Monday, March 23, 2015
Apologies again for the delay in writing on here; it been a while since I posted on here due to other commitments.
I’m back in the heart of East London, wondering around the area, witnessing the changes that have unfurled over the last twenty-five years. The pace of change can be dizzying. That includes Brick Lane, where there’s been a large amount of focus on symbols of gentrification in a traditionally poor borough (Tower Hamlets), seemingly encapsulated in a shop called the Cereal Killer Cafe, which sells cereal packets from around the world at slightly inflated prices, run by two bearded twins (pictured above). Over here in the UK, there was a huge media focus on the place as a harbinger of rising rates, backed up with a focus on other individual shops selling coffee and food at inflated prices, whether Look Mum No Hands or any of the new cafes/coffee bars setting up shop. If you’ve been in the kind of areas in East London where this stuff is happening - Hackney, Shoreditch, Brick Lane, Bethnal Green, etc. - you’ll know what I’m talking about. This stuff has been paraded around the media again and again. Hipsters. Cycle cafes. Beards and tattoos. One-gear bikes. Flat white coffee. Etc.
I passed the Cereal Killer Cafe recently, only to witness a huge long queue, thus seemingly validating the media’s obsession with the place. There was a huge amount of tourists from around Europe, who may have picked up on it with their own media.
My personal belief is that the obsession with these places as some kind of harbinger of doom to an area is something of a red herring. What’s missing is the focus on the other symbol of gentrification in an area - the presence of identikit food and coffee chain outlets such as Pret a Manger, Eat, and Starbucks. One of the things that’s always struck me about visiting certain other cities - such as Berlin, Montreal, and even Los Angeles among others, as well as a trip around Norway last summer - is the lack, comparatively speaking, of endless chain shops, compared to the UK. Britain seems to have a pathological obsession with identikit chain shops, as witnessed when you walk down the high streets of many towns around the UK. Every street will have the same coffee places, the same WH Smiths, and the same Sports Direct (though admittedly Cambridge seemed to be a refreshing alternative when I visited last December). The result is a kind of rising conformity.
So it is in East London, where there’s a Costa Coffee or similar on every corner. These places are symbols of gentrification too, yet the media has little interest on them. It’s a lot easier to focus on individual, independent outlets, because they stand out. Chain shops have little interest to the media. Yet it is the likes of Starbucks that, until recently, have managed to get away not with paying tax rather than individual shops such as the Cereal Killer Cafe, who are most likely having to charge the prices they do to deal as an individual business with rapidly rising rents in the area and employees to pay. It's some of these high street brands that have been the ones avoiding tax through creative accounting more than the small businesses in the area.
A debate on issues of gentrification is a complicated one, and outside the scope of this post. What is more arresting to this writer is the general acceptance of chain shops, to the detriment of everything else. We’ve stopped even thinking about what these chain shops are doing to neighbourhoods, and have instead gone for obvious but misguided targets.