I couldn’t wait to get out of the U.S. To get away from the corruption, the bigotry, the red headed, pussy grabbing, slap-in-the-face America. Four months of tea-sipping and pub-crawling and minding the teeny-tiny gap. However, I quickly learned that London was not what I imaged it to be. I could blame Julia Roberts for giving me such high expectations by making Notting Hill look beautiful with the cover of a night sky (and a shirtless Hugh Grant). I could blame the thousands of pictures of Big Ben, all shiny and pretty and exactly the same. I could blame myself for being naive and expecting too much from a city I’ve only ever dreamed about living in. Men in suits, women in “I could never pull that off.”
Everyone’s in a rush. Where are they going? To catch the end of a football game (you know, the one where you kick a ball around a muddy field) or to catch the last tube to zone 4? To my surprise, I wanted to get on the first flight home, back to the comfort and familiarity of home. I’m glad I was stuck there; let me tell you why.
My idealized and romanticized perspective of London was completely gone by the time the coach bus drove out of the Heathrow airport parking lot. The telephone booths were much shorter than I expected, and the buildings much duller. The left side of the road only made me dizzy and the driver relentlessly tailgating didn’t help. It became very apparent that this trip would be nothing like I imagined (because nothing ever is). As my time in London went on, I learned more and more of the city’s imperfections. They were like acne on a teenager: obvious and recurring, only they couldn’t be cured by some magic face wash or even with time. Inequality, poverty, gentrification.
As I sipped my Starbucks Venti Peach Green Tea Lemonade, it became obvious. It was right there in front of my face, as if someone had typed it out for me in 12 point font, times new roman, “avec serif” because it’s easier on the eyes. Don’t romanticize a place if you don’t want your heart broken. Don’t study abroad if you don’t want to learn. I quickly learned that I wasn’t in love with London, which would allow me to really experience the city for its rawness, not this idealized version I had in my head. I decided that if I were going to be living in London for four months, I’d have to take the bad with the good. I surrendered my tourist badge, signed up for a Waitrose shopping card, and began to give London a chance to be the city it really was.
While the romancing of the London I thought I knew quickly faded, I learned to love London in an entirely new way. I learned to not only recognize London’s flaws, but appreciate them. I saw myself incorporated into them, just by being there.
In writings that I did while spending my first month in London, I expressed how privileged I felt, being able to live in the center of the city. I stated “In only the first week of living in London, I spent four times the amount of money I would at home. While I did splurge on extra drinks and tourist extractions, I quickly discovered the high cost of living in London. Walking down the street, I passed at least three homeless people asking for spare change. Spare change that I will drunkenly waste on an extra shot to keep the night going for another twenty minutes. Spare change that I will spend on an extra oyster card because I forgot my other three at the flat in one of the richest neighborhoods of London.
I take a good hard look at myself in the reflection of the mirror that someone cleans for me weekly, and I see it. I see the gap. Even more, I see that I am contributing to the gap.” The gap of inequality and privilege that I was so desperate to get away from, I find myself lounging in it, basking in it, becoming it.
I continued with my writings “At a club I was asked where I am staying. When I referenced Bloomsbury, the stranger got closer, and called me ‘Mrs. Rich girl.’ At first I was a little confused and even more offended. I thought about it. The British stranger sporting the New York Knicks tee-shirt was right. I took out loans for college and I’m here mostly on scholarship, but I am ‘Mrs. Rich girl.’ I am rich in mobility. I am rich in opportunity, and I am rich in centrality. I live in the center of London.” It wasn’t until then that I realized just how big the wealth gap really was.
According to London’s Poverty Profile, London contains the highest proportion (15%) of people in the poorest tenth nationally and the second highest proportion (15%) of people in the richest tenth. Furthermore, the richest tenth of households account for £260 billion of financial wealth in London, whereas the poorest tenth hold more debt than financial assets, having a negative financial wealth amounting to -£1.3 billion. The wealth gap is very apparent by just walking the streets of London, and a relatively small amount of people actually lived the way I did for those four months. If I were a London Citizen, I would have been paying £1900 in rent alone in Russell Square, the neighborhood I lived in. Even with that being said, the cost of housing is only increasing.
I saw the problem of inequality of wealth after only living in London for a few months, so I could only imagine how much it was affecting those who permanently live in London. I decided to reach out to a few of the individuals I encountered while in London to gain some perspective.
Regan Koch, an American Professor who specializes in Urban Geography who has lived in London for the past ten years noted that “Widening inequality is London’s biggest problem. This is compounded by the housing market, in which not enough new homes are being built and the well-off are rewarded for leveraging their money into rental properties. It’s not uncommon for people to spend half of their income or more on rent each month. As a result, a lot of people are really squeezed by the cost of living, which is about housing but also transport and goods.”
From both Koch’s insight and my own observations, it can be quite clear just how big the widening inequality of London really is. For further insight, I reached out to Julia Sanderson, a graduate student in her late twenties, who noted that “there is an extremely high level of inequality with wealth in London. A simple look at the cost of property shows just how crazy things have become. I know many people who have been forced to move out of the city due to being unable to set up a ‘real life’ there.” Sanderson touched upon some important topics in her interview, such as the housing crisis in London, which is causing people to move further and further out of the city as prices of housing only increase. As it can be seen, the wealth and inequality gap effects many of London’s residents.
I never quite understood gentrification until I was in London. Growing up in Schenectady, New York, a sizable but respectively small city, I’ve never lived in a big enough city to realize how much gentrification actually exists. The idea of gentrification is introduced to bring money and livelihood back into a neighborhood. For example, the Westfield Stratford Shopping Centre is part of a large multi-purpose development project called Stratford City. It was “promoted as contributing significantly to the local economy, with the creation of up to 10,000 permanent jobs, including 2,001 jobs going to people in the local area.
However, there are counter-reports of the centre having a significantly negative impact on local businesses due to the significant increase of chain stores.” Gentrification forces lower income individuals out and brings posh, middle-class residents in. Sanderson continued to express her concern about the wealth gap and gentrification by saying that “long term I think the results of gentrification are terrible. For local residents that don’t own their property, the rising rents often force them out, which leads to communities being split up. Small local businesses also struggle to compete with larger chains who follow the money to move into these neighborhoods. New buildings are also constructed to meet supply and demand which changes the aesthetic of a neighborhood. I worry this will result in London losing its character. I worry gentrification is turning London into a sterilized city, without much personality.”
With all of this being said, however, there seems to be very mixed opinions on gentrification and whether or not it was good for a neighborhood and its residents. Sanderson also added that “The general public are against gentrification, but at the same time they want to be able to buy a green juice in their neighborhood or have the convenience of a chain supermarket open 24 hours. I think there’s also the opinion that putting money into a neighborhood can only ever be a good thing, as it will lead to falling crime rates and more investment in the area.” With both positive and negative effects, it can be understood as to why gentrification is such a controversial and highly debated topic.
As for Koch, he feels that gentrification is “causing London to become a less dynamic and exciting city. For many people, it’s a real challenge to find the time, money and space to do interesting, sociable and community-minded things.” However, he also notes that “Many of London’s poorest people are actually quite secure in their housing because of the legacy of social housing that does remain. Where I live in Hackney for example—an area commonly described ‘gentrified’—there’s still a very large number of people in council homes, a form of public or social housing built by local municipalities in the United Kingdom (near 40%)”. Both through examples shared by Sanderson and Koch, along with my own research and observations, it can be seen that gentrification is both a problem and a solution for the increasing wealth and inequality gap in London.
Because of the issues that gentrification causes, specifically the wealth gap, the future of London’s wealth gap is being strongly considered by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Khan plans to make Londond “fairer and more equal.” He plans to do so by: refusing foreign investors to receive pick of new apartments, giving tax breaks for firms that pay higher wages, and freezing tube fares.
Looking back on my perspectives of London from before I arrived, when I first got there, and while I was living there, it has become easier to pinpoint exactly when my opinions and love for London changed. I went from romanticizing a city that I had never visited, to hating the place I’d spend four months of my freshman year of college, to appreciating the city for what it was: perfectly imperfect, like a second dysfunctional home. In one of my last diary entries from my time in London, I wrote “It’s the last week in this glowing city, and as the Christmas lights go up, my expectations have finally come down. My own personal expectations and wants of ‘the perfect city’ were the exact contributing factors that lead to areas being gentrified in the first place. Sometimes it’s just better for a building to be missing a little paint.”
Fenton, Alex. “Gentrification in London: A Progress Report, 2001–2013.” Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (2016): n. pag. July 2016. Web. Apr. 2017.
“Homes for Londoners.” Sadiq Khan. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
Masey, Anthea. “House Prices in This Zone 2 Hotspot Have Risen More than in Any Other Borough in the past 20 Years.” Homes and Property. N.p., 20 Jan. 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
Owen, Jonathan. “Gentrification Pushing Some of the Poorest Members of Society out of Their Homes, Says Study.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
“This Tube Map Shows the Average Rent Costs near Every Underground Station.” Time Out London. N.p., 29 Sept. 2015. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
Trust for London and New Policy Institute. “Inequality.” Inequality | Poverty Indicators | London’s Poverty Report. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.