Hipster heroes of gentrification

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Back in September, the Cereal Killer Cafe in East London (pictured) found itself the target of anti-gentrification protests. Hundreds of protestors descended on the cereal-only cafe, daubing the word 'scum' on the window, setting fire to an effigy and reportedly leaving the owners fearing for their lives.

Cereal Killer Cafe front windowThe incident left me wondering more and more about the effects of gentrification on our society.

On the one hand, I know first-hand the ill effects it can have. I was born into a working class family in Leyton, East London. However in the late 1980s, we were forced to relocate to Harlow, Essex, a poor working class town, as my parents were no longer able to afford to stay in their flat.

Nonetheless, as part of a new, educated generation with more mobility and freedom, I have flirted with the middle-class 'hipster' culture that is often associated with gentrification. I have dabbled in the odd independent quirky bar or store, sipped experimental cocktails at a historic pub stuffed with taxidermy, and even bought a Levis jacket from a quirky vintage shop. These were satisfying experiences.

I am well aware that many elements in this ostensibly non-conformist gentrified world are just as uniform as the rest of mainstream society. The clothes you find in gentrified neighbourhoods around the world are often very similar (vintage and chequered), and the old working class is usually glamourised in old historic pubs and dingy cafes.

But I found these experiences inspiring. They inspired me to support local businesses, projects and art. And I think they inspire a future for neighbourhoods too.

In this regard, they are a far cry from the capitalist invasions that are prominent in almost every urban city centre around the world.

When my grandmother was growing up in East London, she could walk to her local butchers, grocers and bakers, and they were all independently-owned businesses. They have mostly disappeared now and today we have no choice but to buy our fruit and vegetables, bread and meat from giant billion-dollar corporations like Tescos in the UK, Walmart in the US and Woolworths in Australia.

Which is worse? A one-off cafe that sells over-priced cereal, or the realisation that every shop on every street is owned by one of a handful of powerful corporations?

Parts of New York, Melbourne and London have been transformed by what mostly falls under the category of urban regeneration. If an old area is dying — filled with abandoned factories and destitute shops — clever business people snap up the industrial spaces and commercial buildings at low prices and restore the community with their fresh ideas and independent businesses.

On the one hand this often means that working class people can no longer afford the property in that area, as the ideas and metamorphosis usually brings in a richer, younger, aspirational middle class.

But on the other hand it creates a real economy for the area, one that is less about capitalist gain, profiteering and creating a dependency among people on one brand, and more about investment, creativity, community and the freedom to choose.

Entrepreneurs around the world have fought to preserve and transform historic buildings into thriving independent businesses. Take Fitzroy, in Melbourne. Entrepreneurs have fought to keep old institutions as they were and reinvigorated others. Today this former working class neighbourhood is a mix of culture, food and music, where street art is a respected art form and book shops a valuable resource.

By contrast, when powerful construction companies undertake urban regeneration they have no place for this. In a twist of fate, these days I can't afford to live in Harlow, the working class town my parents were forced to move to. This is not due to 'hipsterisation', though — I wish it was. Instead, the old 1950s and '60s architecture has been made to give way to new developments and housing estates.

In both cases money talks. The new middle class entrepreneurs have more money than the working class people they idolise, but not the kind of money it takes to destroy entire neighbourhoods in order to build money-making glass condos. They at least understand the importance and relevance of the old Brownstones in New York, the historic pubs in Melbourne, and the factories in London's Docklands.

Of course, we would like to see their prices meet the budgets of normal people too, and open up access to everyone. But at least gentrification is helping our neighbourhoods to physically survive and retain heritage, especially in working class areas where residents often have no choice either way.

That is a much better alternative to the scary corporations who have no sense of historic value or understanding of individuality. I know who I'd rather pick a fight against.


Charlotte HowellCharlotte Howell is a writer and editor from the UK who is travelling the world for a few years. Looking to discover places that might resemble home, she has been writing about her experiences and views on the world as a travel writer, and is as confused as before.

Topic tags: Charlotte Howell, gentrification



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Existing comments

Dear Charlotte, your observations prompt comment.. The ABS reposts as at June 2014 Melbourne had 4.44M people and this increased by 95,700 over the prior 12 month period. That means we need to build somewhere between 30,000-50,000 additional dwellings a year. We have a choice. We can increase density and lose character or retain character of inner city and develop cities at existing fringes. The problem with the former is we lose heritage. The old becomes hard to recognize as it becomes enmeshed in the new. The problem with the latter is it generates urban sprawl, greater reliance on cars and more congested roads, greater cost to public transport networks ( because population density is too small to make the networks efficient), greater loss of productivity of work force because more time is spent in transit etc etc. I live in Paddington NSW which is not unlike Fitzroy where I also lived for many years. The Sydney city council wants to reduce the use of cars, decrease emissions and increase density but the laws to alter or change my property are onerous to the point the suburb is a museum. Paris looks great at six stories. Why should Paddington be kept to two ? The local government goals increase increase density are sensible and progressive but the non supportive local government laws on development mean those goals are not achievable. So what gives ? The issue you are really identifying is that demand to live in the inner city outweighs the supply and prices are increasing and will continue to at above trend rates. The convenience to be able to walk will vastly outweigh the need to drive. Do we force those that would prefer to live in the inner city to the culture free outskirts or do we lose some of the heritage and share the benefit of living in high density areas ? The "capitalists" are in some ways providing a public service. they are building the dwellings but they cannot keep up with the demand..

luke | 02 December 2015  

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