On the rarer occasions I visit the Shoreditch end of Brick Lane, I find myself in state of heightened irritability with many things I dislike being together in one place. Crowds of twenty-somethings who value expressing themselves solely through vintage fashion and overpriced food stalls serving ethnic variations on sliders. Last weekend, broad dislike of Shoreditch and what it has come to symbolise spilled over during anti-gentrification protests that culminated in the vandalisation of the famed and ridiculed Cereal Killer Café: a place where you can buy mainly American cereal for £3.50 a bowl and is synonymous with the high camp end of ‘hipsterism.’ Some protesters argued the publicity earned and symbolic stand against the dispossession of the poor as a result of gentrification were more important than the damage. Yet channelling the anger of symbols is detrimental to this cause.
This isn’t Cereal Killer’s fault. It’s success is a far greater reflection of our own shortcomings and priorities. Shoreditch relies on young professionals with disposable income who like living inner city and prize expensive irony. Cereal Killers’ gimmick skilfully appeals to our fetishisation of childhood memories through children’s cereal and yearning for exotic products we saw watching American movies. Shoreditch – like my own neighbourhood Hackney – has become romanticised as a place of an ‘edgy creativity’ that has captured hearts and minds in Britain and worldwide like Camden and Notting Hill before it. In that sense Shoreditch is a tourist district; London’s hipster version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road or Delhi’s Paharganj. There’s little difference between Cereal Killer or a Notting Hill film location tour capitalising on this. Rather than targeting what has already been transformed, protesters would be better served occupying an old pub closed for renovation to be transformed into a Weatherspoons chain pub in Walthamstow.
Protester concerns are more valid in gentrification being funded by monied new arrivals who reap all the benefits at the expense of the original inhabitants. This is best symbolised by the parallel but separate existences of newcomers and the born and bred; of council flats coexisting beside expensive, renovated former council flats. When rents become more expensive due to the improved desirability of the neighbourhood, many poorer original inhabitants are forced to move elsewhere. Ultimately though, dispossession from gentrification cannot be solved through trying to change our own consumer habits. Instead, collective political will must address the causes of skyrocketing housing prices synonymous with gentrification. The lack of affordable housing construction. No rent controls unlike in Europe. Unregulated investment property purchases financed by overseas speculators. The decline in social housing stock and the ‘help to buy’ scheme of tenants buying council flats at heavy discount with incentive to sell later at a huge profit. Currently there is a lack of will and, again, it reflects badly upon us. Though we support more affordable housing in principle, perhaps we’re reluctant to see any changes that might cause our own housing prices to fall or increase less in value after the money we have spent. While there is now a disincentive for political parties to promote real housing reform, this requires political bravely to do what is fair. Without such reforms, consumer choice ultimately favours those with more money. Inconsequential consumer choice only really applies to indulgences like vintage cereal.