As I often say to my friends, family members, colleagues and training buddies, “Life gets in the way”. Such has been the case with my absence for the past year. Since pulling back from community development work in Indianapolis and in general, I’ve worked with inmates addressing their criminal thinking and behaviours, painted, landscaped, worked in retail (Crate & Barrel) euthanized our dog, and eventually divorced; all leading to my self-funded sabbatical in London. Yes! I’m in London. England, The Royal Family, Big Ben, Tower London, Football (The Premier League) etc.
Self-funded means I’m earning and buying my time to reflect; engage in self-care, reconnect with my root’s via intense listening and observation. You may ask what prompted the sabbatical, as if the aforementioned is not enough but maybe this phase will add some clarity without details; “Experience is a cruel teacher. It gives the exam first, then the lesson.”
When I have arrived several months ago England was in the midst of a national and local election; the incumbent party, The Conservatives, won re-election for a second term. The issues for this national election; mirrors the same tensions which permeate most major cities in the United States and as country; affordable and social housing (Housing), improved, efficient affordable health care (Healthcare), improved school system (Education), border control (Immigration) and, a working populace and trade (The Economy). It was the usual quarrel between the two main parties Labour (Democrats) and Conservatives (Republicans): issues of economic equity and social mobility, balancing a budget, some touting success and others highlighting, success for whom?
Yes!England, London has its great landmarks and tradition of a “a cuppa”, and while there is respectable admiration for the Royal Family not all its citizens subscribe to the decadence of the Empire; while the working poor are being taxed beyond what they earn. It’s safe to say Capitalism has long had its hooks in the British economy, one need only look at the Transatlantic Slave Trade or even within the British Empire’s historical system of indentured servitude and Landlords. Fast forward, look-up and out in any direction and one will see developments are ruling the skyline and landscape. The ripple effect of this commercial and residential development is pricing out local residents in the surrounding communities/zones at alarming rates. How is this happening? and what does it mean for social and economically diverse communities? Those are not answers we will explore in this blog but we will look at the construct/background to better understand the tension between progress and change – commercial/residential development and social equity.
To understand London as a City one portal to look through are the Zones which one would travel (bike, car, train, bus or helicopter) as a visitor or resident. The Zone system has been around since 1979: Zone 1 is central London; Zone 2 the inner city, and Zones 3 to 6 the suburbs. They have history, creating boarders for boroughs, imply economic and social status, foster economic and social segregation leading to various communities having a heavy saturation of a concentrated culture. According to Ben Judah, author of, This is London, The London of 1979 was more or less like this: Zone 1 was the property of the British elites and the upper middle class; Zone 2 was a grungy inner city where poor immigrants first settled, and Zones 3 to 6 were a patchwork of affluent or working-class suburbs.
However, in 2015 the Tube map, does not accurately reflect the hidden truths of a completely new city. London’s demographics has changed; according to Ben it is now only 45 per cent white British, roughly 40 per cent foreign-born, and at least five per cent illegal or undocumented migrants. And it is growing. An 8.3 million-strong city, probably closer to nine million if you count the undocumented, demographically powered by immigration, is growing by about one million people a decade. He elaborate’s:
This new London fits its communities into very different places on the Tube map. Zone 1 is being increasingly converted into a territory for the richest elites of Russia, France, China and the Gulf. The result is that it is no longer affordable to most of the children of the old establishment, or even those elites themselves.
This influx of foreign money has been one of the reasons behind a 100 per cent rise in London property prices in real terms since the early Eighties. This is now pushing money into the more affordable old inner-city ghettos of Zone 2 — sending existing trends of gentrification into hyperdrive.
Right across Zone 2, the rush of property buyers has seen grim inner- city areas previously treated as the territory of immigrant communities — such as Brixton for Afro-Caribbeans or Bethnal Green for Bangladeshis — rapidly transform into areas catering for the young middle class.
London’s gentrification is well-known. What is less familiar is the flip side: where those pushed out end up. The process has seen Zone 2 become unaffordable to poor immigrants, forcing them into the old working-class suburbs in Zones 3, 4 and 5. This means immigrants increasingly land in places that were until recently almost wholly white.
For the record I reside in Zone 2, Imperial Whaf on the Overground; Chelsea-Kensington, Fulham and Hammersmith considered a tri-bourough. While it’s an upscale neighbourhood its one of the few with mixed-income. I reside in a council flat which had secured tenancy twenty-years ago. The cost of a flat in my neighborhood is five-hundred pounds weekly, two-thousand pounds ($3,500.00) monthly for a two-bedroom. To buy a 3 bedroom house in my hood’ the asking priceis roughly between three-hundred thousand and half-a-million pounds ($750,00). By the way, houses are small, since space is a premium.
The places, I use to frequent and live (Ladborke Grove, Notting Hill Gate, Sheperdherd Bush, Brixton etc.) that were evenly populated by Afro-Carribbean, Asians (Indian’s and Pakistani) and Europeans; now because of a reverse influx are the in-places’ to live. Priced out of their neighbourhoods by the returning suburbanites, young-professionals and heavy investment these communities are shaping up to be monolithic rich ghetto’s touting hip-hop fashionistas, skinny jeans hipsters, beard wearing vapor smokers with every type of luxury car one can imagine. More importantly, the impact it is having on the working class-poor is seen daily as they struggle to meet the bare necessities to survive with limited to no discretionary income. Essentially, they are renting their way to poverty since wages are not rising at the same rate as the cost of living and inflation. Like the United States, England touts the creation of new jobs each month, yet with wages so-low it leaves the working-class/poor with limited impact on the economy. Given the current narrative it can be argued they are being viewed as an after thought in developing economically diverse communities.
Ben Judah in analysis adds:
In both south and east London there has been a quiet fraying of race relations as a result of this toxic mixture of property prices and ethnic displacement. There is a widespread conspiracy theory that the Government wants to push “poor blacks out of the inner city” — and building sites for expensive residential properties are often vandalised or graffitied. London’s 2011 riots were inflamed by these feelings and there have been attempts to organise repeat riots in Brixton and Hackney. The police believe they are a matter of time…The reasons for white exit are complex: winners from the property boom are tempted to cash in while losers are tempted to drop out, but there is an undeniable element of wanting to leave working-class suburbs that have transformed into migrant areas.
London, reflects the tension of change and progress at it’s core. It remains one of the most diverse city’s in world and that diversity is reflected in the eclectic cultures that add to its vibrancy. Unfortunately, that same diversity has yet to be reached on an economic and social level when it comes to equity. London like New York City, Chicago etc. has become a buyers market, a play-ground for the decadent with a promotion of a wealth driven approach to community and improved quality of life.
I’m glad to be back in the place of my birth, I’m glad that I took this risk , make this sacrifice investment as part of my journey. As my next steps are unfolding and lesson are being gleaned like intermittent snap shots; one snap shot that has been clear is “Change”and “Progress”are not mutually exclusive but must be inclusive. Ben Judah captures best my sentiment, which I think needs to be applied to major cities that chose follow the same old models of development:
London must learn the lessons of Paris: that creating a ring of struggling suburbs around an affluent core is a recipe for segregation, alienation and riots — which is near impossible to reverse. London is moving in this direction but can slow it down dramatically. Removing the incentive for property prices to rise infinitely…London calls itself the greatest city in the world but it is increasingly a city of displacement, with those losing out numbering in the millions. These are the people being tempted by the politics of closing its doors.