If you walk down Chatsworth Road Market in Hackney on a Sunday morning, you'll see families buying antiques, dishevelled young people soaking up their hangovers with Japanese street food, and barista coffee stalls selling £2.10 espressos. Cross the road into Homerton High Street, and you'll find betting shops, deserted takeaways, and a pub with two broken windows and a "no-search-no-entry" policy.
Hackney has long been a microcosm of the capital’s increasing social inequality, combining extreme poverty with phenomenally fast gentrification. Research published by Shelter last week showed that if wages in Hackney had risen at the same rate as property prices, they would be almost £132,000 (the average wage in the borough is actually £31,000): the largest disparity in London. In December the average house price in Hackney exceeded £500,000, compared to the national £176,500. And letting is expensive too: official figures have shown that in Hackney 55 per cent of tenants’ earnings go on rent.
The area’s burgeoning cost is causing a number of problems. For a start, people who have lived in Hackney all their lives are forced to move out because they can no longer afford the rent and this is resulting in tension between locals and the young professionals who have moved in over the past decade.
And often the newcomers get cast as the bad guys. In 2012, Mina Holland wrote an article called ‘Chatsworth Road: the frontline of Hackney’s gentrification’, in which she made snide references to courgette cake, flat whites and “middle-class bohemians”. Back in January, Camden entrepreneur Alex Proud railed against the “Shoreditchification” of London, singling out its “stupid beards and skinny jeans”. There continue to be articles about how “the self-satisfied sea of bearded hipsters tapping away on their Macbooks” is pushing locals out of the area.
These articles tend to be well-intentioned, but the direction of their anger is misguided. Of course it’s unfair that people are being priced out of the area they’ve lived all their lives. And admittedly, the juxtaposition of smug young families buying loaves of bread for £3.50 while their neighbours are struggling to make ends meet is enough to make anyone want to storm the barricades.
But blaming the young professionals for the plight of their neighbours is like blaming the slaughtered horses for the horsemeat scandal. They are a symptom of the problem rather than the cause. Adopting an us-versus-them mentality about newcomers pushing out locals is not a solution: instead, this kind of divisive language exacerbates tensions between two groups living in close proximity. There also seems to be an implication of malice in middle-class people moving into previously deprived areas.
The reason is much more mundane: as London becomes increasingly overcrowded and overpriced, areas previously affordable to young middle-class professionals (or emergent service workers) are no longer an option.
What is the alternative? Should Hackney, or London in general, be shut off to people who weren’t born in it and who therefore don’t have a “right” to live there? (arguments about immigration spring to mind here) Of course it is unfair that people are being priced out of their homes. But blaming each other is yet another way of reinforcing class division: the real blame rests with a long succession of government decisions, urban planning, the mass post-university exodus to London, and lack of social mobility in the UK.
If gentrification continues at this rate London will be inhabited mainly by white, middle-class graduates. We don’t want it to turn into Kensington: pristine, moneyed, soulless. Both groups need to coexist, and where possible, mingle. But when one group feels like it's being pushed out, mutual toleration is difficult. Instead of groups of people demonising each other, there needs to be profound institutional change.