Social Cleansing in Southwark: The Urban Frontier

August 18, 2014


“Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start.”  Raymond Williams

Both sides of the debate, now in vogue on the left, around how far culture is to blame for gentrification are limited, which suggests the question itself may be the wrong one. Those who seek to explain gentrification through the behaviour of cultural workers tend towards sullen moralistic attacks, merely inverting the celebration of the agency of the “hipoisie” by gentrification’s boosters, refusing to recognise the role of capital in gentrification and ignoring the lives of working class communities displaced by gentrification. Equally, those “Marxists” resorting to economic explanations tend towards a restating of mechanistic shibboleths, paying no attention to local circumstances and ignoring local resistance to gentrification.

Instead, the question should be inverted so that we ask what kind of culture is produced by gentrification. This question would also expand the conception of culture, not just the activity of artists, as in the previous question, but also, culture in its ordinariness, as Williams had it: a “whole way of life…[to be] interpreted in relation to its underlying system of production.” It is also necessary to remember that culture is always contested, both on the terrain of culture itself and through contestation within the underlying system of production and that culture has material effects, particularly by accelerating processes of gentrification.

This essay will focus on what is made legible in various figures of the urban pioneer and urban frontiers. These constructions all present a new kind of gentrification which is, as argued in one of Southwark Notes’ vital essays, amnesiac and produced by social cleansing and the attendant cleansing of social memory.

Gentrification is always rooted historically in, as Neil Smith argues, patterns “of investment and disinvestment in the built environment”. Prior to its gentrification, Peckham had experienced decades of often racially motivated disinvestment, creating the conditions for it to be experienced as a “frontier” for “urban pioneers”. Smith explicitly links the idea of the urban frontier to the racism of settler colonialism’s construction of the frontier, in which Native Americans are treated as part of the wilderness, similarly, “contemporary urban frontier imagery treats the present inner city population as a natural element of their physical surroundings. The term ‘urban pioneer’ is therefore as arrogant as the original notion of ‘pioneers’ in that it suggests a city not yet socially inhabited; like Native Americans, the urban working class is seen as less than social, a part of the physical environment.” Peckham has been consistently sold as “edgy” and “vibrant” as if these were natural properties, rather than a dubious distortion of cultures made in conditions of and against oppression and exclusion.

Much of the artistic production coming out of Peckham is similarly rooted in the sense that the culture of Peckham’s inhabitants is exotic and natural rather than social and produced. This is the case both in art forms that enclose this “vibrant” culture and commodify it and in the public art that treats pre-gentrification Peckham as a cultural wasteland, whereby, as Southwark Notes observes, ‘culture’ is imposed “into local areas in the form of public art as if we have not been making our own culture for hundreds of years here.”

Notable here for its occlusion of cultural production and contestation is the Peckham Peace Wall, a public artwork commissioned in response to the 2011 London Riots. The piece is derived from messages on post-it notes that were stuck to a burnt-out Poundland, which have now been transformed into a permanent artwork. Limited edition prints, signed by the “artist”, are also available for £68 each. The Peace Wall is typical of the art produced by gentrification. Firstly, only certain sentiments are admitted to the work, creating a homogenous local patriotism of “real” inhabitants of Peckham against those involved in the uprising, hiding contestation. Secondly, these sentiments are presented as natural not already cultural, which is further testament to their authenticity, an impression which is supplemented by the (often false) naiveté of a lot of the pictures and handwriting so cultural production is hidden. This allows the artists to pose as the producers of the work, with the original post-it notes treated as a natural resource.

The amnesiac art of gentrification has also been used, consciously, to work on individual preferences to encourage gentrifiers, for example in the council-funded, Antony Gormley-designed bollards in Bellenden Road. Smith notes that next to already gentrified areas, individual preferences of gentrifiers become important in initiating the process. More generally evident in Bellenden Road is gentrification kitsch, rooted ultimately in capitalism’s uneven and combined development.

Gentrification kitsch begins in a middle class effort at distinction from “working class” mass-produced commodities. In Bellenden Road it is often anti-modern in its vintage clothing and antique radiator shops (but always amnesiac and unhistorical in that the commodities of the past are abstracted from their social context, from the whole way of life that produced them, transforming the past into an immense accumulation of commodities). It is also, comically, anti-urbanist, with the area styling itself “Bellenden Village” – a cohesive community, without antagonism, with a “village grocer” and “general store”. However, this already stereotypical individuality necessarily overcomes itself by contributing to making the area more attractive for capital. This then raises potential rents – there are already complaints that many of the artisan shops on Bellenden Road are being forced out by rent increases.

The culture of the gentrification of Elephant and Castle is similarly amnesiac but with a much crueller ideological expression and it is underpinned by a much larger role for both big capital and the state. Two aspects of Smith’s analysis are vital here. Firstly, the centrality of potential ground rent – that is, rent for the land rather than for the building on the land. Regardless of the quality of the building on the land, potential ground rent can be increased by, as we’ve seen in the case of Bellenden Road, changes in the surrounding buildings and amenities. Secondly, without state action and big capital to destroy them, existing buildings (particularly when inhabited by council tenants or leaseholders) are a barrier to realising the gap between actual ground rent and its potential. In the case of the Heygate Estate, disinvestment almost since it was built, served as an excuse for its demolition allowing, as Southwark Council’s regeneration guru demanded, “a better class of people” to be moved into Elephant and Castle.

The social cleansing and the mass evictions of the existing community reveals the truth of the “pioneering urbanaut” in the boosterist literature. When Southwark Tenants and Lambeth Renters occupied a flat in the tower, the estate agent was, above all, terrified by what would happen if potential buyers discovered how easy it is to outfox the sophisticated security system and allow the outside world in. Even in Smith’s writings in 1996, there is a tinge of nostalgia for the liberal sensibilities and urbanism of the gentrifiers, when contrasted with the development of revanchist anti-urbanism, “a desperate defence of a challenged phalanx of privilege”. Smith further argues that revanchism need not be opposed to gentrification, and indeed in aiming to cleanse the city could be a favouring condition of a resurgence of gentrification, which “will not mean…a kinder urbanism. The more likely scenario is of a sharpened bipolarity of the city in which white middle-class assumptions entrench a narrow set of social norms against which everyone else is found wanting.” In the revanchist city, culture here becomes a site of contestation in which white middle class assumptions are valorised against the “feral” and “uncultured”, with no right to inhabit.

More than anywhere else in London, Elephant and Castle is an instance of this fusion of anti-urbanist revanchism and gentrification. This is clearest in the timid, anti-street life ethos of Strata – with Elephant insufficiently cleansed, the world outside the securitised tower is experienced as always threatening and uncultured. This accelerates even the anti-urbanist devitalisations of culture in gentrification in Bellenden Road. As Smith argues, “very vital working class communities are culturally devitalised through gentrification as the new middle class shuns the streets” towards dystopia.

The amnesiac new of Elephant and Castle is a new that expresses both the progress made with social cleansing and wills its completion. It is at best tactless, at worst gloating, as Southwark Notes observe, “the Heygate site…is an open wound for many people who were treated by the council with appalling contempt…it is not an empty site ripe for adventures in the art playgrounds of the recent graduates from St. Martin’s and Chelsea art colleges.” This amnesiac new has been substantially aided by Southwark Council, particularly in the case of the Artworks boxpark, which involves the enclosure of a well used public space containing “a large expanse of grass, large mature trees and a small kids playground” that will now only be open to the community under the sufferance of the developer.

There is a temptation – especially from those sections of the left who blame artists, or consumption preferences more generally, for gentrification – to retreat into a resentful idealisation of imagined pre-gentrification working class communities. This idealisation, however, repeats the conceptions of culture produced by gentrification but sullenly inverts them. Working class communities are again defined by their consumption preferences, which are imagined as authentic and pure and unrooted in struggle and oppression. Its sullen rejection of false happiness also removes any consideration of true happiness in urban life. Further nostalgia for a working class past that never was cannot reckon with the lack of investment in housing. In his analysis of gentrification in Harlem, Smith points out gentrification’s Catch 22, that “without private rehabilitation and redevelopment, the neighborhood’s housing stock will remain severely dilapidated; with it a large number of residents will ultimately be displaced”.

Smith’s Catch 22 of gentrification is constituted by the lack of any possibility of public investment in housing, part of the demand for a new against gentrification involves demands on both national and local governments that there is public investment in housing stock without social cleansing. The second aspect of the Communist new is trust in the capacities and knowledge of working class people to initiate solutions to urban problems. These capacities (against the amnesiac and bureaucratic new of gentrification) are necessarily grounded in long experience. These possibilities are suggested by the efforts of local people in Elephant and Castle who, as Southwark Notes describes, have “come together repeatedly and put their precious time to seek that genuine community benefits come to the area. They have put forward serious, considered proposals for creative uses, employment chances, health matters and maintaining public spaces”. They are also suggested by Henri Lefebvre’s outline of a critique of technocratic and capitalist anti-urbanism in the name of the possibilities of an urban experience including possibilities for play and creative activities for all, initiated, necessarily, by “the presence and action of a working class, the only one able to put an end to a segregation directed essentially against it.”

By Tom Gann | @Tom_Gann


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