The Illusion of Gentrification: A Case Study of Kelham Island, Sheffield

“Clever” graffiti in Kelham Island

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.

Little Kelham
Little Kelham

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

The redeveloped Green Lane Works
The redeveloped Green Lane Works

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.

The new Cornish Steelworks development
The new Cornish Steelworks development

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.

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14 thoughts on “The Illusion of Gentrification: A Case Study of Kelham Island, Sheffield

  • 19th October 2017 at 6:04 pm
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    Hi Andy!
    A few thoughts since this is related to some stuff I’m teaching this year.
    I think you lay out quite a good case for Kelham Island not conforming to what we typically mean when we say “gentrification” which is displacement of housing or businesses, since there was no housing and few businesses in the area previously — this is pretty much in line with the definition offered by the grandad of gentrification studies, Neil Smith, back in 1982. You also identify how “gentrification” as a buzzword is in danger of becoming the only lens through which people perceive change in cities, and utilisation of “under-used” space, which is again pretty broadly correct, I think. And you identify how this has often led to criticism of perceived gentrification being focussed on the young trendy people moving into an area, rather than the structural forces (local government, developers, landlords) which have engineered this situation, which I would wholeheartedly agree with!
    Nonetheless, some questions that came to my mind when reading it, and that I’m sure you will address in later posts!
    – Although obviously most big industry in the area moved out long ago, I think I’m right in saying there has been some dispacement of smaller businesses. I’m thinking specifically of a few pubs which changed ownership, upscaled, or closed down, or otherwise switched their consumer base. You also specifically mention the displacement of one business, sex work, since you identify the area as previously being a red light district. Perhaps if one was to do a study with sex workers in Sheffield, or the clientele who used to frequent some of the pubs which previously upgraded in the area, they would perceive themselves to have been displaced. Or perhaps not, but something to bare in mind!
    – Many parts of the city that we might perceive to be useless actually serve informal functions, as spaces where marginalised people socialise, relax, etc. As the urban change you’ve identified takes place, and people (often of a very different income level to this part of the city) flood in, the informal use of this space will change too. Perhaps businesses will fit more security cameras, police will be more proactive in pushing anti-social behaviour out and back into poorer residential areas, or police will be more vigiliant in racial-profile-based policing in this area, and people who previously walk through this area will no longer do so. Or perhaps others will feel much safer than they did before! But it’s a matter of identifying which people benefit and which people lose out.
    – Relatedly, some scholars of gentrification have argued for gentrification as an “affective” process — for instance, visually reclaiming a part of the city’s working class heritage and gifting it to the middle classes (cf Park Hill). In this sense, they argue, these “visual cues” are still important ways in tracking how certain groups are disenfranchised while others benefit. This is an expanded definition of gentrification which not everyone agrees with, but I think its an interesting question to address.
    – Finally, regarding the broader and more nuanced process of urban restructuring you describe in the last paragraph, I’d encourage you to check out the work of gentrification scholar Tom Slater, e.g. – http://crisis-scape.net/conference/item/180-unravelling-false-choice-urbanism – In this piece, he describes how “false choice urbanism” allows us to perceive the only choices for a given urban area to be either stagnation/decline or revitalization as a trendy middle class playground. As he argues, this misses the point, which is rather to look at how this choice is constructed and presented to people my the broader structural forces at work in our cities, and examples of how we can say no to these and demand alternatives which get us out of this narrow dichotomy.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking piece, and sorry for the wall of text – have literally just got back from teaching a class on this so it was on my mind already, lol.

    Reply
    • 24th October 2017 at 6:43 pm
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      Hey Asa, sorry for not replying until now. There was a lot to pick through there!

      All your points are pretty reasonable. Some pubs have definitely changed hands and become more upmarket. An old working men’s pub on Mowbray Street called the Brown Bear became the much trendier Riverside in 1995. The Farfield Inn closed down entirely. The Milestone opened in an old workshop about 15 years ago as a sports bar, but about 10 years ago became a fancy and expensive gastropub. The thing is, the most famous and popular pubs in Kelham Island – The Fat Cat and Kelham Island Tavern – have stayed resolutely the same as they were in the industrial days of the area. It’s really interesting going to them and seeing the massive demographic mix of people together in the same room. The same people who came to them 20 years ago are still there, mixing with the younger hipsters of the area. It’s kind of like the main pub room in the Brudenell. Also, you can still get a £2 pint of ale in both pubs if you want. They’re really quite cheap.

      Pubs all across the country have been closing down or changing hands. It doesn’t feel like Kelham is really that different to anywhere else, to be honest. In fact, the residential surge in the area has probably been the main reason most of these pubs have survived.

      Sex workers and their clients have definitely been displaced. I guess the question here is whether this really counts as gentrification, and also whether it’s a bad thing. I mean, sex work itself is mostly a “bad” thing for the workers, but obviously some people feel like they have no choice but to do that sort of work and so need to do it somewhere… but, well, where? I feel like this is a whole different problem, tbh. Stilll, I agree that this is definitely a kind of displacement. I’m just not sure it’s relevant displacement.

      I get your point about the informal use of “useless” spaces. I don’t really know what happened informally around here whilst it was derelict. Well, apparently the area where Kelham Island Museum is now used to be a popular place for drug users to frequent. Like the with sex work issue, I’m not sure moving this away from the area is a bad thing. And yeah, as with sex work, they need to do it somewhere, but where? In all seriousness, with both things, I’d be all for legalisation and government-led safe spaces for drug use and sex work rather than informal dangerous activity on the street, but I can’t see that happening any time soon. Anyway, my point is I don’t know if there was much informal use outside of sex work and drug use. I’m fairly confident there weren’t any residential squats or cheap artist studios that were kicked out for regeneration. Lion Works on Ball Street has artists and small businesses working there cheaply, but they’ve been there for many years with no sign of getting kicked out any time soon. In fact, the building was partly renovated last year.

      The squat I mentioned in the article actually turned out to be some dickheads occupying an artist studio used by CADS, an artspace non-profit in Sheffield (info here: https://www.facebook.com/cads.sheffield/posts/1488373211227482). It used to look like this before the squatters ruined the place: http://www.studiosandspace.com/find-a-space/2015/1/21/pebble-dash-studios-studio-24-kelham-island.

      The current renovation of Park Hill has always made me a bit uneasy tbh. It definitely is a working class place being “gifted” to the middle class. It’s sad that there was no desire to renovate the building whilst keeping it as social housing. As you point out, it felt like there were a false choice of either let it crumble as social housing or kick everyone out and privately renovate it. This is definitely due to Sheffield Council (and pretty much every other local authority) just not having enough money to invest in large-scale social housing projects like Park Hill. It’s easier for them to offload the burden to a private developer and save some money. This is almost entirely the fault of Westminster policies though. It’s tempting to blame the Tories, but New Labour weren’t much better in this regard. I suppose it’s because of the wider social attitude towards social housing. Everyone’s bought into the false choice.

      Reply
  • 20th October 2017 at 8:52 am
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    What the area needs is social housing ,housing that was lost to the area when the Kelvin flats were demolished to be replaced by a new up market private estate.

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  • 21st October 2017 at 10:24 am
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    Great article, enjoyed it.

    Disagree with the comment stating there needs to be more social housing; i’m not from Kelham, or from one of the ‘good’ areas of Sheffield, and have lived in social housing myself but it seems that, as a city, we have a distaste for growth, prosperity and aspiration. People of Dore and Kenwood aren’t demanding more social housing be built, why do we want it of Kelham? There’s nothing wrong with hopes and dreams being associated with living in a particular area – I’d love to live in the centre of London, i can’t afford to – i also don’t expect a housing association to step and build accommodation in central Mayfair so i can be housed – i like the fact that there are property enclaves which I can aspire to live in and, if i can’t afford to live there, then at least i can visit and soak up the atmosphere of the place – why is it wrong to want to maintain them and what’s wrong for wanting it in Sheffield?

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    • 21st October 2017 at 6:39 pm
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      Perhaps you have not heard about the Tower Block in the middle of Kensington that has just burnt down due to the rush to cladding.
      It turns out that there are hundreds of empty up your arse apartments scattered around where the owners either use them when visiting the smoke or have bought them for future investment .
      Meanwhile folk sleep in shop doorways due to the lack of social housing.
      The same thing is happening in central Sheffield inc Kelham where students and yuppie incomers are seen as more important than the folk who actually built the City and made it the World famous industrial by word it became .

      Reply
  • 22nd October 2017 at 3:51 am
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    I definitely wouldn’t say that anyone is more important than anyone else, that’s certainly not aligned with my values. My point is i don’t understand the resistance to areas thriving – why do we want to limit potential?

    Taken to an extreme, look at Shoreditch, historically not the most in demand part of London to live but it was affordable, commercial rents were low and unique / interesting stores (and people) gravitated to the area and it became a place to travel to. Over the last couple of decades the warehouses etc have been developed, and the entire ‘vibe’ of the place is fantastic. I can’t afford to live there (not sure i’d want to to be honest), but its a place i enjoy visiting.

    There is the argument with Shoreditch of residential displacement – rents increased and many could no longer afford to live there – i’m not defending that in the slightest, not at all. We need to remember that this is not the case for Kelham, before Cornish Place was developed it was decades since it could be described as a residential hub – nobody wanted to live there. Nobody is being displaced by developing it further, Sheffield has a chance to create something incredible but some want to limit its growth – why? There are events such a Peddlers along with local businesses in Krynkl and Kelham Arcade who are setting up, adding interest to the area while also earning themselves a living – there are other areas in Sheffield where rents would be even cheaper but they didn’t set up business in those locations – there’s a reason for it.

    Also, the use of the word yuppie as if its a bad thing; young / upwardly-mobile / professional – which part is so objectionable? Young (we all were at some point, good luck to them), upwardly mobile (wanting to improve their current economic status – don’t we all?), professional (employed or business owner) – why aren’t we encouraging this as opposed to hurling it about like an insult?

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    • 22nd October 2017 at 10:39 pm
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      you are right, although the word yuppie is no where near as objectionable as chav ,a word I have often seen and heard used by the upwardly mobile to define the very people that are no longer deemed to be worthy of housing in areas such as Kelham.

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      • 24th October 2017 at 5:33 pm
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        I’m not entirely sure why you’re claiming that poorer people are “no longer deemed to be worthy of housing” in Kelham given that there has historically not been any social housing here apart from that single block on Shalesmoor. There’s not been any housing here at all. That was the entire point of my article.

        I fully agree that we need more social housing. Central government, however, refuses to fund it, and local councils are far too cash strapped to build any more. There’s nothing that can be done without getting the Tories out and changing the national mindset to be more pro-social housing.

        You mention Kelvin, but that area isn’t really Kelham or Neepsend. The northern end of Kelvin was closer to the centre of Walkley. The area either side of Infirmary Road doesn’t have the the heavily industrial character of Kelham/Neepsend and hasn’t attracted any of the same people or businesses as Kelham. Also, it was torn down and redeveloped way before the current “yuppies” started moving into Kelham. I fully agree that replacing high-density social housing with low-density private suburban-style houses was an unbelievably terrible idea and should never have happened, but it has nothing to do with the content of my article and the current issues in Kelham/Neepsend.

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  • 26th October 2017 at 1:25 pm
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    Good piece. It is worth remembering the usage cycle of urban space, particularly where industrial gives way to dereliction, but from that dilapidation and consequent removal of authoritarian oversight comes cultural undergrounds that gain renown and become beloved of hipsters who then age past university and want professional accommodation in the areas they are used to hanging out. The authorities are likely to then want to cash in on this cultural capital while at the same time regulating the autonomous excesses (the bits people really liked) during the underground phase. This is the point that the indigeneous population starts to get pissed off.

    The perceived “poshies” are a feature of Sheffield (a university city in which students stay around more after the end of their degrees than anywhere else in the UK) and the ever increasing affluence required to attend university.

    Remember not to place your own value judgments on the sex trade or drug use that took place in pre-regeneration times. It might be distasteful to you but mixed in with these unhealthy or illegal activities are the day-to-day business of living, and the removal of the spaces in which this living takes place simply pushes people who can’t simply abandon drugs or sex work into shadier places still.

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  • 31st October 2017 at 3:39 pm
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    Interesting article with good links (i.e. – the damage to CADs studio space). I entirely agree with your premise that Kelham Island and St Vincent’s quarter adjacent are not spaces of gentrification in the ‘classic sense’ because so few people lived there previously (see 1981 census as evidence). I moved to Sheffield in 1982 and started going to the Fat Cat in 1983 and to be frank it was a challenging area – the heart of the red-light district and dark and tumbled down – the late Dave Wickett’s who opened the Fat Cat in 1981 was a pioneer. The other significant catalyst was the refurbishment of Cornish Place (which was once the largest cutlery factory in the world) in 1998 (driven partly by English Partnerships and SRB funds) – which was a state led intervention (fantastic flats if you have never been inside).
    What interests me is that Kelham Island and St Vincent’s are neighbourhoods but they are not communities in the sense of propinquinity – the latest data suggests a very high ‘global pop’ , high levels of residential churn and quite a diverse socio-economic profile. I’m not sure ‘yuppies’ exist as such in Sheffield in any number but we do have an ‘urban class’ who have been knocking around for decades and who have gathered in locales such as Meersbrook, Sharrow, Crookes, Sharrowvale etc.
    what is true is that regeneration has pushed out some more marginal ‘cultural’ activities – it used to be a place where bands could get cheap/free rehearsal space and the legendary Club 60 is now no more, even the Night Kitchen has gone. It has become cleaner, greener, more ordered and wealthier.

    Looking forward to more posts – I’m currently working on the transformation of St Vincent’s

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  • 2nd November 2017 at 7:59 am
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    As some one who has often been slagged of due to my anger at the gentrification of working class areas (inc social housing sold on to speculators and speck builders) I would like to point out that I deplore the grafiti that has sprung up around Kelham Island , I post this due to some one on Skyscraper mentioning my name on the Kelham threads .
    Many areas of Sheffield that contained social housing have now been given over to private enterprise with the resulting speck and middle class estates rising up to replace them.

    Sheffield council should be ashamed of this policy a policy that has lead to poor people sleeping in shop door ways while over 90,000 are on waiting lists for social housing ,a list that offers no hope due to the vetting policy in place to obtain a council home.

    Good luck to those who have made their space in housing due to whatever break in life they may have had but do not forget the folk who have due to the way OUR City has evolved fallen into the gutter of the very areas that once were their very living environment .
    Judd .

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  • 7th November 2017 at 10:35 am
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    Hi Andy, I’m a graphic design student currently doing a project on the gentrification of Kelham island and i love your article! Would you be able to email me so i could ask you some questions please.
    Thanks

    Reply
  • 20th November 2017 at 3:44 am
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    Great article.
    As a kid, I lived in Wythenshawe, Manchester where was labeled as a shithole previously but now rising in prices every year because of a sort of gentrification.
    For, I was taken aback at my hometown today when I returned there this summer.But reality, There haven’t changed at all.
    The only thing makes me think ‘changed’ is the obscured gap once made it more visible by middle class’s settlement . Some articles on the Guardian seems to be not true of the most poor white .

    I think revitalising the local community itself should be promoted but becoming exclusive area leads to shut indigenous residents out .
    Then, what of them ? They have no choice but to find a new home.
    It’s so ironic being kicked them out the place where was originally divided as the poor by the privileged class.
    Supposedly it’s getting far much harder for poor people to survive in future than 2000s did.
    What I wanna say is, however, It doesn’t mean those who love for Stussy or Supreme should be blamed for it and this is comprehensive issues, not a special case. This is always true everywhere.

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  • 2nd January 2018 at 1:13 pm
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    This is really interesting.

    I had an artist studio in Pebble Dash Studios around 2010/11. The area then was completely different. Busy in the day still with workers (although as you say most buildings weren’t in use) and then once the lights went down it was a full on red light district. The girls and pimps in sports cars owned those streets at night (particularly the main road where Yellow arch is). I can see why they might feel some resentment.

    There was also no flats there then and only the one coffee shop (The Grind).

    I was quite shocked how much it has changed when I cam back to Sheffield last year but I think it’s for the better, (although I’m surprised the supposed creative types can afford to live there).

    Reply

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