Social change can’t be wished away by calling it something different, argues Alex Turner
There’s a golden quote in the second paragraph of an article, titled ‘The unstoppable march of gentrification’, which Bristol 24/7 published last Friday. Alex Poulter, who owns the artisan East Bristol Bakery on St Mark’s Road, tries to argue that Easton isn’t gentrifying because: “You have streets where houses go for silly money, and then you have the gun violence still.”
If you can think of a more apt symbol of a gentrifying ‘edgy’ neighbourhood than property prices soaring while shootings take place round the corner, well, answers on a postcard please.
This confusion persists throughout the piece. The title’s use of “unstoppable march” makes it sound as if we’re going to be hit with some hard truths. But the main body text twice uses the qualifier “so-called” to hint that any gentrification might be in the eye of the beholder – or that it could be a fuss over nothing.
The article ends on a feel-good triple-whammy. First Abdul Ismail, owner of the Sweet Mart, states that Easton isn’t changing any faster than it has before. Second, Poulter suggests “dynamic” is a better description than “gentrification” of what’s been happening in the area. Finally, an East Bristol Bakery customer breezily asserts that at the end of the day, if a man can grab a large white sourdough loaf then everything’s all right with the neighbourhood.
As Poulter rightly points out, communities mostly aren’t static, they’re dynamic. Somali, Turkish and Polish businesses proliferate throughout the inner city, as they do elsewhere in the UK. They change its character as surely as his shop – which has undeniable merits, having returned a derelict building to use – does.
The key difference is how that character change manifests itself. Shops opened by recent immigrants, for example, might seem exotic but tend to be affordable for anyone who cares to buy from them.
That’s less likely to be true of artisan bakeries or craft ale bars – if you want to use them, regularly at least, you need the economic means. Other businesses, such as the Sweet Mart, may also thrive. But there’s a risk that over time, sections of a community become excluded from local amenities.
But of course, despite Louis Emanuel’s article being categorised in 24/7’s ‘food and drink’ section, gentrification isn’t ultimately about bread shops or cafe bars – it’s about housing. This is why, as Emanuel acknowledges, it’s such a dirty word – especially if it’s levelled in your direction.
In Bristol, swathes of the population who would probably rather not think of themselves as gentrifiers are helping the complex process along its way.
I’m a part of it. So are many of the city’s artists, musicians and other ‘creatives’, who in the last five years have decamped in numbers from BS6 and BS2 postcodes to BS5 ones, chasing cheaper rents. (In doing so they ‘detoxify’ areas for richer, more conservative types who might previously have been put off by the stigma attached to ‘dodgy’ streets.)
Though he doesn’t mention it, Louis Emanuel (another BS5 resident) is part of the process too.
If you’re an out-of-towner wealthy in either money or education relative to your neighbourhood, you most likely are as well.
To some extent this is simple supply-and-demand. Bristol swelled from 390,000 to 428,000 inhabitants between 2001 and 2011 and continues to fill up, stoked by flights from London, by its ‘cool’ factor and by articles in both left– and right-wing broadsheets about its quality of life (and, soon, by the faster electric mainline to London).
And of course, these incomers aren’t for the most part evil parasites hell-bent on suffocating working-class and BME culture with white middle-classness – many benefit the city and the communities they settle in.
Signs of displacement
But negative effects are accelerating.
As the Bristol 24/7 piece mentions in passing, there’s a long-standing trend of people being priced out of buying houses in neighbourhoods around the city centre.
In Easton and surrounding suburbs though, where prices have in some streets gone off the scale in the past two years, it’s not only a case of homes becoming unaffordable for first-time buyers. Pound signs are flashing in the eyes of some landlords, whose next move may well be to consider how to evict their tenants before the bubble bursts.
Homelessness workers I’ve spoken to talk of a spike in private rented tenancy terminations by landlords either looking to jack up the rent or sell. Two people I know who had their Easton tenancy terminated in March have still to find a new home because the rental market has become so overheated (one left Bristol permanently last week as a result). This is why groups such as ACORN, who work to safeguard tenants’ rights, are so important – but their powers are limited.
Policies announced by the incoming Conservative government are likely to see a reduction in the number of new homes for below-market rent (in Bristol, the recent delivery of these has in any case been pitiful). Councils are also going to be made to sell off their most valuable homes, putting a further squeeze on overstretched resources in cities like Bristol.
The question is, if people are displaced in large numbers from areas like Easton, where will they go? Will we see a repetition of what’s happening in London, where lower-income residents have been driven further and further from the centre – and in some cases out of the city altogether?
It’s too early to say – and the full picture of changing demographics may only emerge after the next census. What’s certain though, is that the stakes are a little higher than the availability of sourdough loaves.