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Does Gentrification Really Make Neighborhoods Safer?

I got in touch with academics and criminals to talk about how some parts of London are changing.

An undercover police officer buying crack off a dealer, used here to illustrate "CRIME". Photo via Inside the Secret World of a British Undercover Drugs Cop

Gentrification has come to be known by a number of names. There are those who see it as tantamount to social cleansing, with the poor being shunted out of inner-city areas so the rich can move in. Then there are others, who think of this process as "regeneration," in which kindly local governments sort out a rundown area by demolishing all the old, actually affordable housing so developers can coax in more affluent people with the kind of "affordable" apartments that come with a Starbucks in the lobby.


Given the vast range of issues involved in gentrification, it's little wonder there are various perspectives at play—and there are undoubtedly good arguments on both sides of the debate. However, there are some pro-gentrification points I'm not sure I buy, one of which was brought up by Architects for Social Housing founder Geraldine Dening during a debate in Brixton, London, last week. She pointed out that the idea that sink estates foster crime and need to be demolished to make an area safer is one of the most common justifications of gentrification.

This idea—that family-bankrolled fashion students and artisanal coffee roasters moving to Brixton and Peckham somehow transformed them into crime-free paradises—doesn't quite add up to me; the rich and poor living cheek-by-jowl is surely a catalyst for crime, rather than a cure.

I was curious to see what the actual impact of gentrification is upon an area's crime rate, so I got in touch with a few academics and some criminals from three different inner-city areas that have been gentrified in recent years, because who better to approach to explain the true effects on crime than the perpetrators themselves?

Colin Blaney standing in front of Media City, Salford

The first person I spoke to was Colin Blaney, a former career criminal who lived in Central Salford, Greater Manchester, while its upmarket Media City was in development. "Central Salford is on the brink of greatness," read a bold statement on the website of the company responsible for its construction redevelopment. According to Colin, this promised "greatness" has so far failed to materialize.


"I did a report on the Media City for People's Voice Media [a Salford-based community media project] just after it was built and had access to all the people who worked there," he told me. "We managed to find two local people from Salford who worked there: a cleaner and a car park attendant. None of the local people benefitted at all, which led to a hell of a lot of resentment. For the first few years the local grafters [criminals] enjoyed targeting the media types. There was quite a lot of car crime and muggings, but the security have got it boxed off now. I wouldn't say the crime rate has improved, though. It went up for a while, then leveled off again."

To check if this tallied up with the latest research on the effects of gentrification, I got in touch with Professor David Kirk of Oxford University, who has studied the effects of neighborhood change on modern cities.

"One prominent theory of crime is social disorganization theory," he told me. "It emphasizes how instability and population turnover in neighborhoods leads to increases in crime. The idea is that, despite the attention we give to the role of police, one of the best ways to control crime in neighborhoods is through the informal actions of residents. Gentrifying neighborhoods where there is population turnover are characterized by a fragmentation of neighborhood social networks, so at least in the short term, there's instability, lower levels of informal social control and more crime."


This was in line with what Colin had said. But did it also hold true for drugs? Dealing is a crime I figured would probably decrease in gentrified spots because, statistically, people living in deprived areas are more likely to be frequent drug users. That's not to say well-off people don't take drugs—they definitely do; they're just less likely to be arrested for it than those in lower socio-economic groups—but according to studies they do so less often, and therefore won't be putting the call in nearly as much.

To find out, I went to see a guy called Joe who used to sell coke to some of my friends while they were living in the Hyde Park area of Leeds. Hyde Park has changed considerably over the past 20 years; in 1995 there were riots in the area, prompted—some suggested at the time—by police raiding the homes of local gangsters in search of drugs and weapons. Since then, it's become the most popular area of the city for student housing, with rising rents leading to complaints that people on low incomes are being squeezed out.

According to Joe, although the nature of drug dealing in Hyde Park changed when it started to become more upmarket, the overall level remained fairly similar. "You don't see as many junkies and scruffy bagheads here now, but there's more people after MDMA and ketamine, and sometimes GHB and weird shit I've never heard of," he told me. "You've got to be a bit more careful now, though, 'cause the police are more on it. It just means you change the way you work, though. It doesn't mean that anyone's packed their graft in or anything like that."


It seemed that what Joe was saying is that the influx of more affluent residents—and therefore more attention paid by police—had simply forced drug dealers in the area to become more covert, rather than stopping altogether. Again, this seems to tally with academic research on the topic: between 1999 and 2002, Professor Ric Curtis of the City University of New York studied the changing nature of drug dealing in Manhattan's Lower East Side. He found that dealing was moving indoors and drug peddlers were becoming less violent.

It was around that kind of time that the boutiques and bike shops started taking over the Lower East Side, so I got in touch with Professor Curtis to ask if he thought the changes he'd seen were down to gentrification.

"I think it's fair to say that we did see a shift towards indoor dealing in gentrifying neighborhoods—not in an absolute sense, but rather the poorer neighborhoods continued to feature other forms of dealing, while gentrifying neighborhoods didn't," he told me. In other words: dealers in places that were being gentrified had to make more of an effort to conceal their activities.

At this point, all evidence seemed to suggest that the "regeneration of an area" only changes it at a surface level; that the ways crimes are committed might morph slightly—and that criminals might be forced to work more under the radar of police and the community—but that just as much nefarious shit goes on. Still, I had one more criminal type to talk to before I came to any kind of solid conclusion.


The White Cube gallery in Bermondsey, for many a symbol of the gentrification of the area. Photo by Matt Brown via

A couple of years ago, one of the ways I made a living was by ghost-writing memoirs for former criminals. There was a relatively high demand for them until every crim and his nan started writing books, and the market became saturated. During that period I was approached by a guy from Bermondsey, South London—who I'll call "Derek"—who wanted me to help him put together an autobiography detailing his lengthy history of doing naughty stuff. Shortly after getting in contact, he changed his mind and decided that writing about his crimes would be too helpful to police. However, fortunately he was more up for chatting about crime in Bermondsey in general terms, and agreed to a talk on the condition that I didn't use his real name and didn't ask him anything too specific about his crimes.

Stepping out of Bermondsey subway station, I immediately spotted a guy in a Polo vest and a girl with a distinctly Godalming accent. Who knows – maybe they were Bermondsey born and bred, but they didn't immediately appear to have much in common with the people who've historically called the area home.

"You would have never seen those kinds of people on the manor back in the day," Derek told me. "It's funny, because most of the area's still a bit of a dive. There's two streets that I'd say have really been gentrified, and that's Bermondsey Street, where all the arty places are, and Maltby Street, which is a posh market street with lots of posh food. Bermondsey Street's had no effect on crime in the rest of Bermondsey; it's its own separate area, in a little bubble. Maltby Street seems to get a lot of foreigners [going] there, which, to be honest, doesn't go down too well here. Every now and again one of them gets taxed. As a whole, I'd say there's still the same amount of crime, but it's definitely changed here. There's less violence, but probably more muggings 'cause no one had anything worth taking in the Bermondsey of old. There's still a lot of older faces doing what they do, though, and blaggers and villains. That's Bermondsey for you, and always will be."

So one of the criminals thought gentrification had no long-term effect on crime, and the other two thought that it changed the nature of the illegal acts that were being committed, but not the amount. So it would seem that this common assumption about gentrification—that demolishing estates and pumping money into an area solves all its problems—doesn't quite hold up.

"If we're worried about poorer areas, hotspots of criminal activity and other social problems, then the question we need to ask isn't, 'How do we have more gentrification?'" said urban studies and planning expert Rowland Atkinson. "The need is to see reductions in inequality, improvements in the fabric of our cities, investments in community, and greater opportunities channeled towards those most excluded and at risk of drifting into criminal careers."

A complex problem needs a complex solution, and demolishing estates and relocating families is not that. If councils and developers are to continue using the eradication of crime as justification for their actions, perhaps they should think about ways they can actually introduce positive change to an area, rather than flipping the land for the highest profit and washing their hands of the consequences.

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