In the property section of one of the weekend supplements recently, I discovered that Aigburth, the area of Liverpool where I live, was a “hitcher”, meaning that the rising house prices in this part of town were hitching a lift on the glamour of more upmarket adjoining areas. Aigburth was “your boho, villagey kind of place – all craft markets, self-help groups and reiki” – for people who “haven’t quite given up their addiction to police sirens”.
Although I didn’t recognise my neighbourhood from this description, the imagery was familiar. For this idea of the self-contained urban village – a place that allows the middle classes to experience the city as an edgy, cosmopolitan alternative to the suburbs, while remaining at one remove from its social problems – belongs to the outmoded metaphor of “gentrification”.
The sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term in 1964 in an analysis of the changing social composition of north London. Glass identified gentrification as an unplanned phenomenon occurring in the political vacuum created by the decline in the heavily directed municipal planning of the postwar era. It took time for middle-class house deals and renovations to be completed, and if they were happening simultaneously in different parts of the same neighbourhood, whole areas of the city could be transformed silently and semi-invisibly. So the pioneering gentrifiers looked for telltale evidence of middle-class refurbishment, such as tipper trucks and sand on the pavement, to reassure themselves that there were “people like us” in the area and that they had made the right decision to move there.
Walking round the streets of Islington in the late 1960s, a PhD student called Michael Thompson saw the changing appearance of the houses as evidence of the bloodless power struggle between working-class tenants and incoming professionals. In a New Society article, he argued that the styles of renovation were a kind of middle-class secret code. In place of hardboard front doors studded with plastic bell pushes, the gentrifiers fitted pseudo-Georgian doors, restoring the fanlights and adding brass knockers. A blue-and-white enamel number plate served as “a little touch of provincial France proclaiming that the owner drinks Hirondelle vin ordinaire with his quiche lorraine for his dinner and not light ale with his ham-and-egg pie for his tea”.
Looking nosily through their windows, Thompson could see that the middle classes had knocked through their dividing walls to make their houses lighter and more spacious. Getting rid of interior walls was now a universal bourgeois signifier of good taste. So the gentrifiers were named the “knockers-through”, which flatteringly framed them as romantic renovators rather than hard-nosed property speculators.
In newspaper articles about which down-at-heel areas were on the rise, journalists benignly referred to the knockers-through as the “frontier middle classes” – a reimagining of north London as virgin land that erased the working-class tenants from history as efficiently as Manifest Destiny had done for Native Americans. There were few articles about the brutal eviction of tenants from gentrifying areas, made much easier by the Rent Act 1957, which decontrolled tenancies. The kinder landlords offered money to persuade tenants to leave; the less scrupulous locked them out of their bathrooms, or hired thugs to intimidate them.
It is striking how, even after a 40-year property boom, this wild frontier imagery still dominates the way that the housing market is talked about. Gentrification is seen as a magically occurring pheno menon that smart house-hunters can second-guess if they have done their homework as amateur sociologists, spotting the giveaway signs of “hot spots”, such as skips in the road or deli selections at the local mini-market. When I moved to Aigburth five years ago, I couldn’t resist doing my own Thompsonian analysis of invisible social change – partly because I, too, had been caught up in the gentri fication groupthink. Farmers’ markets, smarter cars, not being able to park on my street any longer: good news. Boarded-up shops, police helicopters, peeling paint: oh dear, still some way to go yet.
But then I realised that I was looking at the wrong things. The maturing of the housing market has shifted the emphasis away from the collective action of middle-class pioneers and towards large-scale developers and regeneration companies. The urban regeneration agenda, which began in Liverpool in 1981 with the founding of the Merseyside Development Corporation, has focused on flagship inner-city developments and loft living. The unplanned, inconspicuous gentrification witnessed by Glass and Thompson is a thing of the past. Instead, the process of demolition and reconstruction has itself been turned into a form of boosterism. New-builds are emblazoned with logos, telephone numbers and a warning to the nervous buyer: “Only two apartments remaining”. In this new environment, what matters is not the behaviour of middle-class gentrifiers, but how major investors respond to big events – such as the announcement in 2003 that Liverpool would be European Capital of Culture 2008, which produced an immediate house-price boom that has now levelled off. If ordinary housebuyers have noticed an area is on the up, they are probably already too late to benefit.
The gentrification of 1960s London produced, albeit briefly, a genuine social mix. Many of the knockers-through saw living on “the front line” as a way of combining their left-liberal credentials with a bohemian cachet, and professed to relish encounters with “the locals”. No wonder the likes of Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn found this such a rich seam for their comedies of manners. But the idea of a brave, groundbreaking group of gentrifiers was not simply a myth. They were less risk-averse than most professionals, buying and renovating their houses in the face of sceptical bank managers.
Nor was their radicalism simply a posture. At the London Free School in Notting Hill in the late 1960s, the middle-class intelligentsia taught free classes open to all. The gentrifiers often sent their children to flagship inner-city comprehensives, and they dominated community action groups such as the Holloway Housing Aid Centre and the Barnsbury Action Group, which aimed to support tenants who were being harassed.
The gentrifier’s moral dilemmas are no more; I doubt there is much liberal hand-wringing in Urban Splash refurbs. According to the new Identity in Britain atlas, produced by the academic geographers Daniel Dorling and Bethan Thomas, neighbourhoods in the UK are less socially integrated than at any time since the Second World War. One reason is that the profits from a long period of house-price rises are passing down through families. The current unpopularity of inheritance tax stems partly from older homeowners’ fear that they will not be able to bequeath the untaxed benefits from earlier stages of gentrification: the £4,000 house they bought in 1970 that is now worth half a million.
The idea of a frontier class, colonising up-and-coming areas, no longer makes sense when the housing market is largely sewn up by established homeowners. But people carry on talking as though they can control the market by deci phering it – as though it were about individual knowledge, rather than collective politics. The real winners in this process are the very rich professional investors who make cash purchases of large numbers of houses.
And yet we still call it “gentrification”. Can’t we come up with a better word?
Joe Moran is the author of “Queuing for Beginners” (Profile Books, £14.99)