Gentrification seems to be happening in every big city right now. Large swathes of previously undesirable inner-city areas in old industrial cities have seen their residential demographics shift in the past 10-15 years; from poor people living in sub-standard (but cheap) accommodation – in old, predominately ex-industrial, crumbling, mostly-disused buildings – to young, wealthy, educated, liberal types who flood the areas with coffee shops, renovate the old buildings, and push up house prices. London has experienced this to a much greater extent than any other city in the UK, but it is definitely happening elsewhere, e.g. in Manchester and Birmingham.
There is a lot of anger surrounding these new residents. There are claims that they are “rich kids co-opting the lives of the poor”, trying out living in these areas like it’s some sort of novel educational experience in nostalgia slumming, but never really having to worry about poverty or destitution. There is also a claim that they are the gentriying foot soldiers of capitalism: they “make the first move into post-industrial, post-welfare state wastelands like brownfield sites and council housing estates and sow the seeds of cultural capital”, enabling developers to move in and build a bunch of expensive flats several years later.
You can see how a poor, working-class person might see a guy with a beard and skinny jeans moving into their neighbourhood as something akin to a portent of doom; the trendy looking guy on a bike buying coffee from the new cool coffee shop that just opened up down the road is the sign that you can expect your rent to rise through the roof any time soon, after which you’ll have to leave your flat and move elsewhere, giving up the life you built in this neighbourhood. This sort of fear has led to outright violence against the “offending” gentrifiers in parts of London.
But what if young, educated, middle-class people moving into a previously poor area didn’t always have to mean that gentrification was occurring? What if some of this anger is being misdirected?
Kelham Island: a case study of “gentrification”
Kelham Island – an old industrial area at the extreme north end of Sheffield city centre – appears to be undergoing all the outward signs of gentrification. It has trendy new bars, renovated industrial buildings, a shipping container start-up hub, a trendy eco-village, a “desireablility” currently being salivated over by estate agents, and a distinct rise in bearded guys riding bikes (including myself). It’s had a meteoric rise from derelict industrial wasteland in the late 90s to one of the trendiest hipster hotspots in the entire country. It was recently named joint number 8 in Travel Supermarket’s “Hip Hang-out Neighbourhood Index” alongside Dalston, the (in)famous super-cool and super-gentrified area of inner London.
Many people (myself included) were slightly taken aback by all this recent praise for an area that was a daunting industrial wasteland only 10 years ago with an active red light district, immortalised in the Arctic Monkeys song “When The Sun Goes Down”. The scale of industrial dereliction in the area 20-30 years ago is hard to put into words. Even for a guy who grew up in similarly hard-hit Manchester, I was shocked by what I saw in Kelham Island when I first moved to Sheffield in 2003. Outside of the Kelham Island Museum and the nationally famous real ale pubs The Fat Cat and Kelham Island Tavern, it was largely crumbling and derelict. Here are some lovely pictures of the area in the 80s and 90s showing the sheer scale of the dereliction. Despite the incredible pace of development in the past few years, there are large parts of the area that are still derelict to this day.
However, in the past 10 years, there have been a large number of new developments in the area, including the aforementioned Little Kelham, the renovation of Cornish Place, the Dunfields student development, Kelham Riverside, and the commercial/office conversion of the Chimney House, amongst many others. This has led to rapid increase in the residential population of the area. More importantly, it’s led to an increase of the young, wealthy, liberal, educated population of the area, which has flared up tensions surrounding gentrification and hipsters. Graffiti has appeared stating “no more poshies” and “fuck yuppies”. Cars along the main street (Green Lane) have their windows smashed way more than you would expect, and I’ve seen at least one car with “no more poshies” graffitied on the side. An anarchist squat appeared close to Yellow Arch Studios several months ago with “FUCK THE SYSTEM, STOP GENTRIFICATION” scrawled in the window. With all this anger, you’d think that the incoming wealthy hipsters had forced out a large number of poor people in line with predictable gentrification patterns, right?
Why Kelham Island doesn’t fit the pattern
Well, pretty much no one lived in Sheffield city centre (including Kelham Island) until about 15 years ago. According to the Centre for Cities, Sheffield’s city centre has more than doubled its population in the past 10 years. According to the Shalesmoor, Kelham Island, and Neepsend Network, the population of Kelham Island (and the nearby Shalesmoor and Neepsend) has increased tenfold in the last decade. A cursory look at the architecture of the area confirms this. The only nearby residential units that existed prior to the current building spree are this council block on Shalesmoor (which has most likely been there since the 40s), and suburban houses here, a good 15 minutes walk up Rutland Road away from the centre of Kelham Island, which have likely existed since the 50s given their architectural style.
In fact, historical images show that residential displacement in the area occurred a long time before the recent regeneration of the area. Here is the junction of Neepsend Lane, Harvest Lane, and Rowland Street in the 1930s, and here is the exact same spot in 2016. Every single residential building was cleared for industrial use. Here is the junction between Percy Street and Burton Road in 1965, and here is the same junction today. Again, industrial use. Further to the west end of Neepsend (about 15-20 minutes walk from the centre of Kelham Island) the residential destruction was even more pronounced. Here is Farfield Road from Neepsend train station in 1965. Here it is today. Neepsend train station is long gone, along with an entire residential district.
There are many, many pictures showing similar levels of residential clearance between the 30s and 60s across the entire region surrounding Kelham Island. People may have lived in this region at one time, but until the new generation of residents began moving in 15 years ago (almost) no one had been living there for about 40 years.
Displacement of industry?
One strange thing about the area surrounding Kelham Island is that the main thoroughfares running through the region (Alma Street/Mowbray Street/Neepsend Lane/Shalesmoor/Penistone Road) are absolutely dense with industrial buildings. Residential developments exist in small pockets closer to Kelham Island itself, but the vast majority of the region is industrial. This raises the question: whilst residential displacement is almost certainly not happening, what about industrial displacement? Are smaller, working-class companies being forced out due to middle-class residents moving in? Isn’t this also a kind of gentrification?
Well, it’s extremely hard to tell. As I pointed out earlier, Kelham Island was mostly derelict and underutilised before all these new developments appeared. Rather than closing down industrial companies, these new developments seem to have been built on derelict spaces. Little Kelham has been built on the old Miba Tyzack works, abandoned in 2007 when Tyzack moved the jobs to Slovakia. The recently completed Kelham Works building next to Kelham Island Tavern has been built over a factory that was abandoned in 2013 at the latest. A massive new development called Dun Works is being built over the remains of factories that were derelict before 2008. The newly complete Cornish Steelworks development has been built over factories that became unused sometime between 2008 and 2012 according to Street View.
And these are only the most recent developments. The initial developments that spurred on regeneration in the area included Cornish Place Works, which was abandoned in 1992 after decades of underutilisation and redeveloped into apartments in 1998, Globe Works, which was abandoned in the 1970s and not redeveloped until the late 1990s, and Brooklyn Works, which was empty from at least the early 1980s until the late 1990s.
What’s clear is that there has been a pattern of massive industrial decline across the entirety of Kelham Island over the past few decades (well, across the country in general) which led to many of its buildings being abandoned. Modern developments have simply appeared in their place, replacing dereliction for residential use. Will the increase in trendy apartments begin to push out already existing industrial enterprises, or will they voluntarily relocate? It’s hard to tell at this point.
The illusion of gentrification
We’re presented with a situation where the sudden appearance of hipsters and trendy bars in an area which used to be industrial and derelict makes people simply assume gentrification has occurred. They then direct their anger at the new residents of the area who seem to fit the “gentrifying foot soldiers” stereotype. In reality, this appearance of gentrification is almost certainly an illusion.
There’s a lesson here. It’s all too human to want to simplify things and make quick judgements based on simple visual cues, particularly if these visual cues signify people who might inadvertently force you out of your neighbourhood and effectively ruin your community and the life you have built. Unfortunately, this has led to the cultural demonisation of a collection of traits (beards, bikes, coffee shops) which are clearly all inherently harmless. Gentrification is a much more complicated and subtle process than guys with beards opening coffee shops in a neighbourhood. We do ourselves and our cities a disservice by lashing out at surface visual and behavioural “cues” for gentrification. We should be stepping back to think more about the slow, subtle cultural shifts in feelings towards city living amongst younger demographics that have been building over the past 20 years. We should also look at what kinds of things are motivating them to move into cheap inner city areas, inadvertently pushing up house prices and unintentionally displacing people already living there. Only then can we hope to come up with genuine solutions to issues of displacement.