Gentrification Without Displacement in Shoreditch by Joon Ian Wong

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First came the Young British Artists. Then it was Banksy and his cohorts. Now, it’s the million-dollar startups of Silicon Roundabout. Shoreditch and its brick-walled, Victorian warehouses, has been branded a cultural quarter since the Young British Artists moved into the hollowed out light-industrial area on the City’s edge in the early ’90s.

But even as the various cultural industries — first the artists, then the “brandals”, now the app-makers — briefly “shine and burn”i, they have proved to be essential tinder for property developers, as Pratt notes in his 2009 survey of the area.

Now Shoreditch is poised on the cusp of a new wave of development that will see the addition of 50-storey residential towers to its skyline for the first time, and an unprecedented amount of new, high-density housing. The new towers will be built on sites left fallow by their owners for decades. So just who is being affected by these developments? Is Shoreditch gentrifying without displacement?

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Coming developments and local responses

Shoreditch has several large sites that have laid derelict for years. These brownfield sites, which include the former Bishopsgate railway goods yard, are finally being put to use. Developers have won planning approval from Hackney council for almost all the sites on the border of the City and Shoreditch. Sites that haven’t yet been approved, like the goods yard, are undergoing intensive public consultation driven largely by the developers, before planning permission is sought.

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Together, these brownfield sites will account for up to 3,051 new residential units. For context, compare this to the Olympics athlete’s village in Stratford, just a few stops east on the Central Line. That complex accommodated 17,000 athletes and officials during the 2012 Games, and it was then converted into a residential complex with 2,800 units, or about 90% of the size of the planned developments in Shoreditch.

The planned increase in residential density is accompanied by millions of square feet of new office and retail space. One common response from nearby residents is similar to that voiced by Gary Sharkey, who rents in a newbuild near the goods yard site in Tower Hamlets. I interviewed him at a public consultation session of the goods yard set up by the developers’ consultancy in the summer of 2013:

I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said, referring to the tent pitched on the goods yard site containing scale models and lined with information boards about the proposed project. “It seems effective [at consulting with the public]. I look forward to getting more from the site than I do now.”

Residents can hardly be faulted for expecting more from these massive brownfield sites. When a new elevated park and repaved throughways are promised, as in the case of the proposed goods yard plans, a positive response from local residents can only be expected. But this sets up a dichotomy between a mixed-use development aimed at the more affluent, with its attendant public realm improvements, and a wasteland that is left largely closed to the public.

As one local campaigner, the historian and broadcaster Dan Cruickshank, put it at the opening speech of a new pressure group called The East End Preservation Society, the goods yard is simply an example of developers “squatting on” important sites until market conditions suit them. Residents end up supporting developers’ proposals in the absence of more imaginative or inclusive alternatives.

A relative lack of existing residential density — particularly owner-occupied properties — means that there is less organised community action on development and planning issues. This is the sentiment expressed by Johnny Vercoutre, who owns a building on Shoreditch High Street. His home is an homage to the 1930s and the man himself is habitually clad in period dress. He has lived in the area for 20 years. He remarks on the difficulties of local lobbying in the area:

There are not that many homeowners [in Shoreditch],” he says. “We’re on our own.”

The gentrification argument

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Andy Pratt points out that owners of light industrial spaces within the Shoreditch Triangle were often relieved when they disposed of their property in the area. Unlike the narrative of commercial or industrial gentrification, in this case, the displaced property owners welcomed the move out of the area. Again, this upsets the narrative of wealthier incoming gentrifiers displacing existing residents. In the case of Shoreditch there were no existing residents to displace.

Thus, the narrative of ‘commercial or industrial gentrification’ may not be one of forcing out, but willing flight,” Pratt writes of the area’s industrial landlords.

Andrew Harris in his 2012ii paper studying the links between the YBAs and Hoxton, suggests that gentrification scholars have failed to incorporate cultural landscapes and aesthetic registers in their analyses. He wants to bring the place-branding of Shoreditch into a dialogue with the socio-economic processes of gentrification. This is further problematised by the fact that the process of gentrification taking place in Shoreditch does not necessarily create displacement.

But as Harris notes, quoting Hackworth, “the production of urban space for progressively more affluent users” is taking place in Shoreditch. The areas “transformation” shows a kind of “class-based process of neighbourhood change” that takes place without displacementiii.

A short history of Shoreditch

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Shoreditch rose to prominence as an artistic hub linked to the Young British Artists in the early 1990s, largely driven by the many parties, festivals and events initiated by the late art impresario Joshua Compston, with an explicit place-branding agenda, as Harris’ work tells us. The artists, many supplied by the East London Line from Goldsmiths in the south, were attracted by hollowed out Victorian light industrial spaces and cheap rent arising from the neighbourhood’s blighted reputation.

But by the 2000’s Shoreditch, and its synonym in the cultural imagination, Hoxton, had descended into self-parody. It was seen as emblematic of New Labour’s ‘Cool Britannia’ and spawned the satirical rag The Shoreditch Twat, which lampooned, among others, the incoming residents it labelled the ‘Marlyebone Tunnellers’, who could always pop back into their more salubrious West London environs as needed.

Perhaps it was fitting that during this period the area provided a canvas, quite literally, to the self-described “brandalist” Banksy, whose spray-painted stencils on the walls of the area critiqued consumer culture by mocking it in various ways. The Bristol vandal kick-started his international career with an ‘exhibition’ in the Rivington Street tunnel, white-washing the walls and then stencilling on them, pulling off the feat dressed as a builder on official business.

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Today Shoreditch trades on both the contemporary art blooms of the YBAs and Banksy’s street-level critiques. It remains “on the edge”iv, as Pratt has written, but it has been branded part of ‘East London Tech City’, also known colloquially as ‘Silicon Roundabout’, a cluster of technology start-ups that are given state support to promote things such as ‘innovation’.

But the inter-weaving of borough-wide social deprivation with a brand of knowingly provocative artiness has produced a certain pervasive style associated with the area. Style is generated by certain “technologies of glamour”, as Thrift has noted, and Shoreditch itself has become a space “in which every surface communicates something”1v.

 

Joon Ian Wong is a journalist and graduate of MA Interactive Media: Critical Theory and Practice. joonian@gmail.com 

Gentrification Without Displacement in Shoreditch is published in Streetsigns, the journal of CUCR.

To see further articles from this edition go to :http://www.gold.ac.uk/media/Streetsigns_online_spreads1.pdf 

 

i Pratt, A.C. (2009). Urban Regeneration: From the Arts `Feel Good’ Factor to the Cultural Economy: A Case Study of Hoxton, London. Urban Studies 46(5-6), p. 4.

ii Harris, A. (2012). Art and gentrification: pursuing the urban pastoral in Hoxton, London. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37(2), pp. 226–241.

iii Ibid. p. 10.

iv Pratt, A.C. (2009). Urban Regeneration: From the Arts `Feel Good’ Factor to the Cultural Economy: A Case Study of Hoxton, London. Urban Studies 46(5-6), p. 8.

v Thrift, N. (2008). The Material Practices of Glamour. Journal of Cultural Economy 1(1). p. 17

 

 

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