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When edgy turns stodgy: gentrification and the angst of the urban under-class

Peter Cook Portrait

While the stodgy remain and the hip move on, Peter Cook explores the angst of the urban under-class

Coming back from Oslo, another familiar city - I hear the refrain of a frequent conversation: ‘the real action has moved East’. It comes, of course, from the not-so-rich, not-so-dumb young professionals, the ‘creative types’ (dare one suggest: the types who might read the AR).

The first move is made by the experimental and the individual, the imaginative ones who see a miserable hulk in a depressed locality and relish its ‘possibilities’. Then along come their initially more cautious friends and colleagues.

Gentrification takes many forms - good coffee is one of the first, with grey paint and a rewiring job following swiftly thereafter. Fringe hat shops and overpriced Breuer furniture creep into disused butchers’ shops. Old industrial hulks are rediscovered through a combination of opportunism and discussions about ‘charm’.

In London, where there are vast disparities between the rich and poor, we have watched architects drift from Fitzrovia to Clerkenwell, and the hip kids (shadowed by bored young bankers) move into Shoreditch and beyond. The number of artists per square kilometre in Hackney is among the highest concentrations in Europe. Here the ‘creatives’ zap in on a daily basis and the suburban look for ‘action’ at the weekends.

Of course the real East is actually East - the former East Berlin. The city is the choice of any young European who cannot afford London or anyhow carries an ethos in his zipper, that it is more ‘real’ to be in a downbeat scene with upbeat pockets. Hence the drift, through and past Mitte, already categorising Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg as too bourgeois and extolling the virtues of Freidrichshain - enjoying the provocation of Karl Marx Allee - perhaps not least because of Marx himself? The list goes on. Paris’s Marais has been left behind for the 11th district, New Yorkers are happily jumping over to Brooklyn and Badelona is an OK address for the hip Barcelonian.

The movement can be seen in the obvious industrial process that eliminates the production of coal-gas and stream trains, followed by the shrinkage of industry or its displacement into green-field sites. Printing sheds are found to be ideal as architects’ and graphic designers’ studios. And just count how many cute architects gain their reputation by converting lofts - and not just in New York.

Several questions remain, however: just how much does a city gain from these drifts? What of the psychology of the instinctive bourgeoisie, who we call the ‘chattering classes’ in England, who have more than 20 paintings on the wall in Oslo, who eat out every night in Paris, who buy non-standard spectacles in Berlin or read The New York Times in almost every American city? Do they create a psychological -and probably aesthetic - pocket that shuts out the sight of the sickly or seedy, or downright ugly view from the window? Do they actually get a buzz from the juxtaposition of a well-designed passageway when they open their door, as contrasted to the grotty passageway next door?

The bicycle is, of course, a great leveller but the Thonet chair (even a beat-up one) is a question of intent. Mum and Dad may still live in Oslo’s Bygdøy, London’s Notting Hill Gate, Paris’s Neuilly, Berlin’s Charlottenburg or New York’s West Side. Yet Notting Hill Gate and the West Side were themselves ‘edgy’ areas two generations ago, then the areas behind them became a bit edgy, and the big jump was made.

It will be interesting to plot the next moves. The current financial scene may slow things down and may even have the effect of ossifying these newly discovered areas into a kaleidoscopic mix. But history does not support this. Why? Because in the end comfort takes over. Not the overt comfort of the painted wall, the coaching-lamp outside or the decent coffee. Schools, grass and sunshine at one end, and safety at the other. Slump reinforces the angst of the under-class: let’s face it such a force exists in all the cities mentioned.

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