London’s gentrification on screen


Ruth Glass coined the term gentrification in 1964 to describe the displacement of working-class people from inner-city London districts by middle-class incomers. Around the same time the process began filtering through to screens.

London’s gentrification on screen

In 1970, the South African film-director Ross Devenish made Do Something (1970), a thoughtful documentary London for television about a group of social-housing tenants, in the North London district of Islington, who were lobbying their municipal authority for better housing. The film examines relations between the white working-class residents and recent migrants from the Carribean, situating this at-times-collaborative-at-times-hostile relationship within the context of bigger gentrifying forces at work in the neighbourhood. The narrator concludes:

‘One of the bitter ironies of the London housing market is that while the conditions of the majority are improving the minority finds itself left behind...The prospering middle class are buying up the potentially fashionable parts of Islington and are thus seriously restricting the amount of housing left for the poor. Houses that once had two or three families, now only have one. And the result is that the poor families are left crammed into a neighbourhood like this. London’s insatiable appetite for labour sucks in people from all over the world. But people who are wanted in the jobs market are not wanted in the housing market.’

By the mid-1980s Margaret Thatcher’s liberalisation of the housing-market had given residents living in social housing the ‘right to buy’ their houses at a discounted rate, turbo-charing this process. In High Hopes,1988 the Palm d’Or winning British film-director Mike Leigh used the motif of neighbours on an Islington street to criticise cultural effect of the policy. One house is occupied by Edna, an old-lady who rents it from the council. The house next-door has been bought and renovated by Laetitia and Rupert, a young upper-middle class couple. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes Edna loses her keys and finds herself sitting Laetitia’s kitchen. Laetitia, a cartoon snob, tells Edna that she should sell her house, but on discovering that she is not the owner, makes the case for the right to buy: ‘Mercifully you people have the opportunity to purchase your council property these days’ and, in a breath, shows the flaw in the policy: ‘then of course, one resells’.

By the 1990s films made in London seemed less concerned with the politics of displacement. Although Richard Curtis’s hugely successful rom-com Notting Hill, starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, was set in one of the neighbourhoods where Ruth Glass first identified gentrification, the film fails to acknowledge it. These days Richard Curtis’ laments that his film was to blame for the subsequent gentrification of the area, but he forgets that he and his friends, who bought up crumbling townhouses in the 1980s and 1990s were the original gentrifiers.

Recent years have seen a flourishing of documentaries about the displacement of people in London. Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s Estate, a Reverie (2015) documents the last days of a boarded up estate in Hackney; Shola Amoo’s A Moving Image (2017) is a docu-drama about changes in Brixton and Zed Nelson’s The Street (2019) looks at how London is changing, through the story of one street in Hoxton, on the edge of London’s financial district.

The pick of the bunch is probably Paul Sng’s ‘Dispossession’ (2017) a documentary, narrated by acclaimed British actor Maxine Peake, about the failure of housing policy in the UK to provide universal access to decent, secure and affordable housing. The documentary, drawing most of its material from London, looks at the privatisation of public housing in the right-to-by and real estate deals between local authorities and private investors. In a concluding sequence near the end, Simon Elmer, from Architects for Social Housing suggests that gentrification is no longer an appropriate way to describe how urban transformation takes place in London.

‘Alot of people call this process gentrification. And alot of academics have written alot of books about it. It’s not the write word. Gentrification is a gradual process. That’s not what’s happening here. It’s not gentrifying an area. It’s clearing its local population out of it.

By Charlie Tims Image: High Hopes (1988)