Bonneville, Fuck Parade and anti-gentrification
“#CSIClapton due to events on Lower Clapton Road this evening, we will unfortunately have to close #WelcomeToHackney”, so tweeted the newly opened Bonneville (bar? pub? restaurant?) on Saturday 14th June 2014. They followed this up with an explanation of what these ‘events’ were: “Some kid got stabbed over the road and decided to run into ours. Great look for our first week.”
The subsequent angry response on Twitter forced the newly opened bistro-cocktail bar to issue an apology: the victim had been “very aggressive” towards the staff trying to help him, and “more interested in calling his friends to gain retribution for his injury.”
This weekend, London saw something similar again when on Fuck Parade’s third annual protest march some protestors threw stuff at windows in estate agents and in the notorious Cereal Killers £4-a-bowl-of-cereal ‘cereal bar’. I was abroad at the time (it wasn’t me, guv!) but stories of the parade have reached across Europe and the activists here appear to approve. UK responses have been, predictably, polarised.
The Bonneville incident was one of those examples when events occur in reality which would seem too clumsily obvious in fiction. In a former dingy Irish boozer, where generally friendly locals watched sport, played pool and drank cheapish beer, we now have a bistro named after a retro Triumph motorbike, meaning something like ‘Nice Town’. The foodie blog ‘North East Eats’ (N-E London, not Whitby and Sunderland) lovingly describes the décor as “stunning”, complimenting the “artfully distressed walls”, the “expressionist creepiness” and the inspiration of “early 20th century decadence of Paris, Brussels, Prague, and Berlin”. The cocktails, we learn are “well priced” at “around £7” and the choice of food “reflects that decadence.” Surely, this, at the bottom of what was once called ‘Murder Mile’, is post-gentrification – not an artist’s trendy hang-out but straight up bourgeois dining. But the area is still an overwhelmingly working class area; gang violence, hard drugs, unemployment and homelessness are evident. Evident, that is, if you care to look. And so when the problems of ‘old Hackney’ stumble bleeding in real and unartful distress into the bubble world of decadent ‘new Hackney’, the symbolism is not a coincidence.
The protest that resulted was reflective of a community’s anger. It was a reactive response to an individual example of a systemic problem. Fuck Parade was an organised protest about a systemic problem that ended up attacking a few individual examples. Both were criticised in the usual ways: independent businesses, hardworking people, paying their taxes, minority views etc.
Last year, Pauline Pearce, famous in a Youtube video for an impromptu rant against rioters, and subsequently courted by political parties across the spectrum, took the Hackney gentrification debate into The Daily Telegraph online. In a Hackney Gazette interview she added this: “The locals are fed up of it. There is not a lot we can do. As far as the council is concerned, they are bringing money and jobs into the area but the people working in these shops are not from Hackney. Hackney is a beautiful place and we are famous for diversity but that is being pushed away.” She highlights the irony of using the riot clean-up money to provide more expensive shops for people to loot: “I’d like to think that social housing, or community centres is what they were using the riots money for, but they used it for a fashion hub that nobody can benefit from.” Interestingly, she proved more difficult to handle than the Liberal Democrats, who eventually won the battle for her signature, had thought. She seems to have taken their interest in her seriously, tried to stand as president of the party and then gave up because “People out there feel that they are diverse, feel they are not at all racist. But it is what I would call underhand racism, where you feel that people are not quite able to step up to the mark”. It seems they did not take her as seriously as she took them.
Hackney’s population is about 50% some kind of white, 25% some kind of black, and the rest a very diverse other. That is according to the 2011 census figures. Comparing it with 2001, the Council report notes that among a general 21% increase in the borough’s population, it was “the 25-29 age group demonstrating the most dramatic increase (13,000).”
I was one of that 13,000, being 29 when I filled in the Census form – one of the area’s increasing number of pale-skinned, university-educated, home-counties-raised migrants. The report points out that “Most ethnic group populations have shown growth which mirrors the 21% population growth overall, with the exceptions of Irish (-15%), Pakistani (-12%), Caribbean (-8%) and White British (-1%) groups which fell in both absolute and relative terms between 2001 and 2011.”
We must be cautious here with these figures, as ethnic self-definition forms are limited for various reasons, but they seem to back up Pearce’s views that despite the significant increase in population, there are fewer (“in both absolute and relative terms”) BME and working class people in Hackney than there were ten years ago. It is not unconnected that Hackney is the site of the fastest rising house prices in the UK, with average sale-per-property now topping half a million pounds. In the space of only a few years, even those parts furthest from the centre (and thus the cheapest) of Clapton and Homerton are beginning to acquire a whole load of new businesses aimed at those with disposable income and a taste for antiques, ‘vintage’ clothes, hoppy pale ales, sourdough bread and expensive coffee.
Home owners who bought in the cheap years have sold up to new arrivals and the buildings are being done up by builders who grew up on those same streets but now live in Enfield, Ilford and Romford. Estate Agents are booming, vying with each other to produce new words for ‘desirable’ in their reams of nonsense copy. Somehow they all hit upon exactly the same epithet for one street in Clapton: ‘the ever-changing Chatsworth Road’. It was an interesting sales tactic. What is it that appeals about a continual state of flux, especially to home-owners? Doubtless, of course, buyers could recognise the thinly-veiled code for ‘working-class area undergoing gentrification’ and liked the promise of new businesses which would appeal to ‘their sort’ and a rising capital return on their (significant) investment. However, perhaps the phrase also had some subterranean appeal to what certain (hipster?) social theorists like to call the ‘libidinal desires of late capitalism’. According to Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, now: “To always be doing something, to move, to change – this is what enjoys prestige, as against stability, which is often synonymous with inaction.”
Of course, there have been a lot of new flats built in Hackney but the physical state of the area has not changed significantly. As Roland Camberton mused in 1951, it was strange to consider Hackney as a slum when the actual buildings – Victorian housing – were not so different from St. John’s Wood and the more well-heeled areas. Image, it turns out, is financialisable. “What is at stake here,” remarks David Harvey, “is the power of collective symbolic capital, of special marks of distinction that attach to some place, which have a significant drawing power upon the flows of capital more generally.” So the whole ‘I heart Hackney’, borrowed from New York – the ultimate example of gentrification – may have been a well-meaning attempt by people to show pride in their area which was frequently done down, to the detriment of the psychology and job prospects of those living there. The council and the estate agents latched onto it, however, because it was a way of making money. By establishing another copy-cat Berlin/New York coffee shop with exposed brick interiors and expensive menus, you are raising the ‘symbolic capital’ of area and helping house prices and rents rise.
Of course, the owners of Bonneville in 2014 and the new petit-bourgeois retailers of Brick Lane after Fuck Parade pointed out their own victimhood. “I think we’re priced fairly and at the end of the day we do have a business to run. The rent increases that everyone’s talking about, we have to pay as well – we don’t own the building.” said Ruairi Gilles, of Bonneville, who like the Cereal Café people, is one of a pair of brothers co-owning the business. Sixteen pound fifty for fish and chips may be reasonable when it is ‘hake with samphire and fennel’ (13) and “pomme frites” (3.5 – in the Berlin style of writing menu prices). However, it is a lot more than a takeaway and a few tins at home. Who owns the city now?
The ‘we are struggling too’ argument, seems to be a popular one. “We’re still bringing people to the area. Nobody’s getting rich here, we’re just making a living. It’s not like the cereal cafe is damaging the area. There should be a bit more respect for what people do.” twenty four year old, Gabriele Giacalone, owner of 40 Colori, a men’s accessories boutique, told The Guardian. Of course, they are victims of rising rents too. But there are struggles and there are struggles. The question of how to maximise return on your investment when overheads are high may be a difficult one, but it is not the problem facing the 46% of children growing up in poverty in the borough, 76% of whose families are “reliant” on ever-decreasing “out-of-work benefits”. It may seem puerile to compare the two. The bigger problem is not just that these people are richer than other people, it is that their businesses are increasing the symbolic capital of the area and thus increasing the rents which will eventually force them out too and allow the corporates in, while making private renting less and less possible (even with landlord subsidies of housing benefits).
There was a much quoted blog post by Jasiminne Yip, the twenty-nine year old girlfriend of Henry, owner of Regimental Vintage, for all your military regalia needs. Her blog, brilliantly titled ‘posh broke bored’ after laying into the ‘mob’ of protestors as ‘yobs’, ‘vulgar’ and ‘rabble-rousers’ and accusing them of terrorising an innocent dog, lays out that classic argument for why such businesses are doing no harm. “Honey, let me break down economics and fair trade for you: if someone wants to spend £5 on a bowl of cereal or £10,000 on a table at The Box, that’s their prerogative. Nobody forced you to buy that cereal nor pay for that night out.” Indeed, “fair trade” (or free trade, as I think perhaps she meant) does not force me to go to the beardy cereal brothers. However, if I don’t have a spare fiver then I have no choices or at all. If businesses like that thrive off the surplus created in tech and finance, others follow suit and soon it becomes hard to find a place where people on ordinary incomes can walk in, not feel like an outsider and afford to consume their products. The ‘ever-changing Chatsworth Road’ now has only one ordinary caff and thus nowhere else where you can get a cup of tea for less than £1.80 (or 1.8 as I should now write it). If you want to watch the football in Hackney over a cheapish pint, now that The Windsor Castle, Jackdaw and Stump, Adam and Eve, Railway Tavern, Hobgoblin, The Cock Tavern, Fitzgeralds etc, have all been closed down or changed hands, the fair/free market offers fewer and fewer choices.
And as for the ‘hard-working business’ argument, all I can say to that is that Adolf Eichmann and Josef Goebbels were hard working, it doesn’t mean they were doing any good for the world.
So much for the ‘we’re not doing any harm’ thing. The question is then, is it effective as a political tactic to put things through their window? Firstly, let it be remembered that it wasn’t just Cereal Killers who were targeted and doubtless it wasn’t everyone on the protest who felt that tactics like that were ok to use. Personally I prefer more creative forms, but if you want your argument to get some airtime, peaceful protest ain’t the one. How many people were even aware of the brave stand of Occupy Parliament in defiance of strong-armed enforcement of the laws against democratic protest outside our democratic parliament? How much coverage is there about anti-eviction resistance, the Sweets Way protests, the Liverpool activists who were imprisoned last week for opening a homeless drop-in centre in an empty bank building, the anti-arms fair protests or a thousand other things? Media coverage isn’t the be all and end all but it helps that people hear about your cause. Similarly, these righteous commentators don’t seem to realise that protests must disrupt the flow of capital or they can be ignored. Violence to property is not the same as violence to people.
Some have said, it’s just middle-class people attacking other middle-class people. “Two groups of monstrously overgrown children had a squabble, and some paint got on a window” according to Sam Kriss in Vice who wonders (in the media) why anyone (in the media) thinks it’s a newsworthy story. And of course it’s generally middle-class people who tend to deride each other as hipsters (no one self-identifies as such), just as working class people tend to use ‘chav’ as an insult for people who are similar but importantly different from themselves. We are all embarrassed by our own family and more sympathetic to the faults of others. Some working-class people look at a business like Cereal Killers, calculate the profit margin, and are impressed. Yet, the argument that if the protestors are middle class then their views don’t count, is nonsense. There is a reason why activism has a larger representation of people with education, cultural capital and time. Of course we have to work to engage people without those privileges but it doesn’t mean our point of view is wrong. What amazes me is that people with this kind of background and enough money or access to credit to set up a business, end up establishing something as socially useless as Cereal Killers. In one Clapton café/record shop, I was charged £2.20 for a cup of tea. I asked how they could justify it. “We’re a community business” they claimed and appeared to believe it. Yet they won’t even let people use their window for small ads or their toilet wall for posters because it would spoil their aesthetic.
Increasingly the right to the city is becoming a ground on which to fight, and the coalition emerging cuts across class boundaries. Working class people made active in struggles for the right to remain in their own home borough (Focus E15, New Era, Sweets Way, etc), are making their own movements and leading political actions. Living wage struggles for migrant cleaners and bike couriers have engaged union support. Black struggles against police violence are allying with anti-detention protests. Feminist groups are campaigning against austerity. Far from it being a boring little middle-class civil war, the new struggles for the city are looking more and more diverse. The precarious living and working environments of 21st century London are the material conditions for a large and heterogeneous resistance while the hipster cafes still try to exploit the ‘ghetto chic’ of the East End to sell their pointless service. Confidence is growing among those who wish to resist it and events like this weekend should not be dismissed as simply childish gestures.
A quick glance at the staff inside the new bistro-cocktail-bars, bike-cafes and ‘creative’ charities will show you that Pearce has a point in saying “the people working in these shops are not from Hackney”. In the multi-nationals of supermarkets, J. D. Sports and Macdonalds you will see where the new employment is really happening. If you are going to invest in Hackney and set up a business, why not accept that there are already enough coffee shops in which to sit on reclaimed primary school chairs and work on your macbook and instead set up something that would truly engage and benefit more than just a privileged minority of its population? And as for the ‘early-20th century decadence of Berlin’, it is too much to remember where that led the middle classes in the mid-20th century? Romford, once the retreat of the white East Enders, now taking in the non-white exiles from Hackney, voted UKIP in May this year.
 quoted in ‘Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep’, Jonathan Crary, Verso; 2013
 Rebel Cities, Verso, 2012