Gentrification: What does it mean for our communities?


Same physical space, but living parallel and distinct lives

A non-Londoner will be well acquainted with the images portrayed by the media of the various boroughs of London. Bethnal Green itself (where OBV offices are located) is depicted as a working-class area, the majority of the residents being from an ethnic minority community.

This is in some part true – the largest ethnic group in the district is Bangladeshi and 1 in 2 residents are Muslim. However, step onto the streets and it is evident that there is more to the picture. That ‘more’ is gentrification - a process which has the prospect of sweeping through London areas such as Tower Hamlets, Newham, Hackney and Brixton.

Gentrification describes the changes that result when wealthier people, "gentry" acquire or rent property in low income and working class communities. With recent developments, such as London's global financial services economy have led to well-paid professionals seeking nearby and cheaper accommodation. Areas such as Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham and their close proximity to the capital's financial bedrock in Liverpool Street, Bank and Canary Wharf are certainly feeling the impacts of gentrification now, and this is a process which has happened for many years. Portland Road, for example, is the site of multi-million pound houses, beauty spas, winebars and an art gallery. This is in direct contrast to the houses original purpose, initially built in the 1850s on wasteland in an age where two-thirds of the population were classified as poor.

Better housing with adequate facilities, unique boutiques and lower crime rates are often cited as positives of gentrification. Such analysis does not typically focus on the impact on BME communities; rather such advantages are viewed as for all who live in that particular area. In fact, such a general assumption does not even trouble itself to distinguish between those living on lower wages and those who may be categorized differently. This is an important detail, as statistics show at nearly 1 in 2 of people from ethnic minorities live in low-income households nationally and this is double the rate compared to White individuals.

Thus residents from the ethnic minority community in areas which have undergone gentrification may not have the budget to stretch for the boutiques, higher-end shops and better quality housing so often cited. Houses on Chatsworth Road in Hackney (another area famous for having undergone the gentrification process) fetch an average price of £500,000. How many of the 40% Black and Asian, and growing number of Kurdish and Turkish people on the road are actually owners of these properties? Additionally, the prices of groceries have increased and products for certain ethnic minority groups have disappeared from local markets altogether. As one resident puts it, she now goes elsewhere to buy hair dye suited to Afro-Caribbean hair.

The ‘ban’ on housing, places of consumption and socializing may not exclusively be down to the fact that members of the BME community are typically poorer than their White counterparts, or indeed the economics of supply and demand. There is also a sense of exclusion present in terms of the associations made with certain sites of entertainment – the high-end bars and eateries being relevant only ‘for the trendy middle-class’.

The lack of social mixing that stems from such associations, results in the pre-gentrified and post-gentrified residents present in the same physical space, but living parallel and distinct lives. The possible tension between the two types of residents is foreseeable; one offshoot is violence, vandalism and arson and the other a complete disaffection from each other. A Stoke Newington resident views gentrification as nothing more than creating a situation in which,

"People who have lived in places their entire lives are priced out of those areas. The process turns a blind eye to the scruffy parts of the community in favour of shops selling you stuff you don’t need. "

This does not mean that gentrification has nothing to give to the BME community. Volunteer-led organizations like the Chatsworth Road Traders and Residents Association are focusing on ways to make sure people do not feel victims of this change. One way could be to focus on the increased profits businesses have gained as a result of the money coming into the area. This is especially advantageous for those with specialist skills like Indian restaurateurs who can provide the newcomers with specialised eateries. Some of these flourishing businesses, like on Chatsworth Road, are actively seeking employees from the local community. So it is a time of opportunity if BME communities want to take advantage. Zena Agha, a 19 year old student and graduate of OBV's MP Shadowing Scheme believes that gentrification can have a positive impact,

“From cultural perspective gentrification displaces the natural feel of the place. However, no matter what is said it has the potential to increase standards in living. Take East London as an example; considering the extreme poverty experienced in the 1800s, today it has come a long way. This could not have been possible without gentrification”.

As for East London, the Olympic bid has created jobs and helped in regenerating the area; making it more of an attractive prospect for inner-city dwellers. What this means for BME communities – well that will ultimately depend on what the BME communities want to make of it.

Parmila Kumari