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What are the Impacts of Gentrification on Community and Identity?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 4499 words Published: 18th May 2020

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In what ways do the benefits of gentrification accrue to only a small portion of the urban population? What is its impact upon community and identity?

Gentrification, a term coined by Ruth Glass in 1964, describes the emergence of a new urban gentry and the changes that were occurring in urban communities. Glass herself is a Marxist who is one of the pioneers of urban sociology in Europe; her analysis proves that gentrification is not a new phenomenon, however, over fifty years after her research, it is still an evident social shift occurring in inner London and all over the world. The definition remains exclusive to the city because of the transformation that has occurred from centres of manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution to business services and the creative and cultural industries. Whilst gentrification often gets described as housing and community development, it is often disguising the effects that a change in social class is having on an area: “once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed” (Glass: 1964, p.18). The justification for gentrification is based around a promise of bringing in new business and developing housing, however, questions are raised about who this actually benefits. The upper-middle class started as a small portion of the urban population, however, with an ever-growing creative class inhabiting these spaces, communities are experiencing a huge shift in inner-city areas. An important part of this analysis is how class is portrayed and how individuals choose to identify within seemingly fixed social groups. It is becoming increasingly hard to ignore that social shifts exist in urban spaces as “it becomes apparent that gentrification is an economic, cultural, political, social, and institutional phenomenon” (Lees, Slater, Wyly: 2008, p.3) made clear by the varying levels of cultural capital that appear within a particular area. In this essay, I will be arguing how a class shift in urban, inner London is not only changing the identity of the communities, but also how differing levels of cultural and economic capital provide varying opportunities and experiences for the original working class versus the middle class and the new creative class.

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The initial aim of gentrification was that of preservation and revitalisation. A national trend unearthed in the 1950-60s referred to as ‘restoration fever’, a trend of restoring old homes and highlighting their original features, usually by young couples drawn in by the cheap housing prices. Recovering the initial features of the buildings was a way of celebrating the history of the area whilst also maintaining the structural integrity which was getting weak with age. However, it was evident that this was a very middle-class phenomenon because mortgages were not routinely available for houses built before 1918 meaning that renovating these homes was conditional to being able to receive a loan from the bank and having the means of paying the money back. By maintaining these houses “neither people nor buildings have a chance to accumulate the patina of age” (Zukin: 2011, p.2) which would keep the prices high and therefore keep the community exclusive to the social class that could afford it. When the bridges were first built over the River Thames in the 1770s, it became possible to commute from the south of the river into central London for work, before that it was just farmland that had no ties with urban living. London was experiencing the greatest growth in urban population that the world had ever seen and as a result, it was becoming increasingly common for people to get pushed out of their homes in central London to make space for business during the Industrial Revolution. The subsequent development of the train lines in the 1860s provided a way for people to commute into the city, from what used to be deemed the suburbs, in as little as twenty minutes. As a result of this, communities were constantly changing: “most residents are not born there, neither do they live in the same house for generations, and the physical fabric of the city is constantly changing around them” (Zukin: 2011, p.2) and subsequently the identity of the community shifts with it. The main issue was that working-class communities were getting pushed further and further out of urban areas because when private landlords could no longer afford to maintain the properties, working-class families were bribed to move out so that the houses could be sold, allowing space for gentrifiers to move in.

Between 1967 and 1976, the council were responsible for the demolition of 70,000 houses around London, an action they deemed necessary for solving the post-war housing crisis. In place of Georgian style houses, industrial housing estates were built as council houses as a way to solve this crisis. Camberwell Grove was one of the areas marked for demolition, however, the new residents of the Grove were ready to fight back. The History of our Streets (Cranitch: 2015), a documentary broadcast on the BBC, analysed the changes that have occurred in Camberwell Grove and how this has affected the area. Groups started springing up, such as that of the Camberwell Preservation Society, to protect the architectural past of the city. The homeowners on the grove were proud of the history of their houses and the work that they had put into restoring them. However, as opposed to these individuals being praised for wanting to protect the original houses, those that were fighting back against the demolition were viewed only as middle-class individuals who were solely interested in the value of their own properties. Camberwell Grove in South East London was one of the areas mapped by urban explorer Charles Booth, who recognised the emergence of a new middle class. He first mapped the social makeup of the Grove in 1889. At this time, the Grove was very affluent with all the houses being ranked in the top two classification tiers, red and yellow, upper class and middle class. Nine years later, Booth mapped the Grove again and discovered significant social shifts. The Grove was now classified as declining, with pink being introduced towards the bottom of the road which signified the move in of working-class families, subsequently changing the identity of the Grove to a developing area rather than an affluent one.  By the 1920s when Booth classified the Grove for the final time, the whole street had come to be classified as pink because by this time commercial landlords had brought up the majority of the properties to rent to individuals of all occupations. By mapping the streets of London, Booth wanted “to chart stories of momentous social change” (Cranitch: 2015) and establish the “ever-shifting class of its residents” (Cranitch: 2015) through his records. What was once farmland was now the site of a major traffic junction that has over forty thousand vehicles pass through it every day with the constant sound of sirens being given the nickname of the ‘Camberwell chorus’, yet the residential area itself has been described as ‘their own Grove world’ suggesting they were sheltered from the harsh elements of urban living in their gentrified, middle-class world. This suggests an idea of community that is exclusive to Camberwell Grove and excludes any of the surrounding areas. Although Booth is no longer around to map urban social shifts, it is evident that the Grove is once again classified within the top tiers.

When exploring gentrification, it is important to consider the role of The Creative Class in this cultural and social shift. In an article by Matt Bolton for The Guardian, he explores whether art is to blame for gentrification and what effect it has had on the surrounding community. He comments that “younger generations [are] rejecting the staid suburbanism of their parents in favour of the excitement of the city” (Bolton: 2013). Those who fall under the category of The Creative Class are usually those from middle-class backgrounds who reject the wealth of their families and want to establish themselves independently; whilst also having the stability of their parents to fall back on, an option that is not available to working-class individuals. Artists are notoriously known for falling under the category of low paid, freelance work, dependant on exposure for forwarding their careers. In this sense, areas with cheaper rent are the most appealing for homes and studio spaces when income is not fixed, however, “it seems that wherever artists go, rising property prices, cafes filled with seats from 1940s railway stations and low-level ethnic cleansing appears to follow” (Bolton: 2013). In the beginning stages of the process, the increase of people in the area attracts a new market for existing businesses, however, a shift then occurs when these individuals start to set up their own businesses within the area and change the consumption patterns, creating a shift in who accrues the most profit from their businesses and ultimately changing the demographic of people who tend to pass through that area. This shift also takes into account the type of individuals who are attracted to their businesses and the amount of disposable income they have available to them. In this sense, gentrification can be seen as a form of social cleansing as the original community can no longer afford the services that are now operating in this area providing a cleansed space for these new creative businesses to thrive. This also cleanses the community of its working-class identity and begins a process of reinvention by the middle-class and Creative Class. There is a certain degree of inevitability in this process because of the stereotypes of crime that associated with living in underdeveloped areas: “the highest crime occurrence rates are to be found in the central business districts of urban areas” (Boggs: 1965, p.899). Although there has been a shift of social classes in the area, the problems associated with gentrification are not publicly recognised because crime rates drop considerably and the area is overall deemed safer.

Richard Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class looks to highlight the importance of these emerging communities and the benefits they bring to society. He argues that “in today’s economy, creativity is pervasive and ongoing: it drives the incremental improvements in products and processes that keep them viable just as much as it does their original invention” (Florida: 2002, p.3). Florida references the work of Max Weber, a sociologist and economic, responsible for The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism whichhighlights the way of life of the Calvinists. The Calvinists believed in predestination, that by working hard in their giving professions, they would secure their place in heaven, a place only for the selected few. Because there was no way of knowing if your place was secured, this meant that Calvinists were driven to keep working, ultimately feeding back into Capitalism and economic growth. This is a trend that is still occurring today, however, the means of generating this capital is shifting along with the growth of The Creative Class. Florida argues that creativity requires a social and economic environment for it to be nurtured, he continues to say that “the shared commitment to the creative spirit in all its many manifestations is what underpins the new creative ethos that powers our age” (Florida: 2002, p.3). The increase and emphasis now put on careers in the creative industry mean that “capitalism has expanded its reach to capture the talents of heretofore excluded groups of eccentrics and nonconformists” (Florida: 2002, p.3) that would otherwise feel excluded from business during a more industry centred period. Florida believes that everyone has the capacity for creativity and this should be utilised to bridge the gap between social classes in regard to employment opportunities. In this sense, Richard Florida is an advocate for gentrification because it allows creative influence to come into an area and create shifts in the type of employment being offered and overall changing the identity of a community to an overall more creative one. These changes are all due to a geographical shift that has bought creativity careers into a space where they can be capitalised upon which only attracts more creatives to the area: “the Creative Class is also the key force that is reshaping our geography, spearheading the movement back from outlying areas to urban centres and close-in, walkable suburbs” (Florida: 2002, p.5).

Cultural capital is a theory by Pierre Bourdieu, influenced by Karl Marx’s concept of economic capital. Cultural knowledge is obtained which serves as a form of currency for navigating culture and can alter the opportunities available to an individual, this can be demonstrated by an individual’s material possessions in relation to their economic wealth and social class along with tastes, skills and credentials. Bourdieu states that “the definition of cultural nobility is the stake in a struggle which has gone on unceasingly, from the seventeenth century to the present day, between groups differing in their ideas of culture and of the legitimate relation to culture and to works of art, and therefore differing in the conditions of acquisition of which these dispositions are the product” (Bourdieu: 1979, p.2). The Creative Class maintain a high level of cultural capital by means of exchanging their skills and tastes in exchange for money, in careers such as art and fashion for example, which can then be used to create more cultural capital. However, Bourdieu also highlights that social inequality can be reproduced through this process because it is hard for working-class people to gain the kind of cultural capital that is valued in society. An example of this would be access to education and the fact that working-class individuals are more likely to have to work part-time alongside their studies which could affect what grade they are able to achieve. The new communities created in gentrified areas are based upon the accumulation of cultural capital whilst the working-class, who do not have the means to gain this capital, are displaced and forced to rebuild their communities elsewhere. Hamnett argues that “the key process may be one of replacement rather than displacement per se” (Hamnett: 2002, p.19) because individuals are forced to move away from the urban centres that their community identity has been built around, however, they are displaced in the sense that individuals are no longer part of these communities that have played a part in shaping their identity. Hamnett continues by saying that the research on gentrification is “overly individualistic, plac[ing] too much stress on shifts in consumer choice and preference, and fail[ing] to provide an adequate explanation of underlying changes in the land and property markets” (Hamnett: 2002, p.3). This highlights that cultural capital is an important theory to consider, however, it is a small part of a much larger problem of how working-class communities are being discriminated in their own homes. Sharon Zukin summarises this notion stating that “just as white settlers in the nineteenth century forced Native Americans from their traditional grounds, so gentrifiers, developers, and new commercial uses have cleared the downtown ‘frontier’ of existing populations” (Zukin: 1993, p.187) thus aiding class shifts among urban areas.

Richard Florida’s work was highly acclaimed with “a strikingly large number of cities have willingly entrained themselves to Florida’s creative vision” (Peck: 2005, p.742), however, Jamie Peck offers a critique of his work in Struggling with the Creative Class. Peck takes a rather scathing view of Florida’s work saying that: “Florida’s sales pitch, in which the arrival of the Creative Age takes the form of an unstoppable social revolution. These claims are large and loud, and they have undeniably enlivened urban-policy debates” (Peck: 2005, p.741). Peck argues against the notion that creativity is the primary driver of economic development, highlighting the resistance from groups who back business-orientated strategies calling it an assault on ‘family values’. He believes that Florida’s work does not fully expand on the effects of The Creative Class in occupying these urban spaces: “Florida’s street-level analogue of such attempts to ‘harness’ creativity comes in the form of a celebration of the buzzing, trendy neighbourhood, a place where everyday innovation occurs through spontaneous interaction” (Peck: 2005, p.741) ignoring the displacement of working-class individuals that is happening as a result of this change. Gentrifiers are criticised for feeding off of the authenticity of working-class urban areas of what makes the place unique and a magnet for young creatives, however, this is a false authenticity as it “has taken on a different meaning that has little to do with origins and a lot to do with style. The concept has migrated from a quality of people to a quality of things, and most recently to a quality of experiences” (Zukin: 2011, p.2-3). Peck explains that the gist of Florida’s work “is that we have entered an age of creativity, comprehended as a new and distinctive phase of capitalist development, in which the driving forces of economic development are not simply technological and organisational, but human” (Peck: 2005, p.743)  highlighting the idea that we need creativity in this new age of development as it is essential to modern business and continuing to move forward in industry. Peck argues this to be a narrow and seductive view of development in urban spaces and what it means to live in the inner city, glamorising life within the creative industries. Communities that become gentrified ultimately show the signs of needing development or show the potential to be turned into more which then leads to these areas being exploited by the Creative Class.

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A local example of how a community can be affected by gentrification is the occupation of Tidemill Garden in Deptford. The community garden and the surrounding estate block have been marked for demolition by Lewisham Council with plans to redevelop the site into housing association homes, however, “anyone who has taken an interest in housing struggles in the last decade will know that the term ‘affordable’ does not, in fact, refer to the homes being affordable to working-class people” (Freedom News: 2018) with claims being made that the rent could be as high as eighty percent of the average in the area. Not only will there be fewer homes for working-class individuals, but community green spaces are being destroyed when these kind of areas are already lacking in urban environments. These types of areas are essential for communities because: “the garden serves as a meeting space, an event space, a local resource in which we see anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian organising in action” (Freedom News: 2018), and without these spaces, communities start to break down because of the lack of areas that they can meet and socialise. The proposed new developments promise green spaces but do not disclose that these spaces are for private residents only, only further reinforcing the displacement that occurs in these areas due to gentrification. The occupation has occurred in the form of protestors camping out in the gardens, unfortunately, this has only been reinforcing the antisocial behaviour that the project is aiming to eradicate. Sharon Zukin makes an important point saying “this power over space is not just financial. Even more important, it’s cultural power” (Zukin: 2011, p.4) and this cultural power is what financially benefits the middle classes whilst the working classes are beginning to lose touch of community. This has made individuals question whether the intentions for gentrification are pure, or whether middle-class individuals see it as an opportunity to expand on their own capital and remove the communities they deem as lower than them.

One of the main landmarks of the identity of Deptford is a large metal anchor that lies at the top of Deptford High Street. This symbol of the area was removed by the council in 2013 as it apparently “provided an opportunity for loitering, street drinking and antisocial behaviour” (Waywell: 2018). This action by Lewisham Council then sparked a four-year campaign to reinstall the anchor because of the history it symbolised for so many people. In 1978, Deptford was considered too unsafe for families to live, an area that was experiencing decline after the close of London’s docks, unlike Greenwich, that was “celebrating maritime heritage” (Waywell: 2018). Deptford was the embodiment of a working-class community that, from the outside, was losing all sense of its identity. The anchor was gifted to Deptford in 1988 from Chatham Dockyard as a way of acknowledging Deptford’s history. The campaign to restore the anchor gained over 4,000 signatures and it was rightfully restored by the end of January 2018, returning it to a place that had changed a lot in the last five years, but a place that still valued the importance of this symbol. The return of the anchor was celebrated with a procession down Deptford High Street, proving that community spirit still existed in the area that was otherwise labelled as declining. The removal of the anchor can be seen as a metaphor for the displacement seen in these urban areas and the feeling of belonging that is taken away from its original place.

Although all these arguments laid out in this essay around the topic of gentrification are valid, it raises questions of who actually has the right to the spaces that are experiencing these changes. As pointed out at the beginning of the essay, Ruth Glass’s research shows that gentrification has been happening for over fifty years, providing evidence for “the continuous reinvention of communities” (Zukin: 2011, p.2), so who is to say who initially has the rights to a particular part of land. Charles Booth would conduct multiple surveys of the city because he was aware of the changes that would occur over time showing a sense of inevitability to the shifts in a community within a given space. This creates an interesting contrast between the preservation of middle-class areas like Camberwell Grove, and working-class areas like Tidemill Garden. These two different case studies were essentially fighting for the same goal, the preservation of their communities, however, the treatment of them was very different. On the one hand, Camberwell Grove was aiming to prevent the building of council blocks, and the reverse can be said of Tidemill Garden who want to stop the erection of unaffordable housing making it clear that “the way their spatial structures are produced continually destroys and re-creates the social inequalities of the entire economic and political system” (Zukin: 1993, p.183). The differences in social class highlight inequalities and the presence of an ongoing social hierarchy, especially in developing urban spaces. In regards to the Creative Class, Florida makes a bold statement when he claims that“creativity comes from the people. And it annihilates the social categories we have imposed on ourselves” (Florida: 2002, p.3). Whilst it is clear that a range of social classes are becoming present within one particular urban space, displacement is increasingly apparent along with the signs that gentrification is not declining as areas only become more developed. The basis of the Creative Class is built upon establishing a creative identity in an inclusive community that allows personal freedom, however, this is based upon cultural capital, and despite Florida’s statement, this is not a luxury as readily available to working-class individuals. So to answer the initial question, the benefits of gentrification only accrue to the individuals that have the cultural capital to afford it, which is showing patterns of constant change in the identity of place and the communities that identify with it. The shifts in social class only extends signs of inequality and takes accessibility away from working-class individuals into these re-imagined communities. To end with the words of woman who originally identified gentrification as a social pattern: “any district in or near London, however, dingy, or unfashionable, is likely to become expensive, and London may quite soon be a city which illustrates the principle of the survival of the fittest: the financially fittest, who can still afford to work and live there” (Glass: 1964, p.140-141) making it impossible to predict what the future holds for urban London.


  • Boggs, S. (1965) Urban Crime Patterns, in American Sociological Review, Vol. 30, American Sociological Association, Washington
  • Bolton, M. (2013) Is art to blame for gentrification?, The Guardian, London
  • Bourdieu, P. (1979) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Les Editions de Minuit, Paris
  • Cranitch, M. (2015) The History of Our Streets: Camberwell Grove, BBC 4, London
  • Florida, R. (2002) The Rise of the Creative Class, Basic Books, New York
  • freedomnews.org.uk (2018) The Occupation of Tidemill Garden in Deptford, [online] Available at: https://freedomnews.org.uk/the-occupation-of-tidemill-garden-in-deptford/
  • Glass, R. (1964) Introduction to London: Aspects of Change, MacGibbon & Kee, London
  • Hamnett, C. (2002) Gentrification and the Middle-class Remaking of Inner London, 1961-2001, Carfax Publishing, London
  • Lees, L., Slater, T. and Wyly E. (2008) Gentrification, Routledge, Oxon
  • Peck, J. (2005) Struggling with the Creative Class, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Madison (WI)
  • Waywell, C. (2018) How people power got the Deptford anchor back, TimeOut, London
  • Zukin, S. (1993) Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disney World, University of California Press, Los Angeles
  • Zukin, S. (2011) Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, Oxford University Press, New York


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