PB - Gentrification

May 2008 – “Yo! What ends you man from!?” It was the question that had youths sweating like they just ran the marathon. It was a May afternoon and the stirrings of a ruckus betrayed the warm and pleasant air. I was at the religiously attended afterschool congregation for year tens – on the high street, kicking boisterously out of chicken shops and off-licences. Our shirts and laces untucked, and undone, and though our ties were carelessly knotted and sat loosely around our necks, they still managed to choke all rational judgement out of us. Giggs’ ‘Ard Bodied’ Mixtape blasted out of Sony Ericsson Walkman phones and aggressive chat made up the backdrop, as juice cartons and chicken bones were thrown nonchalantly to the kerb. We hurled thoughtless chat-up lines getting at the local schoolgirls and dismayed passers-by as they squeezed awkwardly through our groups blocking the pavements on their way home. It was the poisonous combination of adolescent bravado, smothered hopes and an uncaring recklessness unleashed on an undeserving public. That focus shifted however, when we heard the question.

I was stood at the door of the chicken shop, savouring my six wings meal lathered in burger sauce when I heard it. A vaguely familiar guy and a large group of boys were striding across the road to us with hostile intent. All of us tightened up, stopped what we were doing and looked over. Our smirks faded as Andy shouted back: “Ay, who are you cuz?! Man ain’t seen you round these sides before!” His arms outstretched, inviting the entire group for a confrontation. My senses tingled as Steven came out the corner shop next door. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Dunno, these man are on a hype, where’s Samuel?” I responded. “Still in the shop,” Steven replied absentmindedly, watching the scene unfold. My chances of enjoying my chicken and getting home unscathed were quickly fading. The group continued their approach across the road when the sheer number of them became clear. There were at least thirty hooded youths, fists balled, and faces twisted in anger. My boys dropped their bags and took their jackets off. It was clear that this was going one way, and I had to adhere to rule number one of all hood beef: Don’t Run.

I dropped my chicken box and made my way to the group with Steven. “Don’t worry about who we are, cuz. You’ll find out you can’t step to our block though!” Mr Vaguely Familiar exploded, reaching the pavement and approaching Andy. I suddenly recognised him; it was Mario. A few weeks ago, Steven and Samuel had ironed him out at our bus stop. Mario was from the block nearer the river and had taken a similar trajectory to most of my year group. Violently representing his hood, and carrying his postcode on his back like it would somehow protect him from the harsh realities he faced. Young men like Samuel, Steven and Andy lived and died by their ends. Now Mario was back to prove the same. Steven had recognised him as well, his face melting into repulsed fury. He stormed toward Mario, pushing through the group and past Andy, bellowing, “What you on then fam! You really wanna do this, yeah?!” But we never found out what Mario really wanted to do, for just as he turned to Steven, I heard a whistle by my ear. A blur flew perilously close to my head, and glass suddenly exploded on Mario. Samuel burst past me, set to throw yet another Supermalt bottle right before the pandemonium broke out. Blows were being thrown wildly, glass blasted off the floor, boys were flung to the pavement and into the road, and the sound of a bus shelter shattering echoed as a body slammed into it. The pedestrians close by desperately fled the chaos. Steven and Samuel were in the thick of it, swinging at anything in reach, eyes bulging as they roared at all on comers. Amidst the madness, a call broke through the battle like a foghorn, “AY, FEDS!” Police descended onto the scene with frightening speed and everyone began to scatter. Vans pulled onto the curb and officers flooded out, tackling youths to the ground as they rushed to evade the mayhem. Through the shouts of officers and youngers alike, Samuel called out to Steven: “Ay Steven! Take PB yard! Don’t stop for no one!” Steven grabbed my shoulder as we flew past lunging arms and down a backstreet toward my block. Fire tore through my lungs as we wound through the alleys and over fences but after a few minutes we had lost the officer on our tail.

“That was a madness,” I panted as we rounded the corner of my block and looked across the road to the new housing development. “Don’t worry about them man. Mario’s a wasteman, he could never violate the ends,” Steven responded typically. I nodded in agreement watching the last of the labourers file out of the construction site. The ghost of the recently flattened council block lingered and watched us as we approached my front door. “I still can’t believe they’re ripping down your block though… where they gonna move you?” I asked. The question seemed to pull him out of his rage and hit him harder than anyone did that afternoon. “I don’t even know still; it is what it is man… Can’t really do anything about it.” For the first time that afternoon, Steven looked defeated, his shoulders hunched, and chest deflated, carrying the weight of his postcode and the world on his young, unwary shoulders.

TodayThere is a huge piece of irony in this story, one that’s bothered me ever since my realisation of it that day. Young people, who will happily brawl in the street and risk their lives for the postcode they live in, won’t commit the same energy to preventing or limiting the negative impacts of gentrification. All this vim to rob someone that looks like you from a nearby postcode but nothing when the council are relocating you three zones away? Some young people take Postcode Wars to heart so much that it both saddens and baffles me that the same amount of enthusiasm isn’t put into lobbying local councils on allocating more resource into existing community schemes or helping build more local business. Maybe I’m naive and expect too much from young people who are perhaps ill equipped to tackle such broad challenges. However, having grown up on a now gentrified estate and currently work with the predominant consumers of gentrification in banking, it’s important to highlight that whilst youngers in the ends are cutting each other down over rep, developers and councils are profiting off displacing them. I’m not arguing that areas shouldn’t be redeveloped, but it can be done far more responsibly than how it is currently implemented.

Now young people in our communities, I’m not here to attack or lecture you, I’m genuinely just wondering why we can’t rep the ends like we should. The most common pushback we have when gentrification comes around is to hold steadfast in our homes and refuse to vacate, which often just delays the process as opposed to preventing it. Prevention needs to start way before that. Those from our communities that have managed to do well have a responsibility to give back to the areas and people they were raised by. “When I make it, I’m moving out the ends.” I get it, it’s not the greatest place to be and you want to do better, but how is that furthering your ends? What example are you setting for future generations? I believe repatriating wealth away from our community is more detrimental than an angry man with a knife in his hand. If you build a business and staff it with people from that community, they remain self-sufficient and become role models to younger people. It keeps the people in the community economically relevant and better able to thrive. They can afford to send their kids to better schools if they lack it in the immediate area and the cycle of education and wealth creation starts again. All this will mean that as opposed to growing up and wanting to be like their local drug dealer, young people will aspire to be like their local business owner who owns a few shops, or the pharmacist who’s friends with their parents and drives a nice car, or even the GP whose kids they’re friends with got the new Yeezy’s for their birthday.

I have lived in the same area in South London since I was born, the same kilometre radius for 28 years. I started off in a high-rise council block where the pissy lifts were always broken, then to an estate down the road when they knocked down the council block, and just recently I bought a new build flat across the road from my Mum’s place. There are now meat and wine boutiques on the same high road where you can still step out of a chicken shop and get fleeced for all your belongings. You can walk from my flat, where people are drinking champagne on the balcony, to my Mum’s estate where the bins are overflowing, and within thirty seconds you’ll find used condoms on the floor. It’s a succinct microcosm of the extreme distribution of wealth in London. So, the common question people at work ask me when we discuss gentrification is: “Would you rather your area remain a shithole forever?” Now of course I would prefer people had sex in their houses and not in the block hallways, but how much is it going to cost to ‘un-shithole’ my area, and who will suffer the most? The attitude from the corporate class with regards to displacing people is so blasé, it’s painful to listen to: “It’s no Clapham, still a bit ropey, but it’ll have to do on my budget.” Now whilst I realise there’s no personal responsibility for outsiders to develop struggling areas, it highlights the difference in reality between two groups of people who sometimes live within a one-minute walk from each other. The obligation of ensuring responsible redevelopment of an area sits with local authority and developers. For instance, there needs to be more done to ensure social housing quotas are met (which they aren’t), making sure local business continue to have cheap access to funding and continual improvement of communal facilities, giving the same access to facilities for kids living in social housing as provided to those in private housing.

All in all, like many topics at the intersection of corporate and social interest, there is no black or white answer to whether gentrification is a good or bad thing. It has meant that I can buy a house and live near my family – and to be honest, it always gets a nice reaction out of ladies when they come to visit. On the other hand, it has meant that people like Steven had to live with the uncertainty of whether he and his mum were going to make it in a situation where their livelihood was being flipped against their will. The price of redeveloping areas cannot be one which ultimately costs us another generation.

The Poor Banker