- Literature and Gentrification on Brick Lane
In 1964 sociologist Ruth Glass used “gentrification” to describe what occurred when middle-class home buyers, landlords, and professional developers moved into parts of London that had dilapidated housing stock and blighted streets. Attracted to historic building features undervalued by existing residents, these newcomers’ mere presence and marked refurbishment efforts were often coextensive with the transformation of rented homes into owner-occupied ones, as well as with dramatic increases in housing costs and displacement of working-class tenants.1
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Neil Smith and others considerably expanded, and at times abstracted, Glass’s definition. By Smith’s account, before it had widespread currency outside academe his sense of gentrification was not unlike hers; in the mid-1970s he would tell people that “[g]entrification is the process . . . by which poor and working-class neighborhoods in the inner city are refurbished via an influx of private capital and middle-class homebuyers and renters.”2 But since then his language has become progressively more pointed. In 1996 he states gentrification “is no longer about a narrow and quixotic oddity in the housing market but has become the leading residential edge of a much larger endeavor: the class remake of the central urban landscape,”3 and by 2000 his Dictionary of Human Geography definition deems it “reinvestment of capital at the urban centre, which is designed to produce space for a more affluent class of people than currently occupies that space.”4
With these terms, Smith positions gentrification as, in essence, a spatial expression of labor’s relation to capital. Working in tandem with suburbanization—as “renewed or more vigorous centralization of capital into urban areas”—it is about bringing working-class space into the ambit of controlled urbanization, and about doing so within global cities “shorn of much of the traditional protection of national state institutions and regulations.”5 Deregulation, privatization of housing and other urban [End Page 425] services, and marketization of public functions are each key to his analysis; “revanchist” city planning that uses a moralizing language of public order to control subjected populations is, as well.
Gentrification is thus at once about making places safer and more livable, and about property developers and real estate companies exploiting opportunities to sell expensive new condos, which leads to existing residents, often renters, moving out of neighborhoods they’ve come to see as integral to their communities and identities. The difficulty of knowing what is fundamental and what is incidental to the process exacerbates its ambivalence. Is it refurbishment of the existing built environment or new development or both? Is it driven by home buyers, by property developers, by landlords, or by any or all of these combined? Is it only the initial phase that counts, when a blighted area is first isolated as desirable and then inhabited and fixed up, or is any kind of upmarket movement implicated? What role do artists play, given that they are often willing to live in areas others think uninhabitable, and given that, with “the surfeit of meaning in places frequented by artists,” these areas soon appeal to people too prosperous to keep rents low?6 Is the process a linear one, as poor and working-class streets are inhabited by ever wealthier occupants, or does it entail cycles of valuation and devaluation unfolding in cities whose metropolitan areas are constantly expanding? Is it always the product of outside capital moving in, or can communities undertake their own gentrification as part of the work of civic betterment?
These questions have been definitive for urban geography. In what follows I suggest that literary scholars have good reason to engage with them, too. Consider the brief example of Spread the Word, one of a handful of recent organizations that have cropped up to help aspiring writers “achieve their full potential.” Funded by Arts Council England, and directed in particular at minority groups, it has just expanded into the notoriously downtrodden, but now gentrifying, East End of London. It describes its work in the area as follows: to “help create a strong cultural infrastructure . . . and support regeneration of the area”; to “promote cultural exchange and community cohesion...