OPINION: Jamaican bakeries to Starbucks: My experience of gentrification in London

Friday, 10 July 2020 15:28 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

While gentrification brings an economic boost it too often leaves people behind

Jade Popoola is a 16-year-old year-11 student finishing at Wymondham College, a state boarding school in Norfolk, UK

By Jade Popoola

In the 1960s, my grandparents fled civil war in Nigeria and moved to South London in search of a better life. Clapham Junction became the neighbourhood where both my mum and I both grew up.

Back then it was largely working class and populated by immigrants. The primary school my mum attended was a mix of English, Italian, Jamaican, Ghanaian, Maltese and Nigerian first-generation immigrants, she told me.

“It was inclusive, neighbours knew each other, and children would spend all day on the Common or playing outside on the street,” said Michelle, my best friend’s mum who also grew up in the area.

However, as people began to appreciate the area’s prime location and transport links, property values rose, and people who had lived there for years could no longer afford rent.

The Jamaican bakery that once sat at the bottom of my road became a Gail’s (a posh bakery chain).  The local, Greek-owned café was replaced with Starbucks, Costa Coffee and a Caffe Nero.

Clapham Junction was transformed – or, in other words, gentrified. For many, that means more job opportunities, reduced crime rates and better schooling. Those who are lucky enough to remain, usually homeowners, reap those benefits.

For others, however, gentrification means a segregation of residents by class. My mum remembers the community she once knew disintegrating as people would move out of London when developers bought their homes or when they could no longer afford rising rents.

My aunt Eyitemi, who grew up with my mum, cannot afford to buy a house in London and fears she may face a “lifetime of renting” due to rising property prices across the city.

I share her concern. Children who grow up in one area are unlikely to be able to afford to live there as adults. I currently live in Surrey and can only dream of moving back to Clapham Junction – where my mum grew up, raised her children, and where I’d hoped to raise my own.

The problem with gentrification isn’t the regeneration of areas. Britain has seen a building boom in recent years spurred by government policies designed to address a housing shortage that has pushed up prices and contributed to homelessness. 

The problem is that while gentrified areas may become economically prosperous, the people who were pushed out of their communities are not. Gentrification is the displacement of wealth that produces the illusion of a fixed problem, which produces negligence.

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said in a documentary that “London cannot afford to export majority of its people and become an enclave for the wealthy”.

In Elephant & Castle, central London, a £3 billion rejuvenation project saw residents of Heygate Estate forced to leave their homes as the compensation they received was not enough to allow them to live in the neighbourhood.

Moving working-class residents outward does not mean they no longer exist. Improving neighbourhoods shouldn’t include changing the people who live there. Why can the change not come from within?

Why did the marketplace in Clapham Junction and the Jamaican bakery have to disappear for the area to improve and become desirable? We shouldn’t need to change the cultural background of an area for it to “improve”.

The bias that associates diversity with poverty must be shifted and we must target poverty instead. Investment in affordable housing should come hand in hand with investment in education and disadvantaged youth to create internal social mobility and break the cycle of deprivation.

Gentrification may happen but it is not inevitable. Clapham Junction was a home to three generations in my family – but things that changed didn’t have to, and communities don’t have to be torn apart. 

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