Hyde Park or Hackney? The Issue of Poverty and Gentrification in East London
It’s 10.15 p.m. on a Saturday night and I’m walking down Brick Lane, on my way home to Mile End from my part-time job at the now infamous Cereal Killer Café in Shoreditch, which has accidentally slipped into being an icon of gentrification in East London since the 2015 anti-gentrification protest.
Walking along bars with shabby-chic furniture and rust-coloured, dim-lit, copper lighting, I can’t help but feel guilty for working where I do as I pass the third homeless lady in 20 metres, watching an elderly man fish through bins, and listening to Grime-artist Flowdan’s ‘No Way Out’. Maybe guilty isn’t the right word. Disheartened is more suited. Disheartened because as I walk down Brick Lane, it dawns on me that what brings Brick Lane, and a lot of East London, its visitors is a new culture of glamorising poverty and the rougher, yet ‘simpler’ life.
Whilst business-owners, landlords and estate agents are filling their pockets off the back of the culture and history of London’s poverty-stricken boroughs; it’s exactly the poor who are being pushed out of their communities, with some families having lived there for decades, driven out by ridiculous and exponentially rising rents. While simultaneously being unwelcomed in the venues that financially thrive off working-class culture.
‘Tower Hamlets ain’t nothing like Chelsea’, part of that difference lies in the fact that although Tower Hamlets’ economy today matches the economies of Central London boroughs, it is to date still London’s poorest borough. It is estimated 39% of Tower Hamlets residents live in poverty, closely followed by two other Inner East London Boroughs: Newham with 37% and Hackney with 36%. East London’s historical relationship with both poverty and politics can be illustrated by William Booth’s establishment of the Salvation Army and Clement Atlee’s left-wing politics, partly influenced by his time in Stepney Green.
Many such historically-relevant East End areas are in the process of being absorbed into the corporate scene, expanding from Liverpool Street, Canary Wharf and co. outwards east. As a waitress, I am a great fan of the phrase ‘you can’t demand a service while simultaneously degrading those who provide it’ and I feel like the gist of this saying can be expanded to the issue of glamorising poverty through the global faux-poverty-chic trend. It is unacceptable to appropriate and glamorise East End culture and art without giving back to those who built (and are still building) it.
Reality is maybe not what matters here, though. Sociologist Steve Hanson has interestingly pointed out that what the middle class so enthralled by faux-poverty-chic find so sexy about it is one thing that has always been very much a staple to working-class backgrounds and appears virtually non-existent in the middle classes: a sense of roots, beginnings and belonging
This lack of ‘original identity’, if you will, is further exacerbated by the plethora of ‘bullshit jobs’ in today’s middle-class job market. Staring at the same computer screen day in, day out, its blue light accelerating the process of needing to get those dreaded reading glasses, filling in the tenth pointless bureaucratic form of the week, gazing longingly at the stainless steel clock hanging from the nail on the wall that you probably wish your noose was hanging from instead, you long for 5 o’clock to head down the road to the run-down-aesthetic boozer where you can collapse onto one of the six reclaimed-wood bar stools, ordering your favourite jam-jar cocktail, finally undoing the top button of your pastel-pink shirt that has been choking you up all day. Here you can drown out the next three hours to the sound of non-confrontational indie-pop tunes before needing to head home to restart the sleep-work-cycle you’ve by now drilled yourself into following, psychologically and physiologically.
This is not an attack, it’s just a reality check. As someone from a middle-class background myself, studying in East London, working for the café that I work for, being prone to the warm shade of a copper lamp, too, I am – if anything – part and parcel of the problem. Coming to terms with the fact that the careers open to me offer little other than a decent salary, I somewhat understand the need to fill the emotional, cultural and creative void.
I do not have the answers to everything, and I cannot offer a 10-step guide of how to feel more secure with one’s identity or how to fill the emotional void of working 40+ hour weeks in a job that the world would be fine (if not better off) without. I do know, however, that blissful ignorance is only blissful for the ignorant and that cognitive dissonance helps no one.
Here’s the crux: aesthetic alone is empty. It is devoid of the blood, sweat and tears that built it, divorced from the feelings that formed it and disconnected from the politics it inspired. It has no meaning. It has no soul. Yet it is exactly this soul that seduces the middle-class, “co-opting aspects of the working-class culture they see as ‘real’ without ever having experienced those things that made it real”. Regardless of whether it is Hackney Wick or Peckham, sooner or later, these areas will not be distinguishable from today’s richer corners of London, becoming little more than an expanded bourgeois-blur of what they used to be.
Poverty is a real issue. Glamorising and appropriating it for your own agenda is not going to change that. Instead, it merely worsens the practical state of affairs, dismissing the real and often very difficult experiences people in poverty go through.
To clear some of the copper-coloured fog, here are some statistics about London’s poorest parts, that no amount of reclaimed wood and rusty nails could ‘upcycle’:
- While homelessness in London as a whole increased by 18% in 2016-17, homelessness in Tower Hamlets increased by 27%.
- 1 in 44 people in Hackney are homeless, Newham tops the list with 1 in 25 being homeless. This is especially concerning considering that the Hackney Government website states that “eviction from the private rented sector is now the number one reason residents approach the council for homelessness support”.
- The average house price in Hackney has increased by 82% in the past five years – the largest average increase in the country. In Tower Hamlets, the price of housing has increased by 34% since 2014, the average house price now being 17x that of the median household income.
- 20,000 people in Tower Hamlets alone are on the housing waiting list, and approximately 9,500 households are classified ‘overcrowded.
- While child poverty in Tower Hamlets has halved in the years from 2006-2015, from 60% to 31%, reflecting a fall in unemployment, the number of families relying on “in-work welfare support” has increased (moving from one type of financial insecurity to another).
- Tower Hamlets has the third-highest unemployment rate in London.
- 13,000 of the approximately 27,000 landlords in Newham failed to declare rental income during the 2016/17 tax year.
Here are some ideas as to how we could choose to begin to better the situation. They’re far from perfect, but perhaps they’re a start:
- Firstly, businesses should pay wages/salaries that allow workers to afford to live within an acceptable distance from work without rent exceeding the threshold of half of one’s paycheck. It should be a real LIVING WAGE. Slavery is the product of capitalism, and wage slavery is a 21st-century phenomenon.
Secondly, housing ought to be a right, not a privilege. Because of this, London should follow Berlin and begin to set a rent cap. In Berlin, landlords are by law forbidden to raise the rent for new tenants by more than 10% above the local average. As Reiner Wild, the managing director of the Berlin Tenants Association, has stated, he and others in Berlin want to prevent what has happened to London and Paris, “the reality [there being] that people with low income have to live in the further-out districts of the city”. (Telegraph)
Thirdly, property tax enforcement needs to be heavily scrutinised, as the aforementioned Newham landlord example highlights. In addition, to incentivise investment in social initiatives, such as social housing, one could look at introducing a corporate tax reduction depending on levels of investment for businesses that invest in social initiatives, e.g. building of homeless shelters.
- Fourthly, there should be an increase in the collective ownership of land. This could be done through greater collective action, public housing associations of residents, and unionisation. We have a long and proud history of unions in this country. Well, up until the ‘80s at least. Maybe it’s time to revive history with a 21st-century twist.
Lastly, one could consider a ‘locals-first’ policy, giving some democratic decision-making powers back to the people already resident in the area, e.g. if certain developments receive significant local pushback and protest, local residents’ concerns should be heard and taken into account. Furthermore, since London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan even campaigned on the issue of foreign-bought London property being left empty, one could potentially look at being inspired by the Indian government (where in fact no non-Indian persons are permitted to purchase property) and limit the amount of foreign buying. I am not advocating to limit buying solely to British people, since London, and Britain overall thrives due to its immigrant community, however, one could look into how to make sure fewer properties are left standing empty while thousands are on the housing waiting list and thousands more are sleeping in the streets.
I will be posting a thread of places across East London that support local low-earning businesses, as well as community projects to possibly get involved in. So watch this space.