As we wander around spaces like Soho, which Erin Sanders-McDonagh, Magali Peyrefitte and Matt Ryalls argue is now seen as edgy, but not seedy, with its mixture of chic restaurants, designer stores, and creative businesses, we are also fooled into thinking this represents true urbanity because it appears so bohemian, not bourgeois, and seems to signal cultural acceptance, diversity and opportunity. But this diversity is only available to those who can afford it, and gentrified areas like Soho are far from accessible or open to all. The middle class, particularly its creative factions, imagine their access to food, art and culture in Soho is due to their personal worth and hard work, yet their wealth is partly a function of their ability to define taste in favour of forms of cultural capital they are able to transform into economic capital. The gentrified neighbourhood of Soho sets the standard for acceptability, normalizing the tastes and proclivities of the middle-class consumer in the process and embedding it within a particular imagination of swinging, creative London. Schulman argues gentrification is the removal of the truly dynamic mix that defines urbanity, the privileging of a particular set of class dispositions and the disavowal of others. Despite initially appearing bohemian and edgy, Soho shuns real social diversity and mix in favour of an upmarket form of consumption that feigns cosmopolitanism, looks good, and feels safe, but is palpably not for all. But somehow this exclusionary logic has been forgotten. A gentrification of the mind has occurred. We still go to somewhere like Soho to experience urbanity, the juxtapositions of grit and glitter that have defined the urban condition, and taught us the importance of encountering difference. But it’s apparent that, despite nods to the contrary, Soho, like many other inner London neighbourhoods, how boasts an ersazt urbanity not rooted in any particular time or place.
But if the future of our central city is not as a gentrified bubble serving only the affluent, then what is it to be? Here, my own observations on the role of High Streets in promoting vernacular creativity, conviviality, and senses of belonging suggest that representations of incivility and abandonment should not be allowed to dominate in descriptions of working class areas. Following Suzanne Hall’s study of Peckham High Street and other ‘ordinary spaces’, I conclude it’s vital that we value working class districts as, in Hall’s words, these are ‘shared local spaces shaped by habitual associations rather than outright compatibilities’, with the ‘aggregation of small spaces and diverse groups’ often creating deeply rooted ‘local’ cultures and senses of belonging.
But quite how we might defend working class communities in the face of post-political discourses that elides questions of rights in favour of a rhetoric which equates gentrification with regeneration and, as Hamil Pearsall and Isabelle Anguelovski argue, environmental improvement, remains open to debate. The purpose of this rapid response section is to raise such questions, and to explore how diverse processes of gentrification require different forms of resistance, such as the ‘lobbying campaigns against revenge evictions, anti-eviction action, welfare cuts, housing corruption’ described by Kirsteen Paton and Vickie Cooper, or the squatting activism detailed by Sandra Annunziata and Loretta Lees in the context of Southern Europe. But perhaps they also require us all, as critical scholars, to be a bit more discerning in our own consumption and lifestyle habits, perhaps looking for more ethical alternatives to the Air B&B accommodation that is one of the prime battlegrounds of gentrification (as Agustín Cócola Gant argues in the context of Barcelona) or refusing to frequent the hipster businesses that are overwhelming some of the neighbourhoods where ethnic and class diversity previously reigned.