What’s wrong with gentrification?

Refugees from the Sixties counter-culture in San Francisco have been blockading ‘Google buses’ in protest at ‘gentrification’. What’s their beef? Simon Wilson investigates.

Refugees from the Sixties counter-culture in San Francisco have been blockading Google buses' in protest at gentrification'. What's their beef? Simon Wilson investigates.

What's going on in San Francisco?

The city itself is thriving the unemployment rate is 4.8%, versus 8.3% for California as a whole. Median household income is $73,000 a year; the city of 825,000 has more billionaires per head than London. Some 1,800 tech firms have made San Francisco their home, attracting thousands of young, college-educated, affluent tech workers.

But this influx has led to soaring rents and house prices and a good deal of community anger at rapid gentrification especially because until fairly recently San Francisco wasn't much of a business centre at all, but famed as the home of counter-cultures from the Beat Generation writers of North Beach to the hippies of Haight-Ashbury to the gay-rights pioneers of the Castro 'gayborhood'.

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Are fears over gentrification new?

The bus-blockades are a more intense expression of anger that surfaced during the first dotcom boom of the late 1990s, when a wave of newcomers in the city's Mission district led some long-term residents to create what they called a "Yuppie Eradication Project".

But according to Fred Turner, a cultural history professor at Stanford, gentrification driven by middle-class incomers goes back far further than that and indeed even underpinned the city's counter-cultural heyday.

Thus in North Beach, the bohemians displaced working-class Italians; the hippies pushed out long-term residents in Haight-Ashbury; Castro's large Irish working-class population disappeared as it morphed into a gay Mecca.

In 2011, population growth in cities exceeded that in their suburbs for the first time since 1920, according to the US census. Cities also grew five times more quickly than their 'exurb' commuter towns.

In Europe, gentrification is a particularly hot political issue in Germany, where the collapse of the GDR in 1989-1990 led to particularly rapid change in the east, including Berlin, where rich Westerners bought up working-class housing stock and gentrification is ongoing. In Hamburg, anger at rapid gentrification sparked serious riots two months ago.

Is this happening in London too?

Meanwhile, even as the 'white British' population of London has fallen fast (by 620,000 between 2001 and 2011), there are large areas of pleasant-enough inner London (eg, Brixton, Dalston, large parts of Islington, Wandworth and Camden) where the white British population is surging and the signs of gentrification have been marked.

Sourdough pizza and 1950s tea shop chic in Brixton market? No problem. Cocktails overlooking Peckham? Lovely.

What's causing these changes?

Fewer young people drive cars a trend that boosts urban living. And yuppies are waiting longer to pair off and procreate, so they can cope with a one-bedroom flat for much longer. All these factors have led to an intensification of the essential paradox of gentrification.

According to Richard Florida, author of the book The Rise of the Creative Class, the more diverse and tolerant a city, the more likely it is to attract educated and enterprising people and grow faster which in turn is likely to spur inequality, push prices beyond the reach of the less well-off, and ultimately erode the conditions that made it so attractive in the first place.

In defence of incomers

Yes, cities get more expensive as more people want to live in them but isn't that better than the alternative? Take a look at Detroit. The San Francisco protestors romanticise their struggle as defending 1960s-style counter-culture. What they are actually saying to migrant workers is: go back where you came from.

"That does not sound quite so idealistic, does it? Nor, for its own good, is it the attitude that a thriving city ought to adopt".

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published Customers.com, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.