Living an ethically blemish-free life is near impossible in the world as it is. But we should be careful to distinguish between processes we don’t like and the people caught up in them. We may hate the way gentrification rips apart long-standing communities, but should feel differently about those involved in the process.
This doesn’t mean that the actions of gentrifiers are immune from criticism. Gentrifiers can’t be blamed simply for being involved in the process; that would be like saying many people should never move from their place of origin (whatever that means). But there are ways to be a more or less ethical gentrifier. I’ve come up with four:
1. Remember: there was something here before you arrived.
One of the features of gentrification is the sense it transforms once vibrant and diverse areas into sanitised, homogenous versions of their former selves. Sometimes this is expressed as ‘social cleansing’ which seems to me inappropriate, or is quaintly expressed as loss of ‘character’ or ‘colour’. The point is that gentrification involves making socially or ethnically diverse areas whiter, more generic and more middle class.
Those engaged in the process should educate themselves about what the area was like before they arrived. This is simple manners. Just as it would be rude to travel to a different country without any knowledge or interest in its culture or history, so the same is true of moving to a new area. Curiosity about a place’s past is also a good tactic when it comes to getting to know locals, who may be wary of your presence.
2. Befriend long-standing residents.
People fear change, but change is constant. The question is do those affected feel they have a stake?
Many people affected by gentrification do not engage with the process, not least because it forces many to move. Long-standing residents who remain are witnessing a place they have known transform before their eyes. This can be a disorientating experience.
One way to deal with this is to have conversations and build relationships. This is a two-way street: long-standing residents should reach out to newcomers as well as the other way around. But given the disruption and dislocation gentrification brings, the onus is on the ethical gentrifier.
3. Support the local economy.
We are regularly told that we should reject big chain stores and shop at independent retailers. Often this is just a way for middle-class people to elevate their expensive tastes on a platform of moral superiority. A big Tesco has co-existed alongside a traditional market in Brixton for many years. Both serve the needs of local people efficiently and affordably, while allowing the community to express its character.
The question is not whether an enterprise is ‘independent’ (from whom?) but whether it plays a positive role in the local economy and community. What we want are businesses that recognise and fulfil their duty to enrich the communities they serve, by training and employing local people, or actively championing local culture and innovation. The recent Pop Brixton initiative is a good example, despite its trendy exterior. Ethical gentrifiers should support businesses that support the local economy and community, not those that simply leech off it.
Volunteering is good for everyone involved. It benefits the direct recipient – the vulnerable child mentored, the homeless person fed – but also the volunteer themselves, who gain in skills and confidence, or improved health and well-being.
It also helps people to build a stake in their local community. This is important where there’s erosion of the shared history and experience that binds local people to each other and their area. Volunteering enables ethical gentrifiers to help individuals, help themselves, and help rebuild the communities that gentrification often erodes. What’s not to like?
This is the advice gentrifiers should follow if they want to be ethical. I’ll end with a tip for governments concerned with the social impact of gentrification as a process: build more bloody homes, and make them affordable while you’re at it.