London is a landmark of inequality. The top tenth of the city’s workers earn around four and a half times as much as the bottom tenth, a bigger divide than anywhere else in the UK, and that latter group are being pushed out of their homes to make way for new luxury flats marketed to people who will never live in them. Social cleansing disguised as “regeneration” by developers and local councils.
There’s probably no more tangible examples of this than the “poor doors” installed at One Commercial Street, a block of luxury flats in the East End. Home to a number of social housing tenants, as well as all the affluent City workers the whole thing was presumably built for, there are two separate doors to the building: one for the rich, one for the poor. The rich door involves smoked glass and a concierge; the poor door is off an alley favoured by pissed up weekend warriors stumbling back from the Brick Lane curry crawl.
Since the recent exposure of this weird rich-poor segregation device, a number of anarchists, activists and aggrieved locals have been holding weekly protests outside the “rich door”, voicing their anger at this “class apartheid”. I went along to check out one of the demonstrations to see whether it really is a case of “one door for them and another for us”.
Brandishing Class War banners proclaiming “We are the fucking alternative”, “Women’s death brigade” and, on the more militant end of the scale, “We must devastate the avenues where the wealthy live” – a 1915 quote from firebrand Chicago anarchist Lucy Parsons, the Class War pin-up – were a couple of dozen agitators. With only a handful of exceptions, all of them were local residents.
Passing motorists honked and gave the thumbs up, while some local kids and an Imam en route to the Whitechapel mosque also voiced their approval. Admittedly, there wasn’t a lot of “devastation” going on, but anyone trying to enter the building the rich door was jeered at and told to fuck off to the back door for a change.
Besides one little man in a suit, who thought the doors were a “brilliant” idea, no one – not even the security guards or the lone police officer sent along to monitor the protest – was arguing with the demo’s objective. Which is pretty understandable, really. As one person pointed out, even police officers used to have social housing in the area before the re-developers moved in.
One demonstrator, Patrick, took a brief rest from abusing the “rich scum” through his megaphone to spit: “The cost of a flat in One Commercial Street is around £4.5 million [a currently-listed penthouse is actually going for £3.3 million, but that’s obviously still a lot of money]. Forty percent of these flats are pre-sold to overseas investors, mainly from Saudi Arabia and Russia, and they then become an asset on their property portfolio, remaining empty or let out short-term to visitors on international banking business.
“Twenty percent of what remains is called ‘affordable housing’, but who the fuck from this borough can afford to pay £3,000 a month in rent? The rest of the occupants are social housing tenants who occupy floors 7-11 and have to enter round the back in a piss-stinking alley where people are always getting mugged and you see junkies shooting up. Their lift broke down this week and it took three days to get fixed. There’s elderly and pregnant women who use the social housing lift and they weren’t allowed to use the other one.”
Martin, who lives just around the corner in Aldgate, told me: “I had friends over from New York recently who couldn’t believe the change in the place since they were here only a few years ago. They said the way that gentrification is taking place, East London will soon become like Lower Manhattan, with all the existing inhabitants driven out, their homes replaced by multi-million pound apartments.
“We’re not doing this for the sake of it. All the new developments claim they will have parks, gardens and other ‘open spaces’, and this helps grease their planning permission. But of course these areas will be out of bounds for any locals who don’t live in these flats or look wealthy enough that they could. We’re doing this now as we don’t want to be socially excluded from more of our own areas in the future. You just have to look at what happened to the Isle of Dogs or Canary Wharf. There’s no trickle-down effect. There’s none of the promised jobs created for the locals. It’s just social cleansing.”
Tim, from Hackney, added: “Poor doors are a slap in the face to a part of London that has some of the highest levels of poverty in England, right next to the financial City, which robs us blind and gives nothing back. We want to inspire working class people to be more vocal and to make the rich residents feel embarrassed. And they fucking well should be!”
Veteran anarchist and Class War founder Ian Bone – labelled “the most evil man in Britain” by the tabloids in the mid-80s – was just as vitriolic as he’s always been.
“This is The Alamo for the working class of east London,” he said. “If people put up with ‘one door for the rich, another door for the poor’, they’ll put up with fucking anything. If there’s ever been an issue that people should stand up and be counted on, it’s this disgrace.
“This used to be a working class area, and now the last of the working class living here are being humiliated – literally – every time they step over their doorsteps. Our protest is about the rich taking over London and treating all those who aren’t rich as second class citizens. We’re not taking this, and we’re going on the attack to drive the rats back down their holes.”