of the poorest areas in Britain, is close to wealthy areas such as Kensington and Chelsea and the Cities of London and Westminster, is not a coincidence. Londoners may wake up in million dollar homes and walk down the street while they pass those barely making living wage.
Masking the inequality, an addictive intoxication to the city-lifestyle and commercial movement draws so many into the fantasized reality of London. A man in his mid 40s and a professor of history at London’s Notre Dame program, Keith Surridge, explains this simple love: “I can’t see myself moving because everything I want and have is here in London, and it can’t be got anywhere else. I’ll only move if I win the lottery and can afford to come back regularly!” However, for Julia Sanderson, a young graduate student in her twenties, living in London is not fueled by this desire: “There’s no way for me to build a real life here, I can’t afford to get on the property ladder and rent is so expensive it makes it hard to put any of my wages aside as savings.” Surridge and Sanderson’s responses are common examples of the issues many face while living in London. We all love the energy and culture of a city, but not how much it costs. So, one’s expectations are reworked to fit the ‘London’ lifestyle mold or force those who cannot keep up with the economic demand to move away. However, as the young and less wealthy move out, what is left of a city that is proving to be more and more difficult to live in?
Living in a city is always dynamic, and while many areas are under constant change, the areas near central London that were abandoned due to their heavy price demands, are left to redevelopment and gentrification. The ultra-elite, 5% of the population at the affluent-end of the inequality bracket, move to gentrify and revive neighborhoods. These neighborhoods once hailed as hosting mosaics of cultural landscapes have ‘revived’ as developers push for taller buildings and larger commercial brands. The buildings in the City of London that were once not allowed to obstruct St. Paul’s Cathedral’s view of the city have taken obscure measures in order to ‘renew’ the city as they choose slanted building plans that lie on angles and earn them nicknames like the ‘Cheese Grater’ and the ‘Gherkin.’ Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Pizza Express, and a host of other large commercialized brands litter the corners of these ancient streets.
The City of London, a subsection of London itself, looks painfully uniform and devoid of people living with few remaining past in the borough past the trading hours on the London Stock Exchange. Once a neighborhood where people of all different backgrounds would converge to trade goods, the City is no longer an active center of diversity, and the skeletons of old buildings are left to the financial and policy elites. Geographers Danny Dorling and J. Pritchard suggest in their 2010 publication the ultra-elite only move to expand their urban empires and center of financial success. Thus, in a competitive global city, London is ‘renewed’ into the idealized fantasy of commercialism and material wealth and losses its character and charm as a city. Therefore, it could be any city in any part of the world with the same brands and architects as the designers. As social scientist and geographer, Doreen Massey, points out that gentrification mixed with the ever-present inequality and social stratification contest London’s “success” as “the most cosmopolitan place on earth” and “a command and control center in the global economy.”
An urban and cultural geographer, Dr. Regan Koch, in his thirties, recounts his experience of this movement of artists and affordability when asked which area of London has changed since his initial move from Kansas to London:
Shoreditch. Fifteen years ago, it was a slightly defunct, edgy warehouse district, animated by avant-garde culture. Over the last decade, it became the epicenter of cool East London. Today, that too has passed and it’s defined mass-tourism at night and on weekends, and creative officework by day. I see it gradually settling into a sort of Covent Garden East over the next decade… Trendiness continues to travel East and South in London. Over the past five or so years, places like Dalston and Peckham exploded with new shopping, food, drink and nightlife experiences. But now, neighbourhoods like New Cross, Deptford, Limehouse and Hackney Wick seem to be where social and cultural entrepreneurs are making interesting things happen—so they’re probably ‘next’ in that regard.
Perhaps one of the most tragic instances of gentrification and commercialisation to a neighborhood is London’s Soho. In some way, every global city has a Soho: an epicentre of art, food, and cultural stimulation. Alas, Soho has changed from a place where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels could debate capitalism to a sex-center where drag queens are advertised by name and global brands are too numerous to count. Soho’s atmosphere, something that is rooted in the feelings and emotions that circulate throughout cities, is a center of defined lines that divide tourists and invading gentrification with its forgotten alleys and hidden character. Soho, so beloved by those who frequent its streets, is losing its charm as the streets that once stayed open until the early hours of the morning give way to 1 am closing times. As the cafes, pubs, restaurants, brand stores, and other establishments line the streets of main tourist spots, a gentrified lifestyle is consistently supported through the endless stream of shopping bags and creation of ‘new’ restaurants and buildings. At the same time, the immigrant populations and generations of families, who frequented the streets, can no longer afford to live or work in the area and move further from the center for cheaper housing. In Soho, the greatest example of this tourist consumer mindset is on Carnaby Street, which was once ‘the center of Swinging London’ where the mod and hippie groups converged in the 1960s. Today, Carnaby Street is lost to the endless gentrified crowd with no real contributing artistic value. Carnaby Street might as well be Times Square in New York. In Kingly Court off of Carnaby Street, three floors offer hugs, restaurants, and yoga and signs are intricately painted to read, “Snap your Dish #KinglyCourt” or “Smile, Laugh, Drink, Gossip, Eat.” These signs set the tone of a predetermined atmosphere that was designed for a specific type of middle-class gentrified consumer, who seeks development and material comfort in local Starbucks and Pret-A-Mangers.
While many of us love the convenience and classy lattes that invade London’s streets, it is a haunted convenience. Old neighbors, once so beloved for their atmospheres change to look like every other world city: a Starbucks on every street corner and large corporate industries with limited artistic value. With the intense inequality and gentrification, central London looks terrifyingly similar to other gentrified neighborhoods across the globe and being in London hardly matters. The “London” experience is relegated to just being in a city. In London, a place with such an amazing history that has crossed centuries, survived wars, and been the center of a global empire, it is a painful to see real Londoners move out and mass global companies move in. London turns into the postcard fantasy and those of us who know how unique and dynamic London can be must say good-bye to the city we once knew and still love.
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