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London Babylon

East London's Gentrification Has Left Me Behind

If things keep going the way they have been, I can forget about ever settling down in this city I've made my home for 20 years—a place to call my own is now a pipe dream.

by Michael Smith
May 13 2015, 4:00am

Anti-gentrification protesters in Brixton. Photo by John Lubbock

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

I've been thinking about that old truism, "The definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result." Like a laboratory chimp compulsively giving himself painful electric shocks in the hope of a peanut that never arrives, I obsessively google "London housing bubble" every day, in the vain hope that's what it turns out to be—thinking, almost beyond hope, that if I can only hang on to the ropes of this crazy rising balloon a bit longer, it might run out of hot air and sail back to solid ground before I lose my grip and plummet to my doom.

One thing's eminently clear: If things keep going the way they have been, I can forget about ever settling down in this city I've made my home for 20 years—a place to call my own is now a pipe dream, as is continually scraping together the rent that just goes up and up like an unpayable Wonga loan.

The other day I was walking down Mare Street, that smelly Hackney thoroughfare that until very recently was all Paddy Powers, places that unlock mobile phones, and fried chicken shops. I noticed one of the many estate agents that now pepper this street was having a "launch day" for a new block of flats. There was a tangible air of excitement zinging about the office. Like the aforementioned laboratory chimp, something compelled me to enter this slick Hellmouth, even though I knew in my gut that only torment and impotent rage could result from the impulse, with no peanut at the end.

"Can I have a look 'round one of these new flats?" I asked the short man in the shiny trousers and pointy brogues.

"They're not finished till the summer of 2016," he said.

"But that's in two summers' time."

"We'll've sold them all in a month or so," he countered.

"Really? How? Who do you reckon'll be buying them?" I asked, bemused.

"Mostly city professionals and foreign investors paying cash."

All they had to look at was a coffee-table sized brochure and an architect's model of the block about the size of the estate agent's head. Cunningly, the model was presented in complete isolation from its context, the colossal sink estates all around it. The estate agent didn't feel the need to mention them either. Instead, he started explaining what a buzz the area had about it these days, how great the Hackney Empire was, how close we were to the food market with the £5 [$8] sourdough loaves and the 20-minute queues for artisan flat whites. "Yeah, I know where everything is, I've lived in Hackney for 15 years," I said. "Oh, really! You should have bought a flat back then!" he said, in an awkward attempt to include me in some kind of property in-joke, barely able to disguise his incredulity, and the look in his eyes that said he thought I was a total dick for missing the boat in the days when house prices in East London still made even the vaguest kind of sense.

The problem is, he was right. "How much are the one bedrooms?" I asked, bracing myself.

"One bedroom flats start at £360,000 [$560,000]," he replied, effectively ending the conversation there and then. More than a third of a million pounds, to live in an IKEA catalogue photo shoot marooned in a sea of sink estates full of people who hate you, with no tube. And you can't even have a look at anything more than an architect's model of it for two years. And you'd better hurry because they're selling like hotcakes. It seemed absurd.

My time in the estate agents was finished. I mumbled some excuses neither of us were at all convinced by and went off to the pub to gather my thoughts. My temples throbbed and my head began to ache. Some guy in a flared suit and Panama hat walked by me. How does HE afford to live in Hackney these days? I thought. A little school kid walked by, speaking Spanish to his mom in her work uniform. How do THEY afford to live in Hackney these days? I found myself on Broadway Market, hating every Ray-Banned quiff, every organic mom in her stripy Breton top and wild-haired child on a wooden bike, every middle class colonist boutiquifying inner city London to the point where it becomes a flat white monoculture.

I sat in the corner of a pub I've drunk in for 20 years, back when it was the only island of bourgeois eccentricity in a tumbleweed strip of greasy fried chicken boxes and beer cans rattling down windy, deserted streets, trying to make sense of it all. Just thinking about how I might possibly stay and make a home in London opens me up to a world of mental torture these days.

Even if I could afford one of those flats—and I most definitely can't—I wouldn't want one. I'm so fucked off with it all I just can't look at this city in the same way any more. In the parlance of the cockney diaspora who got pushed out of inner London a generation or two before me, it feels like I'm living in a city that's mugging me off. It's like London's an old partner you realize has had his hand in the till all those years you trusted and stood by him, even when he was acting like an asshole, a charismatic old friend you've finally realized was really just a bit of a cunt all along.

For some unfathomable reason I'd taken one of the estate agents' huge brochures, printed on thick pseudo-artisan paper, complete with lavishly photographed street art and glasses of rosé glowing in the golden hour. The patter was absolutely shameless: "Eating al fresco here's almost de rigeur," it claimed. "Just cappuccino the afternoon away," it recommended. "It's getting so trendy they're starting to call it Mareditch," it said. Who's starting to call it fucking Mareditch? I ranted to myself. The estate agent community?

I repeated my rant to someone who lives on Mare Street later that evening, to a blank expression; it took him five minutes to even realize it was a pun.

Related: Watch or doc on the housing crisis 'Regeneration Game':

Even more maddening than the words were the pictures, a mirage-like photo-story of a fictitious couple buying one of the flats, a twat with a circus mustache and his smug girlfriend, looking more and more pleased with themselves as their new life in "Hackney's Creative Quarter" opens out for them; two twats vintage clothes shopping; two twats drinking Tattinger in gastropubs; two twats meeting their twat friends, who wear bow ties. Have you ever met anyone who actually wears a bow tie in real life? The only person I've ever seen in one who wasn't in some kind of lifestyle marketing campaign is Will.i.am, but that was on TV, and I suppose his life must be a strange place where the divide between these categories becomes impossible to discern anyway.

Reading through it, nothing in this brochure seemed to stack up. In the "Coolest Neighbors" section it described Shoreditch as "almost impossibly smooth... start to network here and you're sure to meet some very serious players." It just didn't fit the circus-mustached kid in the photos at all. He didn't look evil enough to think in those terms. It was then I realized what the most hateful thing about this brochure was: The two caricatures in the photo-story were just a cynical poker bluff, sprats designed to hook an even more soul-free and wanton class of cunt. Will hedge-funders in pink Hackett shirts swallow this bait? Will circus stashes and bow ties help convince dodgy foreign investors to sink £360,000 [$565,000] in cash into this development? Can they really sell flats to Chinese factory owners by telling them that "Mareditch" is cool?

I remember when a friend of mine moved to Paris in the 90s to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. He came back to England, disillusioned, five years later, calling the city "a museum"—mummified, stagnant, a victim of its own past glories, bought up by rich outsiders who'd out-priced the creative vibe that drew them there in the first place. The locals, wistful and resigned, referred to their city as "The Sleeping Beauty," looking on enviously at how London was ablaze with the best art, the best music, the best nightlife, the best creativity of any stripe, while they were left with only fine wine and memories, as Uncle Monty might have put it. Is London headed the same way as the Sleeping Beauty—an exquisite corpse, too dolled-up and expensive for the creativity it's still trading on to flourish, or even survive?

As I sat in the pub, I couldn't help but hate this city and what it's becoming. I sat there in the corner raging about it. I realize I've turned into a man who mumbles to himself while everyone else is having fun, and I loathe them for it. After giving this city the best years of my life, I find myself living behind enemy lines. Maybe I should just cut my losses and fuck off. They certainly aren't going to fuck off any time soon. I left the pub, sloped off down Mareditch, with the words from the movie ringing in my mind: "The war's over, Lebowski! The bums lost!"

Michael Smith is a writer, filmmaker and broadcaster. He is the author of three works of fiction, The Giro Playboy, Shorty Loves Wing Wong, and Unreal City.