Gentrification announces itself in symbolic developments – a new café here, an exorbitant house sale there – and so it has been in the past few years in my home area in Walthamstow, east London, the latest previously unremarked-upon district of the capital to be subjected to its hyperbole and high-pricing treatment.
It can be perhaps most vividly symbolised by developments in two buildings in what has always been its most solidly middle-class street, Orford Road in the cherished Walthamstow Village area. First, came the replacement of a long-established bookies (an independent, naturally, in the borough's most upmarket street) with a bespoke independent estate agent's whose windows habitually advertise medium-sized houses on sale for prices way north of £500,000 (thus one hive of speculation and gambling potentially ruinous to the social fabric was replaced by another, more upmarket one); more recently, its adjacent pub had a revamp, in the manner of so many others within a square mile, charging more than a fiver for a pint. It was never much of a pub, but it was a dependable enough locals' hang-out, with its karaoke on Saturday night and live football on a Sunday afternoon.
Around about the same time, a three-bedroom terraced house in our street sold for half a million pounds – and is now clad in sophisticated security fittings. A couple of weeks back, we had a note through the door from an expectant couple asking us on-spec if we'd be interested in selling them our house, as it looked like a lovely place to bring up a family. This speculative enquiry was presumably based on the assumption that we'd be up for going through the hassle of upping and offing, just like that, for a quick and substantial buck.
Signs of this upwardly mobile local self-regard also manifest themselves in other, more trivial, forms – the excruciatingly twee Twitter hashtag #Awesomestow, for example, or t-shirts bearing the slogan “Walthamstow Dad” (as if the very act of reproducing while living in this postcode is worthy of recognition). Articles such as this recent frothy Evening Standard puff piece might be regarded as Exhibit A here, namechecking much but telling us little. Welcome to Walthamstow, then – the new Stoke Newington/Dalston/Islington, perhaps – or maybe just largely the same old Walthamstow being priced beyond many of its long-standing inhabitants.
To those of us who grew up in this borough, Waltham Forest, this change in status feels a tad disorientating. Growing up as I did in Chingford, the resolutely Thatcherite Tory suburb to its immediate north, Walthamstow was never really seen as up to much. Sure it was busier and less dull (and “rougher”). It had more shops and, through its good transport links offered a route further into town, where the real action was. However, the idea that it would ever become celebrated in broadsheet property supplements and bracketed with long-stereotyped parts of posh north London was a stretch too far. Its main associations were with the dog track, which closed in 2008, its bustling cheap and cheerful street market and with the Nineties boy band East 17, who sold themselves as a rougher, earthier alternative to the likes of Take That. Of those three, only the market remains.
But there was always more to E17 than that, even before the two most recent property booms. Its museums – one of which, the William Morris Gallery, was deservedly named Museum of the Year in 2013 – film societies, folk clubs and such like are long-established, popular and locally rooted. In the Eighties and Nineties, Walthamstow Village had a reputation as an enclave of teachers, social workers and the Guardian-reading middle-classes. It still does, just – but they too are at risk of being priced out. A teacher's salary wouldn't get you much round there at the moment.
And it is of course, as vacuous as it is unhelpful to conflate class with cultural consumption, as if eating olives and artisan bread denotes much at all about anyone's place in the economic and political scheme of things. Middle-class people went to the dogs, working-class people supported film societies. And there's a concurrent danger that laments about gentrification are misdirected towards superficial and easily lampooned cultural tropes – bearded hipsters and “yummy mummies” – when the real problem is the economics. And the vile poor-hating politics that accompanies it.
So here's some of the economic foundations upon which the past couple of years' local boom imposed itself: Waltham Forest had the worst homelessness rate in the country in 2011-12, with poor housing conditions rife – according to 2011's Walthamstow town centre local development plan 22% of housing in the area was deemed to be overcrowded. Low pay and unemployment are persistent problems, and its current 6.2 per cent unemployment rate, while falling, is nothing to write home about. A walk down Walthamstow High Street today offers little evidence of “Awesomestow” regeneration – it contains six pawn brokers or pay-day loan shops to only one shabby-chic gastro-pub. Cuts to housing benefit and a general shortage of affordable local homes even tempted the council to briefly seek to move homeless families as far afield as Luton and Walsall a couple of years back, in anticipation of an influx of people priced out of inner London. All the while, the borough's house prices are going up by an unsustainable and unjustifiable 15% a year, as even more ludicrous prices push people out of a centre whose economics are determined increasingly by oil-and-oligarch money. The gentrification process in modern London floats above the rest of its population, excluding it from its pubs and cafés with high prices perhaps, but otherwise leaving it untouched, unhelped and ignored.
Walthamstow is a diverse area too, with a large and settled Pakistani population (the borough has the eighth highest Muslim population in Britain), as well as sizeable numbers from African and Caribbean backgrounds and recent arrivals from Eastern Europe. And while “diversity” may be a pretty bland, unhelpful phrase the area's cosmopolitan blend certainly helped on one of the most genuinely proud days in the area's recent history, the large anti-racist demonstration in September 2012 that physically prevented the English Defence League from reaching the town centre.
But cosmopolitanism is a saleable commodity too, and there is an element of the gentrifying classes that would happily pay over the odds for that “edginess”, the paradox being that the very same gentrification process then flattens out and removes precisely that diversity. Gentrification, after all, is as much about who it excludes as who it includes – homogenisation is the inevitable consequence.
Yet the partial transformation of the area is not without its benefits: a new cinema complex is now going up, as part of a – admittedly very chain-dominated – development on a patch of land at the top of the High Street that has sat in various states of dereliction for the best part of 15 years; another independent cinema and community centre will, hopefully, transform the delapidated former cinema site up the road, after an exhausting battle with the fundamentalist Christian group who've owned the building in recent years. Many of the pubs that have been given a makeover needed some sort of improvement, having previously been under-populated and unwelcoming, although many better ones have gone altogether, as has a down-at-heel music venue, the Standard, which while hardly at the cutting edge was always a handy place to go and watch your mates' bands do their stuff.
There are also dangers in those of us who have known the area all our lives responding with a visceral anti-”outsider” hostility. To those who may rail with reason against high prices (and the inevitably different new population that attracts), others may take it out on other, less wealthy, more foreign, outsiders. In any case, no city can thrive while preserved in aspic. Churn and change are an inevitable part of the mix. Indeed part of what once attracted incomers to Walthamstow was that it was a cheap place in which to rent (as I did for a year back at the turn of the Millennium). I, too, can hardly claim pure “indigenous” status, having moved back here only seven years ago.
Ultimately, arguments about who belongs in a place, and cultural tastes, will just get you bogged down in treacle. The changes that have happened in Walthamstow are rooted in a bigger economic and political malaise around rampaging inequality, inadequate and expensive housing and poor or non-existent work. A logic that says the market – in housing, or anything else – cannot be bucked leads to long-standing residents of large parts of London being told, when hard times hit, that they no longer have a right to live in the places where they and their families and friends grew up. Moreover, if they complain about cuts to their housing benefit or the bedroom tax they are then scolded for their sense of “entitlement”. The hateful argument that implies, “Hard Working Taxpayers now have to pay half a million for a shoebox in your area, so how dare you stick around, fouling up the place, when your benefits are cut?” The poor's right to exist is barely even acknowledged. In Boris Johnson's London, rising house prices are a tide that sink most other boats, so the gilded few can bob about blissfully above them.
So what can be done? It's easy to just roll our eyes and sigh “capitalism eh”, and even easier to rail against its more superficial manifestations - “cute” delis and sanitised pubs – but it's the price of a house, not the price of a pint, that's the problem. So campaigning for rent controls, more social and council house building, for better regulation of landlords, for a land value tax, for anything that might help address a housing market that doesn't work needs to be the focus. As does challenging, at every turn, the self-defeating stupidity of political and economic narratives that treat rising house prices as an obviously Good Thing. Because Walthamstow is a decent place to live – nothing special, nothing glamorous, but with attractions and community aplenty – not a speculative goldmine.
This article is part of NLP's series The Contemporary City
Tom Davies is a freelance sports journalist and trade union activist based in Walthamstow, east London