Gentrification can very simply be described as a process by which middle class and affluent people take up residence in a traditionally working class area of a city. Not only does this transform the character of that particular area, but it often results in the displacement of the area’s working class community. While historians claim that gentrification first took place in Ancient Rome and Roman Britain, the first known use of the term was in 1964. British sociologist Ruth Glass left her lasting legacy of the term “gentrification” to describe the high influx of middle-class people displacing lower-class residents in urban neighbourhoods. Her example? London. However, we will get to that a little bit later.
As you can see, gentrification has been an issue for years. However, in my case, it was Spike Lee’s critically acclaimed film “Do The Right Thing” that truly demonstrated its meaning. (If you haven’t seen this film, drop everything and stream it now. In fact, buy it. It is a film that EVERYONE needs to have in his or her DVD collection.)
In the famous scene where Buggin’ Out gets his Air Jordan’s scuffed by the only white man living on the street, we witness gentrification in action. When Buggin’ Out confronts Clifton about the mishap, he is surrounded and supported by many of the black inhabitants of the Bed-Stuy neighbourhood. Whilst confronting Clifton, he says, “Why do you wanna be in a black neighbourhood anyway? Motherfuck gentrification!” The irony of this is that while mostly blacks inhabit the street, Clifton is the only person in the neighbourhood that owns a brownstone. While ethnic minorities actually make up the majority of this neighbourhood, few are actually homeowners. Instead, they must rely on welfare subsidies in order to survive. You can check the famous Jordan scene below just to understand where I am coming from a little more.
Similarly, when you look at the businesses that are developing and flourishing in this neighbourhood, on the most part, non-blacks own them. The two main establishments that Spike Lee focuses on are Sal’s Pizzeria and the grocery store, which are owned by Italians and Koreans respectively. When an area is becoming gentrified, you will often see buildings that were once old, decrepit and boarded up, transform into businesses. Coconut Sid analyses this well in this intelligent and thought-provoking scene:
What makes this scene so crazy (and even scary) is the similarity it bears to real life. Sweet Dick Willie, Coconut Sid and ML act as a Greek chorus in Do The Right Thing, watching and providing commentary as the world goes by. They offer not only their opinions, but possible solutions to the issues faced by their neighbourhood – but the sad truth? They are powerless. Whenever I watch these scenes, I cannot help but think of the group of old West Indian men sitting in the same window everyday at The Goose on the Green in Catford. Likewise, you will see the same group of old West Indian men in or outside a pub in somewhere like Brixton or Peckham, which brings me to the crux of my article.
Quite recently, my sister and I were in Peckham. After picking up a few bits and bobs, we decided to go for a walk, rather than catch the bus to East Dulwich. As soon as we left the main strip at Peckham Rye and turned right onto Bleinhem Grove, it was as if we had stepped into a completely different place. Slowly but surely, the number of black people we saw began to decrease. By the time we got to Bellenden Road, we were pretty much the only black people left on the street – us – and three elderly black men; or better yet, our Greek chorus.
It was completely alien to me. There is no other way to describe it. I am very familiar with Peckham as my grandmother lived there when I was young. I practically grew up there. What once was a place full of culture and somewhere for West Indians to come together and share stories of their journey to the “new world” so to speak, was now a place for young, white, middle class Britons to come together, drink beer and dress like Lady Gaga. (However, it is most likely Red Stripe you will find them drinking, so I suppose some West Indian culture is being retained…)
What used to be fabric shops and barbershops are now coffee shops and vintage boutiques. Of course, I’ve popped into these coffee shops and boutiques. I live for skinny mochas and high waisted jeans – but where is Mrs Powell with her rolls and rems? Where is Mr Anderson with his pair of clippers? No. Honestly. Where are they?
I was having a conversation with a friend the other day and she asked me, “What’s your view on gentrification? What do you think of it? Do you agree?”
Well. A lot to answer and a lot to think about. One thing is for sure, it is not a case of whether I agree with it or not. Gentrification is a part of the natural cycle of any society. I don’t have a problem with The Begging Bowl or the Bussey Building. What I have a problem with is the fact that the majority of people you will find in these places would have turned their noses up at the mention of the word “Peckham” five years ago. It is this attitude that reveals the discriminatory nature of gentrification and so, how sad it really is.
Word on the street is that a Waitrose will soon be coming to Peckham. It makes sense though doesn’t it? There weren’t enough white, middle class Britons living in the area five years ago to justify a Waitrose. However, all is well now. They have arrived and so we finally have real, hard-working human beings living in Peckham – real human beings that are worthy of a Waitrose.
I know I am probably sounding a bit radical at this point, but please believe me when I say that that is not my intention. As I said before, I am not against the changes being made in these areas, or the hype that comes with it. It is the speed in which these changes are occurring that worries the most. Communities take years to build, unite and settle. Let us not get caught up in the newness. Old neighbourhoods come with a strong history and these must be remembered and celebrated. I believe that any change made to these communities must be progressive and gradual, in order to meet its varying needs. If not, we may as well transport ourselves right back to the 1960s – although there may not really be any need for it. We are already dealing with sky-high rent prices and displaced populations; it is just a matter of time before sub-groups of our community are living alongside each other, rather than as an integrated society.