Gentrification: why we need more of it

The Hackney brasserie debacle shows we need more gentrification, not less.

A newly opened, east London bar made national headlines this week after a young man involved in a nearby street fight ran into the Bonneville bar and brasserie in Clapton bleeding from a minor stab wound. It was not the incident itself, that happened on the bar’s opening night, that attracted criticism, but what the bar tweeted after they were forced to close for the evening: ‘Some kid got stabbed over the road and decided to run into ours. Great look for our first week.’ Accompanying the tweet was a picture of the bar’s bloodstained floor. 

Fair enough, you might say. It was a pretty insensitive remark. The bar admitted as much next day, but judging by the online response over the past few days, you would think they were responsible for every evil in the world. Angry messages appeared on Twitter and Facebook advocating everything from boycotting the bar to burning it down. The vast majority of those complaining weren’t even there on the evening in question and didn’t fully know what took place, but it didn’t stop them from rushing to judge and condemn the bar’s proprietors.

For all we know, the offending tweets may just have been written in the heat of the moment. After all, it was the evening the staff had been working towards for months, and it had been ruined. It might have been a flippant, throwaway remark (we all make them) after a long day. Who knows? But saying the wrong thing is apparently an unforgivable crime today. We know, if staff are to be believed, that the young man was ‘very aggressive towards them and more interested in calling his friends to gain retribution for his injury, rather than have his wound attended to’. So maybe they felt like they had a right to comment.

But something bigger lies behind this outpouring of vitriol over one new bar’s Twitter faux pas: gentrification. As one angry tweeter wrote, this is just ‘the latest example of hateful, destructive gentrification’. But what is it that’s being destroyed by gentrification? Rundown high streets, boarded-up shops, closed-down pubs and crumbling housing stock?

Who in their right mind would want to complain about the arrival of new and thriving businesses, bars, cafés, shops and services on their doorstep? I’m sure the vast majority of people who live in rundown neighbourhoods up and down the country would welcome the kind of development certain parts of London are now enjoying.

There’s no shortage of people complaining about the economic transformation of Dalston, Clapton and Peckham, but, ironically, the complaints tend to come from young middle-class professionals who move into an ‘edgy’ area and suddenly see themselves as speaking on behalf of the ‘marginalised locals’.

A common complaint is that ‘affluent outsiders’, with a callous disregard for the existing community, are taking over. ‘Let’s parachute our “French bar/brasserie” into one of most deprived boroughs in UK. Sure none of that annoying poverty stuff will matter’, complained another tweeter in reaction to the incident in Clapton. But hipster bars and cafés are not the cause of poverty, social exclusion or deprivation. Nor have they caused the housing crisis – ‘They’re causing rents to increase’ is another common complaint. House-price inflation is down to so few new houses being built.

What’s more, the oft-repeated idea that ‘poverty’ is somehow an excuse for, or cause of, violent crime is deeply insulting to the many ordinary, decent people who struggle financially, as is the idea that only well-heeled west Londoners or east London hipsters can appreciate good food, drink and nice places. Who says that if you’re on a low income it necessarily follows that you’re incapable of enjoying a French brasserie, even if you might not be able to go there all that often? Or is it that those complaining about ‘gentrification’ think that the working classes really belong in old-fashioned boozers and working men’s clubs? Those are the sort of places that no one particularly wants to go to these days - apart from trendy, gentrification-hating hipsters.

The idea that we need to scale back on the resources we consume and slow down growth is considered a radical idea today, especially when those resources involve people enjoying themselves or simply making life easier, from cheap holidays to restaurants and convenience stores. But there’s nothing radical about trying to keep neighbourhoods poor and unsightly. Gentrification helps improve neighbourhoods, as well as provide jobs and business opportunities. We need more of that, not less. And not just in London, but up and down the country, too.

Niall Crowley is a writer based in London and the former landlord of The Eclipse bar in Lower Clapton.

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