New Bohemias - part 4 of the first chapter of my unpublished book "New Bohemias: Artists, Hipsters & Gentrification"

This is the forth section of the first chapter of my as yet unpublished book. See previous posts for earlier sections...

Franks_Campari_bar_cafe_peckham_rooftop.jpg

CHANGING PLACES – FROM OLD BOHEMIAS TO NEW BOHEMIAS

NEW BOHEMIAS

Contemporary London breeds hipsters as quickly as it can cultivate New Bohemias.  But these people and places are cartoon-like – shallow simulations.  Shoreditch’s Lounge Bohemia, for example, operates a no-suit policy, welcoming the “dressed down” middle-classes with cocktails in pitcher plants, glass apples, pearl shells and cigar cases - even prosecco-infused Gummy Bears.  Wallpaper-camouflaged toilets, menus hidden in obscure books, hidden away down stairs just off Commercial Street.  The Bohemia is a “brewpub” in North Finchley owned by the London Brewing Company – a hipster haven already sited outside of the city’s North Circular Road.  There is also a London Bohemia craft beer made by the London Beer Factory using floor malts imported from the original Bohemia in the Czech Republic.  These places are parodies.  And these New Bohemias are popping-up all over the city.  For example, Camberwell is, as a recent article in the FT’s property section demonstrates, now a prime target for gentrifiers: “a bohemian backwater that is luring newcomers”.  Remarking on the area’s proximity to The Shard, The City and Canary Wharf, the article describes Camberwell as having retained a “diverse population” and a strong community spirit: “there is a vegan Cameroonian crêperie, a Chinese restaurant serving Xinjiang cuisine and a tapas bar that imports its charcuterie from Spain”.  Nick Holt, the chair of the Camberwell Society described the area as being “a bit more bohemian” and a “bit more real” than some more gentrified areas of the city (Jenny Lee, 2016).

Yet the Victorian terraced houses in places like Camberwell (and indeed many places in London and around the UK’s major cities) tell the story of the cycle of gentrification that extends back almost two hundred years.  Many of these properties may be remembered (or for that matter often, particularly in many less affluent cities and areas, still be regarded) as being dilapidated slum dwellings, but in fact they reveal the complexity of gentrification.  Take, for example, Barnsbury in Islington.  Its large terraced homes and tenements were built in the early 19th century as large middle-class residencies along with a new transport infrastructure.  A mainly rural area until then, although frequented by the affluent as a location for leisurely pursuits, it became a desirable semi-rural suburb, eyed by the middle-classes desperate to leave the smog, squalor and cramped spaces of London’s inner city behind.  However, seeking pastures new, Barnsbury’s middle-class residents left the area before the first world war and, by the 1950s, it had become one of London’s most notorious slums.  But it was not long before the middle-classes returned to reclaim Barnsbury’s Victoria terraces, displacing the working-class residents.  Indeed, the area became known as a pioneering example of gentrification, with some claiming it was the first area of London to gentrify.  As a matter of fact, Ruth Glass, coined the term “gentrification” in response to what was going on in and around Islington in 1964.  From the 1960s onwards, Barnsbury became a fashionable part of Islington.  The architecturally interesting properties were restored whilst less desirable streets were demolished to make way for new housing.  For Glass, it was London’s “pioneering” Bohemians that displaced the area’s working-class communities.  By the 1970s, the district was a popular location for London’s liberal intelligentsia and house prices and rents rose steeply.  Today, Barnsbury is an affluent area, recognised as an early example of post-war gentrification.

It is interesting to note the ebb and flow of property owners and tenants in areas over the years.  Many areas went through a cycle of investment, disinvestment and reinvestment similar to Barnsbury.  Rural areas were initially built upon to satisfy the demands of the middle-classes for clean air and safe, peaceful living before declining and becoming working-class areas, only to be reclaimed by the gentrifying middle-classes later.  This cycle is an integral aspect of modern capitalism and it is quite likely that it will repeat itself.  How long, for example, before today’s London’s glass-fronted luxury tower blocks become tomorrow’s slums and sink estates?  Or before the middle-classes rediscover (or are incentivised to return to) the desire to ‘escape to the country’ once more?

And now it is becoming difficult for many middle-class people to live in many areas of cities like London.  The Guardian recently claimed that “even the 1% are being squeezed out” (2016).  House prices in London have risen by almost six hundred percent in the last twenty years, with some areas rising by as much as one thousand percent.  Short-term gains are exactly that and it is not long before the gentrifiers themselves are priced out of areas they helped “reinvigorate”.  The middle-classes may have “benefitted” from the rampant housing market but so did the working-class council house tenants that took up Thatcher’s Right to Buy saw the value of their homes skyrocket.  Many cashed-in and moved out, leaving their ex-council flats and houses to a new generation of home owners and buy-to-let landlords.

Of course, for many council tenants and Right to Buy homeowners on estates that suffered from a lack of investment, maintenance and care, life was completely different.  They were demonised en-masse; their homes denigrated as “sink estates” and “slums” and “no-go zones”.  Many such estates have been demolished.  The rest proudly try to retain their strong community spirits whilst fighting the knock of the wrecking ball as greedy local councils backed by global investors and property developers eye up their homes, designating them as “brownfield sites” when they are nothing of the sort.  And it is important to understand that these patterns and processes are not just repeating themselves all over the UK and every other developed country but are also being replicated across the globe.

But hyper-gentrification propels hyper-property prices in an apparently ceiling-less cycle.  For example, the once bohemian Chelsea has become so uber-rich that the rich can barely afford to live there anymore.  Likewise, in many other parts of the “Royal Borough”.  And many of the areas and new luxury towers are not homes but banks – places to store global wealth.  No lights at night.  Ghostly streets devoid of communities, of life.  Council estate cobblers still serve the well-healed few but they now commute to the uber-rich playgrounds from their homes in Surrey and other parts of the Home Counties.  More recently, places like Peckham, Dalston, Hackney and, before them, Hoxton, have attracted the artists and creative types that once frequented the gritty Bohemias in Kensington and Chelsea.  Artists’ studios share spaces with tech entrepreneurs and posh pop-up restaurants.  And Foxtons – estate agent for the hyper-gentrifiers – recently opened a branch on the district’s once notorious Rye Lane.  Peckham has, since at least 2013, been proclaimed as “the new Shoreditch”.

Peckham, like Barnsbury, was once rural before being filled with housing in the Victorian period.  By the 1860s, it was an affluent retail area, with Rye Lane becoming known as “the Golden Mile”, its department stores making it popular with London’s wealthy middle-classes.  Peckham continued to thrive until after the second world war when it declined to such an extent that, by the 1970s, it became one of the most deprived areas in Europe.  More recently, a swell of independent businesses – many ran by people from across the globe who made Peckham their home – brought a renewed vibrancy to the district, with Rye Lane becoming one of the most diverse areas of the UK.  But it is this very energy and diversity that threatens Peckham.  It is gentrifying fast and artists are once again playing their carefully rehearsed role.  Time Out recently wrote that “Few roads in London smell quite like Rye Lane”, adding that it is a place of “sensory overload” (2016).  Yet it is the smells from the Nigerian markets and fried chicken outlets that attracted not only the craft beer-swilling hipsters and artists but also the finely attuned nostrils of global finance and investment.

franks-cafe-peckham-photos-06.jpg

Bold Tendencies sits atop of a multi-storey carpark in Peckham.  Frank’s posh pop-up restaurant with a red sail roof has become an icon for the area’s gentrification.  Its affluent, predominantly white clientele peer down at the once “gritty”, now quickly gentrifying Rye Lane below.  Only open during the “summer season”, Bold Tendencies, together with its partners, Frank’s Café and the Multi-Storey Orchestra brings London’s trendy crowd a programme of visual art, poetry, architectural commissions and, of course, classical music.  It even hosted world-famous minimalist composer Steve Reich as part of the BBC Proms in 2016; the BBC describing him as “the man who reconnected art music to urban culture in all its drive, repetition and asymmetry” (2016).  The red sail roof of Frank’s Café is the work of Practice Architecture – a collaboration between Lettice Drake and Antony Gormley’s daughter Paloma.  The café is a renowned hangout for hipsters, artists, students, and cool entrepreneurs alike.  And now the carpark below is being transformed into Peckham Levels – a suite of “grassroots” artists’ studios, workshops, business start-ups, creative industries offices, raft of “independent businesses working in design, craft, food, fashion and music”, and an underground arts and music venue.  However, claims made by Make Shift – the urban space-making company behind the venture – that the project was community focused have been met with derision and outrage by local anti-gentrification campaigners who argue the space is not for their community but a new community – the Creative Class.

Meanwhile, in East London, the smell of pie, mash and liquor along with cheap housing attracted the attention of artists and hipsters.  The once-Cockney stronghold is now a massive building site: a place of council estate demolition, luxury developers and rampant gentrification.  The Lea Valley is the next go-to-place for pioneering artists and hipsters who’ve transitioned from Shoreditch and Hackney.  The 2012 London Olympic Games lit the area’s gentrification beacon, followed swiftly by the massive Queen Elizabeth Park development – a pseudo-public space.  These “regeneration” projects not only displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes and closed many local businesses and factories, they continue to displace working-class residents who avoided the initial clearances as well as those in the surrounding areas.  Even the once-polluted River Lea is now a nature reserve – a designated “green enclave” to add to and extend the area’s sales appeal.  Rents are up.  House prices are up.  The area has gone from urban decay to middle-class place of play in less than ten years.  It was, like all regeneration initiatives, planned well in advance.  The arrival of the artists and the hipsters are part of the plan.  Some of them helped write the plan.  Not the “Big Plan”.  But the all-important transitionary plan.  The planned “reuse” of the emptied, closed and decanted homes and industrial buildings – now tellingly re-designated as “meanwhile spaces”.

When the London Olympics opened, Danny Boyle’s elegy to Britain’s working-class and its welfare state was lauded as offering renewed solidarity, even hope.  It was nothing of the sort.  Boyle could not but have known about the “Big Plan”.  It had already dispossessed and displaced – socially cleansed – many local people.  The future regeneration of the area on the back of the Olympics – the “Olympic legacy” -  was also well-known.  A legacy of social cleansing was a common feature of previous Olympics.  Yet Boyle did not include a critique of the hyper-gentrification of the area in his opening extravaganza.  Instead, he provided a spectacle.  A flame for intensified accumulation by dispossession and a bonfire of the very welfare state and working-class history that the event claimed to celebrate and reinvigorate.  It was a sham.  Boyle, of course, would never have been allowed to really critique the mass social cleansing which underpinned the Olympics.  But then, he still took part and effectively artwashed it in so doing.  Artwashing is a term which describes the use of art as a veneer or gloss that hides dispossession under a veil of PR.

The East End of London, unlike Barnsbury, Chelsea, Kensington and Peckham, was always a place where the city’s poor and the working-classes were housed in notorious slums before being rehoused, along with large numbers of immigrants in soon-to-be-notorious council housing estates.  Some of these ex-council – now social housing – estates were demolished to make way for the Olympic Games.  The UN reported (2007) that in the twenty years between the 1988 and 2008 Olympics, more than two million people had been displaced as a direct result of the Games.  It also recognised that the value of real estate rose rapidly in cities that hosted the Olympics.  The London Olympics provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to global financiers and property developers and, indeed, the state: a land-grabbing feeding frenzy in which sporting and cultural spectacle became bait for the working-classes.  The outcome for the working-classes displaced by the Olympics in the East End is very different: a lifetime of loss of self-worth, of homes, of community.

Since 2012, Newham has witnessed the highest property price rises anywhere in London with the area around the East Village also becoming a “buy to let” hotspot.  Rents have increased dramatically and, together with the benefit cap, this is forcing people and families on lower incomes out of the area.  London’s once-rich suburbs are now playing second fiddle to its once deprived inner city neighbourhoods as those with wealth return with a vengeance.  Meanwhile the leafy suburbs are witnessing rapidly increasing poverty levels.  Hackney provides a stark example of the pace of gentrification in London.  In 2010, it was ranked as the sixth poorest borough in Britain.  Five years later, it was the fiftieth poorest borough.  In Newham, the borough went from the fourteenth poorest UK borough in 2010 to the one hundred and fourth poorest in 2015.

Yet the East End of London has been aestheticised as artists and hipsters move east from their original heart lands in Hoxton and Shoreditch.  Gone are the jellied eels, killed, according to The Spectator, by the hipsters (2016).  But it is not just the aestheticisation of consumer products and cultural venues that are forcing the East End’s working-classes out of the area, it’s also the break-neck demolition of council estates and the luxury refurbishment of those deemed to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye, like, for example, icon of Brutalist council housing, Balfron Tower in Poplar.  Balfron Tower is Grade II* listed.  The bourgeoisie recognised its architectural significance.  This “saved” the building but led to the decanting of all its residents who were primarily social housing tenants.  Old concrete monoliths are spared but not their existing inhabitants or their statuses as social housing.  Instead they are sold-off to property investors and uber-rich bankers.  Old markets are kept but their existing stallholders, unable to pay the increased pitch fees, are forced to go elsewhere, replaced.  All the while, new high-density housing and metal-and-glass skyscrapers spring forth to fill each and every little available gap.  The sky closes in as the massive Blackwall Reach development arrives at Robin Hood Gardens estate, threatening Tower Hamlets from the south.  Artists, hipsters and gentrifiers move in from the west.  The immense Queen Elizabeth Park development looms to the North.  And, to the west, new large-scale developments at Royal Wharf and Silvertown are sprouting around London City Airport on what were once East End docklands.

The artists and hipsters are being forced to move more frequently now and many feel like it will not be long before they have no choice other than to leave London altogether.  Increasing numbers of artists and hipsters, for that matter, are already fleeing the city, moving to cheaper places by the sea like Folkestone and Margate which are themselves undergoing rapid gentrification.  Unable to move, many working-class East Enders who have not been displaced already are now feeling surrounded as gentrification cuts off existing communities, slowly strangling them.  The same thing is happening at Elephant and Castle, Camberwell, Lewisham, Dalston, Tottenham, Brixton, Stoke Newington, Wood Green, North Kensington, Battersea, more.  Meanwhile, other pockets of deprivation, given initial reprieves during early phases of gentrification, are gentrified.  Even Barking and Dagenham is positioning itself as an up-and-coming location.  These districts are all attempting to reposition themselves as edgy, creative, New Bohemias.  Their pop-up, meanwhile, street art, hipster aesthetic is, by now, ubiquitous – homogenous.  Likewise, the computer-generated architects’ “impressions” used to sell immanent new developments are strangely indistinguishable in appearance.  And in these virtual worlds, all or at very least most of the future inhabitants of these gentrified places are white.  This is the hyperreality of gentrification.  A postmodern, “Disneyfied” aesthetic.  Clean, safe, modern.  More than mere simulation, these are the images of a planned future – a gentrified future - and its aesthetic is undeniably white and irredeemably middle-class.

Using aesthetics to redefine certain areas of cities as being desirable is, as Gary Bridge said, ‘an act of class power’ (2001).  It brings middle-class culture in the guise of bohemians, artists, hipsters and tech entrepreneurs – lumped together today as the creative class – into direct, day-to-day contact and conflict with working-class cultures and histories.  The aestheticisation of working-class areas opens the door for the middle-class to claim or reclaim neighbourhoods, doing-up properties in the name of gentrification and in the hope climbing the property ladder by kick-starting the property price elevator.  Victorian terraces are revalorised as spacious period properties; factory spaces become sought-after loft living spaces.  There is something here about the blurring of work and home.  The homes of the now redundant, often already displaced working-classes become city pads for bankers, whilst closed-down manufacturing spaces – the places where the same displaced working-classes made a living – become trendy hangouts for the cream of the creative class.  Artists provide a transitionary function as, like creative property guardians, they fill these (and many other) meanwhile spaces with cultural capital just waiting to be packaged-up and converted, via the gentrification aesthetic of temporal New Bohemias, into financial capital for the benefit of those who will surely follow: the middle-classes.  Of course, the waves of artists, hipsters, creatives, tech start-ups and bankers all share a common (re)vision of the working-class lives that preceded them.  Romanticised, idyllic, sentimental and nostalgic, they remake ex-working-class places in grotesque, ironic parodies and pastiches of past lives and past struggles.  In other words, they exploit them.

Richard Lloyd describes these temporal places as “neo-bohemias” – conduits between artists and commercial investment (2002).  Predominantly white, well-educated, professional and interesting in living like artists, the neo-bohemians – led by what Lloyd describes as “aspiring artists and hipster hangers-on” - are proficient at displacing lower-income and ethnic minority residents (2005).  Being “hip” is, of course, an essential element of enterprise (Frank, 1997) and late-capitalism happily munches on its margins - on marginal people and marginalised cultures.  Capitalism first mimics then consumes the “cool”.  This inevitably led to the bohemian lifestyle becoming fused with the bourgeois lifestyle to create the hybrid form known as bobos – the bourgeois bohemians (Brooks, 2000).  It is this hybridisation which enabled the commodification of artists, setting them free to ride on gentrification’s rising tide whilst simultaneously shackling them to the yoke of the creative industries.  Similarly, this stylistic hybridisation led to the creation of today’s incarnation of the hipster: bereft of the originalities and anti-establishment ethos of previous generations of hipsters; dependent on rampant (if supposedly “micro”) entrepreneurialism, shallow pastiche and unapologetic kitsch.