As the ongoing pandemic makes more people reconsider their living situations, the conversation about moving out of London has reared its head again. Recent months have seen revulsion directed toward images of the wealthy fleeing cities for countryside retreats at the start of the pandemic, leaving civilians in COVID-infested cities. But the fixed idea that leaving cities is a privileged choice has placed the people of colour who opt to leave London – the most densely populated city and most ethnically diverse area in the UK – in a grey area.
The decision to move to the countryside or suburbs has always been saddled by the idea of white flight, where white middle-class people abandon cities once they become too diverse and crowded. Columnists who proclaim that London is over and they’re moving to a commuter town are seen to be ignoring the financial and social hurdles faced by others, particularly by ethnic minorities immobilised by very real fears of increased prejudice and racism if they were to consider life outside of London.
But people – no matter what their demographic – move all the time for many reasons. People get jobs, move closer to family or fall in love on a weekend trip to Leeds and suddenly uproot their life. Just like their white peers, people of colour move elsewhere in pursuit of garden space, affordable housing or just a different pace of life.
I felt the urge to move two years ago when I decided to leave London after almost a decade, but the simple answer “I fancy something new” didn’t seem to satisfy some (“why leave the vibrancy of London?”). Right now, it feels especially odd – particularly in the light of COVID ravaging minority communities in crowded housing, to say where or where not brown and Black people can live.
Speaking to Black and Asian people who have left London, many say that they were unable to escape the lingering fear of prejudice even as their reasons for leaving London were as regular and mundane as mine were.
Richard Easton, 33, left London last year with his partner and child. His parents, Vietnamese refugees, moved to the capital after his birth. Leaving wasn’t part of some great plan: “We’d been looking at flats since late 2019, had been trying to find a bigger flat, but then the pandemic happened and working from home became a thing, so we started looking further afield.”
His decision was as simple as looking at the Thameslink line and then working out which areas he could afford, which ended up being just outside Peterborough. He had fears about leaving, and had had mixed experiences of visiting friends and family across the country, but generally remains open-minded about his new home, even if the pandemic is currently preventing him from fully exploring it.
Those who moved from London highlighted the importance of finding a community – great or small – when moving to a less ethnically diverse area. Jermaine Odelli, 35, grew up in various places around the UK, including Jersey, before his family settled in London. He lived there until four years ago, when he moved to Bristol with his partner.
He says he left London as he ran out of the energy he felt he needed to live in the capital, and experienced a mixed reaction when he told family and friends. “There were a lot of people who had lived in London their whole lives, who just kind of understood why I would want to move on,” he says.
“There were those who had actively chosen to move here for their careers, often from smaller towns. They just couldn't understand why I would leave. To them, every other place was, in their mind, their small town, and couldn't possibly offer all that London had to offer. Then there was my family and some close friends who mostly wanted to know if there were many Black people there.”
Jermaine says his experiences of moving around the UK has shown the importance of living somewhere where you can see others who look like you: “When I lived in Jersey for a year I certainly felt detached. The island didn't have any afro salons, no places to buy Afro-Caribbean food or ingredients and I certainly did get looks and stares as I went about my daily life. All of this just added to the feeling that I shouldn't be there.”
He adds that he has actually experienced less prejudice in Bristol. “It's still a pretty big city and really ethnically diverse,” Jermaine explains. “While in London, I sometimes felt that some people either had negative stereotypes which they applied to me or were a bit over-comfortable and would make racist jokes or remarks out of a sense of banter. Their other black friend was fine with it, so why wouldn't I be?”
Chris Shapiro, a 27-year-old poet who moved to London from Tokyo aged 12, said that they left because they found the capital inaccessible with their undiagnosed chronic illness. They left for Manchester in early 2020 and said that their initial hesitancy proved unfounded.
“While Manchester is a very white city, the Asian community here is great,” they say. “Asian stores are much better here than in London, so I’ve had a field day cooking.”
Their experience of being an ethnic minority and disabled in a new city has also meant a mixed experience of prejudice. “On the other hand, the white people I interact with and live with are more casually racist, transphobic, ableist etc than I expected, which was quite a low bar already,” they said. “People [seem] to be more amenable to making space for me as a disabled person, and the racism I encounter seems to be well-intentioned casual racism/orientalism which, unfortunately, is a small victory of sorts.”
One person’s experience of one area of London can’t speak for the experiences of all non-white people there. Living in Leicester and Luton, which have diverse communities densely populating select neighbourhoods, could offer someone a completely different feel to life in larger cities.
My personal experience in Bath – a city with a strong South and East Asian presence – has been mostly pleasant, but a black friend who went to university here almost ten years before has horror stories of being yelled at in the street. Dividing all of Britain into “London vs. Everywhere Else” denies the country its cultural and historical nuances.
It also obscures the fact that many people of colour were born or have always lived outside of London and don’t intend to ever live there. Their experiences are just as valid as those who go from London life to new cities, towns and villages – if not as sexy a topic for column inches or outrage.
And for every person who moves and settles elsewhere, there are plenty of those who do return. Almost everyone spoken to for this piece expressed sadness or intent to return, maybe because they lived there in more youthful, exciting times or out of a genuine love for the capital. London, or any big city, will probably never be over, but we’ll probably never escape the deluge of opinion pieces claiming it either way.
The work doesn’t sit with getting angry at them, but in making sure as much of the UK is welcoming to anyone who wants to move there. Work by the Runnymeade Foundation suggests that the BME population in Britain is becoming far more evenly spread, which can only be a good thing. Personally, I think there’s a joy to watching an area diversify: Anyone who moves to an area where there are a small number of people like them is hopefully one more person to welcome the next to arrive.