Belgravia to Hackney: it’s Budget day

Yesterday I made a short return journey, barely half an hour, from Dalston, Hackney to Belgrave Square, for a vigil outside the Bahrain embassy. The vigil was to show solidarity with Nabeel Rajab and with Bahraini activists who are being harassed, even here in the UK.

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Vigil for Nabeel Rajab, political prisoner in Bahrain, outside the Bahrain embassy in Belgrave Square.

This is not the reason I woke up this morning feeling so sick, I could hardly eat my breakfast. But it did set me thinking. On this day, Budget Day, it occurred to me in the kind of elemental way it does first thing, there is plenty to go round. There would be no need for austerity if we could just share all the resources we have. Austerity is not something that effects all of us. Only the poor and the sick. Those who rely on public services. Inequality is damaging us.

I’m at a time of my life thankfully where I barely have to use the NHS. I’m not yet one of those people who can write a glowing report on Facebook on the wonderful overstretched nurses and doctors. Only in our work, as a family, we see the effects of austerity. My husband, an architect who works on school buildings, has seen the amount of work dwindle. I give my time to a soup kitchen, drop in centre and a centre for women refugees, giving English lessons, and the local night shelter; all voluntary services that should be unnecessary in a just society. My daughter’s job is to monitor behavior in a secondary school. The poor behavior of a few pupils is directly caused by poor mental health, poverty and the instability in their lives, by the lack of resources to cope with the petty awkwardnesses school throws at them. Inequality undoubtedly causes poor mental health. It’s something I can see in front of my own eyes.

Poor housing or no housing at all must be one of the highest contributers to mental ill health. We are all the poorer for it. All the people who are suffering from lack of support from government, are prevented from taking a full part in society, from being creative, from being sociable. Instead they are forced to traipse from food bank to drop in to free meal to substandard housing to GP.

In Hackney, and further north in Haringey, there are people forced to live on an industrial estate in converted buildings, just like the one in this video, unable to keep themselves and their possessions safe.

So even more galling it was to think of my journey home yesterday from Belgravia back to Hackney. Some people even think Dalston is a rather smart area. It’s certainly been gentrified for the ones with enough to buy a house, to meet their friends in a café, to go clubbing. And stable enough lives for their children to benefit from the improving schools..

Back towards Victoria station, still an acre of grime and lurid signage, I clicked along spotless, creamy stone pavements, Belgrave Square, Eaton Square, where a school friend of mine had lived, Chester Square where another friend had lived, long ago of course. Every now and then I noticed a state of the art sports car, the like of which I’d never seen, hunkered down in a residents’ parking bay. The buildings all freshly painted in uniform ivory. You could say embassies need to be smart, they have to entertain kings and queens and generals. They have to have clean streets. But even here, not all the houses can be embassies. Anyway wouldn’t we all like to have clean streets.

Usually I breathe a sigh of relief when I reach Dalston, everyone gets off. It’s always been  a busy station, even before gentrification. But this morning when I thought of the beggars in Kingsland High Street, over again I felt sick. There used to be only one beggar, a woman with a gambling addiction. Now there is a new person every hundred yards or so, fifty even. It’s a fairly crazy but also courageous thing to do to resort to begging, to put yourself at the mercy of the passersby, of the street. It means services, both public and voluntary, have failed. Some of the drop-in users tell me the foodbank on Sunday was closed because of a children’s party. But also the motivation to keep going, to access all these services, has left this person. It means family and friends have deserted this person. I’m always shocked every time I see a new person, someone I don’t recognise. Yesterday there was a woman about my own age, she could be someone’s mother, one of my own kid’s school friends’ mothers perhaps or a neighbor. Further on a new spot had been taken up by a young woman, her possessions bundled around her.

So my prayer is that today’s Budget can make life more equal. All of us need to work for a more just society. There are plenty of houses; they’re not properly distributed. There is plenty to go round if you could just choose fairness over greed. We all suffer, from the fact that thousands are forced to send every hour of their day trying to work out where the next meal is coming from, putting all their intellectual energy into negotiating job centre, foodbank, housing benefit, without any time for friends.

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Belgravia to Hackney: it’s Budget day

What has gentrification ever done for us?

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Pray and Work: Ora et Labora woodcut by Ade Bethune, 1935, Ade Bethune Collection, St Catherine

Just down the road from Giuseppe Conlon House in Hackney, in the same borough as the London Catholic Worker’s weekly soup kitchen, Urban Table, there is an unmistakable whiff of gentrification about the place, with all the changes going on.

Some might call it regeneration, others gentrification, others social cleansing even. The Catholic Worker would call it clarification. Dorothy Day writes, in Loaves and Fishes [1], ‘Poverty is a strange and elusive thing [..] We need always to be thinking and writing about it, for if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us. We must talk about poverty because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.’

There is plenty to laugh about how bad things were in the bad old days: an infrequent train service and a bus that only went half its route on Sundays. Before mobile phones, in the early nineties, my street was a sort of crack superstore; customers would stand in a row, staring in the direction of the high street, looking out for the dealer’s gold BMW.

Improved transport links, street furniture, cycle routes, regular rubbish collections, decent schools, more restaurants and cafes to choose from; the benefits of gentrification are obvious. Above all, an expansion in housing and therefore population. What’s not to like.

However there is also a housing crisis. House prices have risen out of the reach of most. Young people and those on low incomes have to rely on renting from private landlords, who can then charge as much as they like. Private rents in London are now 72% of income. Meanwhile anyone who is homeless, even if they are housed in the area, the minute they get a job and lose their housing benefit they won’t be able to afford the rent. The message of gentrification is: if you can’t afford to live here, move out.

I was looking around for an alternative proposition, perhaps an anarchist view on the situation. One housing expert friend suggested that, short of a riot, the way to bring house prices down was for all the school children to fails their GCSEs. Another warned, ‘Laws will be broken’. A mass squat.

Then I found ‘Hope and Rage’, an experimental series of six discussions on gentrification. Rob Schellert, the facilitator, told me he set up the group after feeling angry and frustrated at the evangelical churches’ response to the changes in his neighbourhood. He feels church Christianity has nothing to say about the real life issues present. The church he said just tends to be about ‘spiritual stuff’ and offered no discipleship. It offers only a superficial response to what it means to love our neighbour.

The sessions covered transport, shopping, socializing, education, and included an expert speaker, information from local government sources, and a scripture passage. As a group, we put our comfort filled domestic lives, under scrutiny, from a radical Christian perspective.

My first task was to speak to local people about their experience of gentrification in Hackney, so I combined this with setting up a justice and peace group in my parish. One parishioner I spoke to said he was moving; Dalston was too noisy and he had found a larger place in Enfield. He lived in the estate next door and we found much in common. The ‘hope’ part of ‘Hope and Rage’ was already working.

One evening the group took the 242 bus from Dalston to Homerton. When we set off the night time economy of Dalston was just getting started. Commuters were flowing out of its two stations. By the time we reached the far side of Hackney, the Nye Bevan estate, most passengers had already got off, and the road was poorly lit. The 242 bus is the only immediate transport.

For the session on ‘shopping’ Simon Jones, a Baptist minister and financial expert, told us about the small shops, barbers restaurants and businesses that have sprung up in the refugee camp at Calais. Whatever happens people always have a little money for a hair cut or a shave, preferably at a barber’s shop specific to their own ethnic origins.

That week we also read the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25. We discussed how the common expectation is that even if you have just a little, you should put it to earning capital. How many feel good stories do we hear about people who have risen from humble beginnings. The parable ends, after ‘there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth,’ with:

‘to those who have
will be given more
and to those that have not,
even the little they have will be taken away.’

Nowhere has this prophecy been more fulfilled than in Hackney, in the housing crisis and in particular in the private rental market. More and more people have to rent privately, with no hope of a council house or owning their own home. Where rents remain unregulated, private landlords, and those who own property, can only get richer. Those on low wages lose a disproportionate amount of their income to the landlord, effectively buying his property for him. In addition they are in danger of losing their home through ‘no fault’ evictions. Their situation becomes precarious, leading to anxiety, stress and ill health, the ‘gnashing of teeth’.(2)

Rob Schellert believes social cleansing is already happening. In a place such as Hackney, which used to be one of the most diverse boroughs, it would be a ‘tragedy’ if through gentrification that diversity was lost. Both at my local church and Urban Table, the weekly soup kitchen, I meet elderly people who seem to have been abandoned. Twenty years ago perhaps, their families chose to leave the old Hackney, of drugs and gang violence, for somewhere leafier or somewhere more affordable. The ones left behind are the elderly, the sick or the very poor.

‘What little they had’, their community, is being taken away. As gentrification as we enjoy the advantages, we can easily lose sight of those who are losing out.

The conversations on domestic matters, shopping, transport, made me think long and hard. I felt resistant at times – who cares if I take a bike or catch a bus? But this in itself reminded me of my own responsibility, the times I have thoughtlessly taken more than my fair share. It’s so easy for us to enjoy the benefits, thank you very much, without considering our relations to others and our neighbours. Even Radio 4’s Money Box Live recently ran an item on how parents giving their grown-up children money contributes to rent hikes and therefore the housing crisis.

Living in a family or community, I grow to understand the pitfalls of taking more than my share. If I take too long in the shower, I’m stopping my son from getting ready for work. If I extend this to my own neighbourhood, my shower, the one I am taking too long in, is someone else’s shower, the one I am taking from the poor. My house is the one I am taking from the poor. I am like the rich young man in Mark 10, turning away disheartened.

Hope and Rage, Rob says, is about recognising how our actions, whether consciously or not, affect others around us. Together we grow in awareness of how we relate to our real neighbours through shopping, education, transport. We persevere in sharing our experiences, until we see there is no right or wrong answer. The group is a place of encouragement to commit to something, to try new habits.

Dorothy Day writes, ‘But maybe no one can be told about poverty; maybe they will have to experience it; Or maybe it is a grace which they must pray for. [..] I am convinced that it is the grace we most need in this age of crisis.’

1 Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, Loaves and Fishes, Orbis Books, 1963
2 Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj, The Rent Trap: how we fell into it and how we get out of it, Pluto Press, 2016

This article was first published in the London Catholic Worker newsletter and is produced with permission

What has gentrification ever done for us?