Saturday, July 27, 2013
I went up to Brixton, London, this week, to see an old friend who emigrated to the USA back in the late 1970s, briefly back in the country with her family in tow. As with people, it's salutary to revisit a place after a lengthy period of time, if only to remind yourself that it hasn't been standing still in the meantime. London is not so much a "place" as a city state, of course, constructed out of interlocking statelets like Brixton. You can be intimately familiar with one corner -- say, Islington, Camden and Hackney -- but have only the vaguest idea of what goes in remote fiefdoms like Hampstead or Hendon, let alone in fabled places south of the river like Bromley or Dulwich.
The last time I visited Brixton, not so very long ago, I was advised not to walk back to the tube station alone after dark. It was not an outright dangerous area, but unpredictable -- "sketchy", as my friend's American son put it. The famous riots of the 1980s were, seen one way, race riots, but might just as accurately be seen as anti-police riots (like the St. Paul's Riot in Bristol in 1980, at which I happened to be present). Single-race enclaves are rare in London, and those that exist are quite small, but Brixton has always been strongly associated with the Caribbean community since the days of the pioneers of the Empire Windrush, as has Notting Hill north of the river.*
The first thing that struck me as I emerged from the tube onto Brixton Road was the elevated mood. Admittedly, it was an idyllic, sunny day, but it seemed nearly everyone, and not just the rastas in the park, was smiling contentedly. The second thing was the greater mix of ethnicities and classes -- lots more young professionals, student types, and a big admixture of what our young niece used to call "shepherds" i.e. Islamic women of assorted origins with their various styles and degrees of head-covering.** The third thing, not unconnected with the other two things, was the degree of "gentrification" the area has undergone.
Gentrification is an odd term for a common process of urban transformation. Around 1980, I lived in several squats in Dalston and Clapton, then the most run-down part of East London's most run-down borough, Hackney. Entire streets of houses had been "tinned up" by the council as unoccupiable; that is, their doors and windows had been sealed with sheets of corrugated iron. It was a dismal spectacle. Even on a sunny day, no-one had much to smile about round there. But a few years after I had moved on, ambitious young professional couples began buying up the run-down properties in places like Dalston and Stoke Newington, as neighbouring Islington had become mega-gentrified, and therefore mega-expensive. These middle-class pioneers lived separate lives, by and large, from the poor white, black, and other ethnic communities that surrounded them, swapping competitive tales of street shootings and bank robberies with their guests at dinner parties. So authentic. I haven't ever been back, but I'm told the area is now highly sought-after.
The problem with gentrification is the squeeze it puts on those in the middle and at the bottom of the pile. Sure, nobody wants to live in a crumbling, cold-water bedsit in a high-crime area, but people with minimal resources -- financial and social -- have got to live somewhere. London property prices are now so absurdly high that even a professional couple with both earning "normal" public-service salaries could never contemplate buying a house. A 2-bedroom flat in Dalston will now set you back somewhere between £400,000 and £800,000. You want a 3-bedroom house? What kind of dreamer are you?
Where the teachers, nurses, and street cleaners of that great city state are supposed actually to live is a mystery. Not to mention the young, who might have found a congenial squat in years past. First rob your bank, I suppose. Or, more likely, let your bank rob you, in the form of a massive loan that amounts to indentured servitude.
Of course, the process also works in reverse. A 4-bedroom terraced house bought in 1980 for less than £100,000 is now worth around £1,000,000. Sell up, and you have enough money to buy somewhere comfortable virtually anywhere else in rural Britain or Europe, and live out the rest of your life in modest idleness on the change. You meet such people everywhere, ex-Londoners with a permanently bemused sense of guilty good fortune. Not so much trustafarians as equity hippies, pretending to paint or make pots.
Though, since 2008, the ones who tried to play double or quits with their chunk of change in the boom years by gambling with it (a.k.a. "investing" it) rather than simply banking it may be feeling rather less lucky, these days.
* I have always enjoyed the fact that, on the ubiquitous and wonderful London Underground map, Notting Hill is the only confluence of red, green and yellow lines, the Rastafarian colours.
** In Britain, children representing the flock-watching / sock-washing shepherds at a school Nativity play traditionally wear similar but home-made headgear. Look very closely at the top photograph, btw.