Gentrificiation for all

Submitted by Matthew on 28 October, 2015 - 11:33 Author: Martin Thomas

The capitalist housing market predominantly separates “nice” areas from “rough” areas. In the “nice” areas, people pay higher prices; bigger and posher houses and better shops and amenities and transport facilities are built. In the “rough” areas, only cheap and poor-quality housing is built; shops, amenities, and transport remain poor.

The social divide, once established, tends to grow. But the market has cross-currents. Inner cities combine bits where rich people afford high prices to be near to city-centre facilities, and nearby bits where poor people can’t afford not to pay for cramped and crumbling housing because they must be near city-centre job openings. A poor inner-city area may be “turned round” initially by younger, childless, better-off people moving in because they value city-centre access enough not to mind cramped housing or seedy surroundings. That turnaround can spiral to turn a poor area into a rich one.

My argument (contested by Bruce Robinson, Solidarity 381) is not at all to endorse the market because of those cross-currents, still less to endorse the very existence of social inequalities! It is that we should not indict those cross-currents as the specially bad bit of market workings, and regard the main drift (keeping posh areas posh, and poor areas poor) as relatively benign. Yes, we want democratic planning. That planning should aim for levelling up and for socially mixed areas, not for “gentry” to be gated out of “proletarian” areas and proletarians gated out of posh areas. For “gentrification” for all!

Both Bruce and I refer to Islington. As the Monopoly board shows, Islington was long a notoriously poor area. When Risinghill School, near the Angel Islington, was shut down by the Inner London Education Authority in 1965 because the teachers refused to hit the students, a big reason for the authority’s alarm was that the liberal experiment was being tried in such a “rough” area. Now the Angel is as posh as Islington gets.

But, despite what Bruce writes, you don’t have to walk far even from the Angel to escape posh “uniformity”. The old Risinghill School, renamed Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, has a plebeian student population, over 90% from recent-migrant families. Islington Green school (renamed CoLA Islington), not many yards in the opposite direction from the Angel, is also plebeian.

Through long battles in the 1970s the Islington Labour Parties became unusually lively and left-wing. Jeremy Corbyn’s political career has been based on that. The base of the left was mainly (though by no means all) incomers, while people like Michael O’Halloran and Bill Bayliss on the right cultivated a base among longer-time locals. There were snooty and posh people among the leftish incomers, but there was nothing progressive in O’Halloran’s and Bayliss’s defence of “proletarian” localism.

Ten or fifteen years ago, the Independent Working Class Association had some success (up to 27% of the vote) in Clerkenwell (where Bruce used to live), on a basis of resentment against newer incomers (mostly better-off workers rather than actual bourgeois). The IWCA were leftists of sorts, rather than Bayliss-type right-wingers, but addled, leading instinctive resentments into a blind alley. To repeat: the enemy is not better-off workers, or middle-class people, even snooty and annoying ones, and the answer is not to cordon off such people into homogeneously posh areas. The enemy is capital.

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