Gentrification: how was it for you?

What happened when a rundown patch of inner-city London got a makeover? For a start, crime fell and property prices soared. But as local resident Mandy Richards discovers, gentrification hasn’t pleased everyone

By Mandy Richards

Newington green

I moved into my apartment overlooking Newington Green in 2000. The green was pretty grotty back then, but I had chosen to see through its dilapidation, clocking instead its rich history and cultural diversity. Its shabbiness seemed vaguely chic. I was unaware then that the area would be gentrified. It was affordable, and that was the clincher.

Having lived in nearby Hackney, I knew what social problems I could expect. Even so, I was surprised by the green’s unruliness: a youth snatching a handbag on the pavement outside; an intruder escaping along my garden wall, accompanied by shrieks from my neighbour’s balcony; a female vagrant pretending she lived in our block so she could shoot up in our communal hallway.

Looking out on to the green, it was clear how petty crime and antisocial behaviour could prosper. Cut off by multiple lanes of traffic, the green was virtually hidden behind house-high thickets of bushes. Screened off in this way, it had become a haven for crack addicts, their dealers, and street drinkers. It was a transitory place. People seemed to hurry through, en route elsewhere.

Things have changed, thanks to a relatively small-scale regeneration of the green, led by local people, backed by the local council. The bushes have gone. There is a new children’s playground and relandscaped gardens; the pavements have been widened and traffic rerouted; there are new street lamps; some of the oldest terraces in London have been relaid with reclaimed York stone; there is a new student hall of residence and an influx of bars, cafes and venues. Crime is down, not least because of the support of a “safer streets” police team.

Last year, George Ferguson, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, addressed a 200-strong audience at the Unitarian chapel on the green and praised the efforts of the campaigners who had brought change to their area – an example of what he saw as a national upturn in “pride of place”. He cited Newington Green as a prime example of how people power can reverse the fortunes of an area formerly defined by crime, poverty, drugs and prostitution.

For the green’s newer residents such as myself – writers, teachers, social workers, musicians, environmentalists, architects, filmmakers and artists – the value of this social and aesthetic makeover is obvious. For some, there is also a financial bonus. Property prices have risen by 80% in five years. A two-bedroomed apartment costing £145,000 in 2000 might fetch £260,000 today.

For me, Newington Green simply looks and feels like a better, safer place to live. But I was curious what other residents from its disparate communities thought about the changes. I wondered how cohesively the community was managing to shape its own destiny; whether people thought the green had lost its character. Did residents feel displaced by the changes?

The answers they gave me suggest that neighbourhood renewal has worked, but not for everyone. Comunity activists leading the change claim to have consulted widely, but that process has excluded certain already marginalised voices and interests. Newington Green will become more white, more middle-class, more prosperous (it is now more difficult for someone like me to buy here). What has been achieved is remarkable, but it reminds us that gentrification comes at a price. It creates winners and losers.

·Mandy Richards, formerly a full-time teacher, is a journalist and filmmaker.

‘Slowly, the neighbourhood came together’

Eric Rousseau, owner of the Belle Epoque patisserie on Newington Green’s north side

Right away, we loved the building. It was [built in] 1806 and it has got a lot of character, but it was derelict. Aesthetically, it fits our product. My concept is art nouveau – that’s why it’s called Belle Epoque. It’s the beginning of the century, it’s Mucha, it’s Tiffany! That’s the ambience I wanted to recreate. When I came here, the whole area was very poor. Above me, the flats were rented to a housing association and there were prostitutes, people who were really displaced mentally, physically, and drug addicts. They were trying to help them, but it was very difficult to manage. The park was always full of drugs and alcoholics. I got broken into six times in two years, and our delivery van was burned. The police helped me throughout. They got me brand new CCTV. Then the Newington Green Action Group came along and slowly, slowly the whole neighbourhood came together.

‘We like to think of it as our village green’

Nicky Southin, 30 years a local resident, heads the Newington Green Action Group, set up seven years ago to drive forward a renewal strategy

The action group is a grassroots organisation that was formed in response to the neglected state of the green, which we like to think of as our village green. The objective was to restore it to its popular use. There were four lanes of traffic going round the green and it was very difficult to get access to it. It was not being used by the locals at all. We felt that regeneration really had to start in the centre. We went round and talked to everybody and we had exhibitions. The consultation process was very lengthy. It was more than a series of discussions or verbal proposals. The best thing about all this is that it has brought the community together. And there’s something about a square, where you’re all facing one another, that sort of helps that community feel.

‘The action group rejected me’

Abdul Yildirim and his father have been running their Turkish social club for six years

It’s mainly Turkish customers. It’s like a meeting place for the Turkish community. I don’t see any complaints from the English community, but Newington Green Action Group tried to close me down. They thought it was me who was influencing the prostitutes and burglars in this area and I got letters from them to the council suggesting this very blatantly. I was really shocked. They were saying these prostitutes were coming in and out of my shop and that they might even have been operating from my shop. But these “prostitutes” were beggars. They just came in to beg for pennies and cigarettes. We lost out on our business trying to get them out – and yet people suggest that we’re the ones who are persuading them to come in! Why would I persuade them to come in? What benefit would it be to me? Newington Green Action Group is suggesting that they represent the whole community, but I have never met them; no one has come to talk to me. I applied to become a member of the action group but they rejected me. They said my actions in this community didn’t meet their criteria as friends of the green. It’s meant to be an open organisation, and it’s a charity as well, yet they rejected me.

‘I don’t know how long I’m going to last here’

Ahmet Kamil, who has run a shoe repair business on the Green for 22 years.

I see no benefits. It’s a testing time now because of all the changes – especially with the narrowing of the roads, stopping the traffic. Will the public be able to come into the area with their cars? And what’s the point of having a loading bay? People stop there for two minutes and they get a parking ticket. The traffic wardens come along and say the bay’s for vans and lorries, not for cars. There’s no sign, and it’s not a yellow line, but they still get tickets. In any case, there were four lanes and you could stop with ample space, but now you can’t. People are coming up to me and saying: “Who needs this big empty sidewalk? Why have they narrowed the roads?” We were sent forms and we filled them in, saying what we wanted, but as far as I’m concerned they took no notice. I think most of these businesses will be closing up, with estate agents moving in and people going out to do their shopping somewhere else. That’s the impact that I see. You are getting more sort of yuppie people coming into the area looking for cafes and wine bars. With the different type of people coming in, I don’t know how long I’m going to last here. We’ll just have to wait and see.

‘When we first arrived, it was a no-go area’

Ian Frost, manager and joint owner of Cava bar

I thought it was an interesting building. I used to pass it quite often on the bus going to my office and thought: “Well, I can’t believe that has not been let.” This site was empty for quite a long time. They were quite choosy about what kind of business they wanted to take the space and we managed to satisfy them in that respect. I think they wanted something that would definitely add something to Newington Green, something to offer to the local people as well as people coming into the area. I don’t think they were looking for another Turkish restaurant or something like that, or even a pizzeria, because there are already so many around here.

Roberto Cioccari, co-owner of Cava bar

When we first arrived here two-and-a-half years ago, it was in effect a no-go area. A year ago, there was a crime forum held in the Unitarian church just across the road from here and a lot of residents attended. It was a full house. The police were there, there were representatives from Islington and Hackney councils, and I think it was quite obvious at that stage that the regeneration was going to be a success. So the crack houses weren’t tolerated any more. They were tackled very seriously. The drug addicts were moved on. I wouldn’t want to think that they were simply moved on elsewhere, but obviously they’ve been dealt with according to what was available. Locally, people haven’t really taken on board the significance of the change, the extension of the pavements, the remodelling of the park. But people outside have really noticed and say: “Gosh, this place is really coming up. It looks really good. It’s gonna be really good round here.

‘I didn’t anticipate having to be a community service’

Karen Holland, joint owner and manager of the Fifty Six restaurant on the green’s south-west side

It has actually caused me some serious damage – 25% of my business has gone. Why? Because after 6.30pm, all of my customers could park. I was told by this Newington Green Action Group: “Oh, it’s going to be great for the area.” Bear in mind, we had just come here, so we didn’t want to fight these people. We didn’t want to be the only people seen to be not coming into line. So basically they said to us: “Don’t complain, you’re gonna get a terrace.” As you can see, I’ve got a loading bay! As long as the Newington Green Action Group are prepared to say that “we talk for everybody” and “we’re really happy with this” and “blah di, blah di blah”, then it seems to be OK with Islington council. And that seems to them to be a consultation. I think putting a kiddies’ playground right by the road is disgusting. It’s hazardous and unhealthy.

We opened in December 1999. When we came here this area was derelict and this shop had been empty for quite some time. We had a big problem with what they call “feral” children. Right there, right on my door, one of them bottled a man and cut his head open, about two inches deep across the eye. I was coming to the door as the fracas broke out. Three of these girls, who were about 14-16 max, were punching and kicking this man. One of my customers chased them and found out where they lived. So the police came, and do you think they were the slightest bit interested? Nothing was done about it, so in the end I had to have a word with these three girls . I said: “I don’t care if you go to borstal or if you get a criminal record, but if I see you every day I’m going to make it my business to get involved. If I don’t see you again, I’ve completely forgotten.” It seemed to work and we haven’t had much of a problem since. When I opened my business I didn’t anticipate having to be a community service. I don’t think a business person should pretend to care about the community. I think it’s wrong and hypocritical.

‘The £2,000 houses are now nearer £1m’

Carol Taylor, resident of Newington Green for 45 years

We moved here in 1960. We could afford it. It was cheap. People moved into these Georgian houses because at the time they were only about £2,000. Now they’re nearer £1m. Before we moved in, a closure order was put into place on the house because it was infested with vermin. That will give you some idea of what it was like. Basically, I’m the last house in Islington. The [Hackney] border runs down my wall, and if you look at a map you can see that Newington Green is a little kind of sticky out bit by itself. It’s not the centre of anything. It’s the edge of something.

‘The regeneration is an enormous waste of money’

Stephen Leslie QC, a barrister who bought Cromwell Lodge, a 17th-century building on the green, 11 years ago

There is no community! The posh people in the area tend to mix with people outside the area. Then there’s the younger upwardly mobile population, who tend to be interested, but don’t really participate. Then you have the people who live in the council flats, who are at the sharp end, sadly, of the local situation. This isn’t a particularly cohesive area because it’s quite transient. There’s a very powerful Turkish community, which is fairly insular. It would be a fake to pretend this is a cohesive area. I’m not saying people don’t mix, because they do. People have similar concerns, but that doesn’t mean the area is cohesive.

The regeneration is an enormous waste of money. It’s completely and utterly unnecessary and absurd, completely disproportionate. The new bendy buses can’t get around the corners. It’s causing accidents, and it’s costing people who haven’t got lots of money, substantial sums of money. It is done to appease a very limited group of people. It is not done with the greater interests of the residents of the area. There is no consideration at all for residents who actually live on the green.

‘This is just finishing us off’

Brenda Brown, who has sat on the committee of the Mildmay Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (est.1888) for seven years

They’ve killed it. People have trouble parking now. We have trouble getting beer in. I lived in the next road to here for 30 years and I’ve seen three changes to that green. Without being rude, every time it’s started off lovely, but then it’s gone back to what it always was: a knocking shop, people urinating everywhere, drunks just sitting on there. Do you honestly think people are going to change? You have prostitutes every Sunday morning out here, young Russian girls. The Turks round here call them “Natasha’s pussies”. That’s why I moved out of the area.

I feel bitter because I’ve been driven out my home, and now it looks like I’m being driven out of the club as well. We lost two very big weddings this year. We cancelled them because we had no parking and the guests were coming early in the day. That’s a loss to us of about £7,000 in takings over the bar. We’ve been struggling for the last seven years and this is just finishing us off. When it goes, everybody loses, because in the wine bars and these other pubs you only see adults. We wanted to get families back because there’s a big gap now between the children and old people. I’m gutted.

‘Now everyone wants to come here’

Akil Bilgili runs Cafe on the Green and has rented commercial properties in the area for 36 years

Nobody wanted to move here in the 1970s. Everyone was trying to get out. The shops were empty. It was a forgotten area, like a ghost town. Since the late 1970s, people started to come from Turkey – Newington Green was a Turkish community and still is. But in 1990, British people started to move in slowly and the council started to make new developments in the area. Now everyone wants to come here. But if I sell I will die because I’m a workaholic. Where will I go? This is my place. I can rest here, see my friends, I can serve the community.

‘There’s lots of effort to prevent class divides’

The Rev Cal Courtney, minister at the historic Unitarian chapel on the green

We’ve recently been confronted with a proposal for a block of flats, to be built on the east side of the green, with space underneath for a chainstore food hall. There’s no way our local traders, who’ve given good service to Newington Green for years, would survive if that happened. I feel that the people of Newington Green, like people everywhere, deserve a good neighbourhood. They deserve good relationships among people – and they deserve businesses and relationships that work together to make things better. Lots of effort is put in to ensure that there isn’t a divide between the middle class and the working class – or the class that does not have work.

When I was walking on the green last summer, seeing these kids from diverse backgrounds, screaming and running around enjoying themselves, I thought: “Yes, it’s worked!” I’m from Ireland, where I’ve seen the damage caused by communities being divided, and it’s desperately important that that doesn’t happen here. My position is that we don’t have two or three or four communities in Newington Green. We are one community, and we must all work to make that as coherent as it can possibly be.

First published in The Guardian Wednesday 20 April 2005 

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