Does Gentrification = Colonisation? A story of hipster ghettos

20101027gardencarI’ve been hearing the word “gentrification” over and over again in the past few months in different parts of the world without really understand what it means: Berlin, Toronto, Oslo, Copenhagen, Brisbane, Montreal for the least. My friend who decided to buy a flat in Berlin said he finally managed to find one in the only area that hasn’t been gentrified and is therefore still affordable. Now, as I am on holidays in Canada, I also hear this term again and again. I read in the streets of Toronto “Gentrification = Colonisation”.

So what is gentrification? I guess it is the urban process that we see in many of our Western capitals and other big cities: poor, immigrant or working class neighborhoods seeing, one designer boutique at a time, the population, the shops and prices of real estate of their area going up up up. It starts with an artist or two, attracted by cheap rents and old factories with high ceilings that can be changed into workshops, studios and exhibition rooms. Then come the young couples (who are called “Bo-Bo” in French for Bourgeois Boheme) looking for cheap rents not too far from the city centre. Then come a few alternative cafes serving lattes with soya milk and vegan muffins. Sprinkle a few organic supermarkets on top, with items so expensive that you wonder what kind of magic powers an organic apple that already looks rotten will give you. And there you go, gentrification is happening. A living illustration of the change is that my hip friends who grew up in Majorstuen or other parts of Vestkanten (West side of Oslo) are currently buying their flat in Grünnerløkka, while my immigrant friends who grew up in Schous Plass cannot afford to buy a flat at all.And although I’ve never heard the term in Oslo, another example would be Grunnerløkka. A century ago this area, located on the Eastern and poorer side of the city, was inhabited by the working class, followed later by freshly arrived immigrants. But in recent years the area is “gentrified” and the face of Grunnerløkka is changing as well as the value of its real estate.

The consequence of this process is higher rents that the locals cannot afford anymore, therefore pushing them away to other neighborhoods; usually further away from the centre. The other change is in the population: a majority of young, educated people with a middle to high income. Many have a creative or intellectual job, far from the working class that used to inhabit the same place. Most of these new comers are extremely hip, i.e. when being cool means pretending to have spent no time at all putting this outfit together when you’ve actually spent hours choosing each peace in vintage second hand shops that sold them to you for double their original price. One needs to think original, dress original and consume original. What Andy Warhol said some years ago in another context “Think Rich, Dress Poor” could still apply to this new generation of connected, cool and creative people. All that to say that Polish immigrants cleaning offices at night cannot afford to look or think like that, even if they tried very hard.

Is it colonization? Although it might be considered a locally targeted form of urban colonization, it would be wrong to accuse hipsters and other cool people, who are so original they don’t want to be categorized under one name, of consciously evicting former residents of their new favorite place in their city. And they are not alone in this game. I am pretty sure they would love their cool area to stay cheap, but others are on the go: real estate agents. Of course what everyone is asking themselves is: which area is next? The poor hope “not here” so they don’t have to move, the middle class and young workers making their first investment want to buy in an area that will take 50% of its value in a short time, and the real estate agents are waiting for very good deals.

But no matter how much I love eating muffins with organic cranberries, no trans-fat and no GMOs; drinking locally brewed beer in a very trendy cosy café; and finding unique jackets in very cool second-hand shops; a whole neighborhood full of these kinds of places seem artificial to me and outside of the real world. Whether it is Nørrebro’s Jaegersborggade that used to be Copenhagen’s most dangerous street now becoming its hippest one, or Kreuzberg in Berlin, it would be interesting to include (and keep) all parts of the population in these areas. The old lady feeding the birds and the immigrant families with their kids playing in the street in four different languages are also the soul of these neighborhoods, and losing them for an area where wearing an worksman overall makes you an outcast would be a shame. Kids of these hip high-income couples might learn from going to school with sons and daughters of Iraqi refugees or with kids from other cultural and social backgrounds. We often read that people should not live only among themselves to ensure more understanding and harmony in society among people from different social and cultural backgrounds. Let’s start with our backyard.

A Frog in the Fjord: One Year in Norway Book

One thought on “Does Gentrification = Colonisation? A story of hipster ghettos

  1. It’s interesting to read your take on the world of gentrification.

    Norway has drawn a lot of inspiration in how we live from the US, and in the US the division between urban and suburban living is still strong. The gentrification tendency is that the children of (middle class) suburban dwellers become young creatives and start the gentrification process by moving into the city itself, often to working class neighbourhoods with low rents.

    By doing this, they do exclude one or two working class families directly. Indirectly they exclude a lot more by attracting more young creatives and ushering in a change in shops, services etc. to a point where many working class people are not economically excluded, but psychologically excluded. After this the process gains momentum and secondary gentrifiers start arriving (not so young and creative).

    But is it solely negative? Perhaps not. Many argue that by transforming urban “ghettos” everyone gets a more healthy urban environment and working class people will get more money for selling their homes. This might enable them to break a vicious circle by means such as moving to a better area, get their kids into a better school etc. Classic gentrification is the symptom of the strive for authenticity suburban living deprives you of, and it is perhaps unavoidable in a market economy. Bad or not.

    Jo Daniel

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