Gentrification and the Olympics in East London

London, January 22, 2008

So folks back home ask me “how is merry old England?” Well, it may be old, but it is not merry. It is quite frightening how people live here actually.

I have been wandering around London for about a week. My impression is that everyone in this city seems so goddam wealthy, or at least you would have to be wealthy to live here because of the crazy cost of living (ex. Most trips on the subway can cost about 4 pounds, or $8 CAN, and the standard price for a cheap meal is around $10 CAN). But as my friend who works with the newly formed London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP – yes! Modeled after OCAP!) soberly reminded me the other night, it’s not that poverty doesn’t exist; it’s just conveniently swept under the rug. Ah yes, most people in this city really AREN’T rich.

The city has got me thinking again a lot about gentrification, because there’s lots of talk of it here. I have been spending most of my time in east London with my good friend who has lived here all her life. She gets really passionate when she starts talking about her area. Her recounting of working-class Jewish resistance in the area inspired me to pick up the book “The London Years” by Rudolf Rocker at Freedom Books, a historic anarchist bookshop established in the 1880’s in the Whitechapel district.

Rocker was a famous and influential anarchist-syndicalist who was exiled from his native Germany, settled in east London for a few years, learned Yiddish, and became the editor of a Jewish anarchist newspaper and organized Jewish sweatshop labourers in the area. His first-hand accounts of life in London are fascinating, and I highly recommend this book. In the pages, he talks about places like Brick Lane, once the area of sweatshop factories and underground trade union meetings, and now over-run by hipsters shopping at Rough Trade records and the fancy Vespa scooter store across the way.

Tonight we walked through Bethnal Green in east London. Bethnal Green was hit hard by German bombs during WWII, so unlike most parts of London with centuries-old architecture, many of the buildings here were clearly built from the 1960’s onwards. We went through a park where a whole row of houses was flattened by bombs, but there is not plaque to commemorate those who perished in dire poverty here.

Change is happening fast here, and a new generation of displacement is beginning with rich yuppies that are moving into the east end. I passed by a huge billboard the other night announcing a new condominium project, proudly proclaiming “the new face of Bow (road)”, with a bunch of smiley, happy people on it.

My friend is absolutely devastated because she can no longer afford to live in Bethnal Green, the area where she was born and lived her whole life. She was evicted from her last apartment there – sold off to private developers. We passed by there tonight, and a large scaffolding had been erected to give the building’s exterior a facelift. Beneath the scaffolding sat a once-happy garden and some children’s toys.

I thought that an interesting and sad parallel could be drawn between war and gentrification in this area. While war clearly has much more devastating effects, the end sum of “urban renewal” is still displacement and the uprooting of communities – effectively killing them. Instead of B52’s, we see construction sites and cranes as the weapons of choice.

But it doesn’t stop there. The city is now bracing itself for the 2012 summer Olympics. The Olympics seem to leave a devastating trail no matter where they go, from the massacres in Mexico City in 1968, to the social cleansing in Montreal in 1976 to the planned devastation of native land on the west coast of Turtle Island when the Olympics invade Vancouver in 2010.

My friend took me around Hackney in east London where development of the 2012 Olympic village has already begun. A large blue wall surrounds the site, aggressively announcing a no-go zone in Hackney’s community.

But resistance to the 2012 Olympics has already begun in London, and I hope people here can draw some inspiration from the anti-2010 organizing in Vancouver, and vice-versa.