How the city is rewritten through gentrification.
The modern outsider’s view of Notting hill is twofold. On the one hand, there is the film Notting hill which presents us with a glamorised cheeky predominantly white upper-class vision of suburban London. The second is the Notting hill carnival which is now a true public spectacle and a wonderful entertainment. However, this is far from its beginnings.
Strangely enough, the only film to truly grab the multicultural joy of Notting hill is the impromptu street dance in the Portobello road section of Walt Disney’s ‘Bed knobs and broomsticks’. Alas, the time frame is slightly out being set in the 1940s but it is a noteworthy reflection as I believe it was made after the troubles and firmly fixed the Portobello road area in the psyche as one of joy in multiculturalism. It was also celebrated the many creeds and races from commonwealth countries who fought together with us against fascism in the Second World War.
The true history of the area from the early 50’s to the late mid 80’s seems to have been wiped from the history of London. The information is there for all to find. Even Wikipedia has plenty to offer. But ask anyone I know, ‘who Claudia Jones or Rhaune Laslett are,’ and you will get a blank look and even the suggestion that latter name is made up. The 1958 race riots are never mentioned they are not spoken about and though they were for a short time on the GCSE curriculum (circa 2009) it seems that it is not taught in our multicultural schools. It is as though the whole period has been whitewashed out if the public view. So why is this?
Big city Ideals; small town mentality.
Throughout history, cities have been a hotbed for the mixing of ideas and invention. Those cities that have accepted outsiders have prospered the best, Egypt, Rome, Persia and even ancient Thira (the birthplace of the Atlantis legend,) all prospered through trade, and to some degree through tolerance. Allow me to put this thought experiment to you. A man leaves his village and travels to the city to sell his towns produce. Whilst there, he meets someone from a village a few valleys away. They chat happily about their toils and our man learns of new ways to till the soil. The villager is thankful and goes back home. All is well and good. But the next week the same people he met in the city move into his valley. Now there is war. I would propose that as a city grows, eating up what were once suburbs, this small town thinking ends up inside the city. Left unchecked it is a powder keg awaiting a spark.
A BBC news real of the time shows clearly a white mother claiming she has to move out of the area she was born into for the sake of her son, as the migrant population in the area were unclean and dirty. (BBC, 1990) This bigotry and racism against those who were proud to fight and die for us shows this small town thinking and also highlights that, perhaps, migration needs a nursemaid. Though by whom and what form it should take I am not qualified to say.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, many foreign nationals of commonwealth countries came to England. These were often people who had fought for our queen and country, and also there was seen to be a shortage of manual labor due to lives lost in the conflict. However in 1950’s London, residential properties were scarce as much of London was still in need of redevelopment after the Second World War. Unscrupulous landlords who would rent property’s which had been condemned and were awaiting redevelopment. however in the late 50’s things became worse, as Tom Vague tells us
In July 1957 the Tory Rent Act came into operation, lifting restrictions on how much rent landlords could charge. This Rent Act, by decontrolling rents without giving tenants security of tenure, ushered in an era of intimidation and strong arm tactics. (Tom Vague, 2012)
The results were slum areas, where immigrants were exploited. Living sometimes many families in a single room. There was no choice for these people as much of the city would not rent to ‘blacks or Irish’. The physical and social decline of these slum areas was blamed on the migrant population. Many local white people, some of whom ironically having fought against fascism only a decade previous, describing them as dirty unclean whore mongers and displaying openly racist views.
The riot is theorized to have been set off by an assault on Majbritt Morrison, a white woman. The day before, the 29th August 1958, she had an argument with her afro-Caribbean husband Raymond Morrison. Many people attempted to intervene thinking that a black man was accosting a white woman (the truth of the altercation I have been unable to find, however it may have been no more serious than any domestic argument between partners married or otherwise.) The following day, Saturday the 30th some young white men remembering her from the previous night followed her down the road throwing bottles. She had racial slurs thrown at her such as ‘black man’s trollop’ and then, according to Morrison herself.
The crowds got involved, arguments escalated and by midnight violent clashes had begun. A lynch mob of around 400 white men chased the Caribbean residents, (who had now joined forces in order to defend themselves), and attacked houses occupied by West Indians. Petrol bombs and glass bottles were thrown. There were clashes each night, until the police eventually regained control on 5th September. Around 140 people were arrested, mainly white, but also Black victims who had been armed in self-defense. (Morrison, 1964)
Nine white youths had received five years in prison and a fine of £500. A sentence which was to act as a deterrent to others –(Ashworth, Andrew (2000). Sentencing and Criminal Justice. Cambridge University Press)
The riots caused tension between the Metropolitan Police and the British afro-Caribbean’s who claimed the police had not cared nor taken their complaints seriously. The government stated the attacks were not racial. However in 2002 files were brought to light.
Alan Travis, home affairs editor The GUARDIAN, Saturday 24 August 2002
Senior Metropolitan police officers tried to dismiss the Notting Hill race riots which raged for five nights over the August bank holiday in 1958 as the work of “ruffians, both coloured and white” hell-bent on hooliganism, according to newly released official files. But police eyewitness reports in the secret papers confirm that they were overwhelmingly the work of a white working class mob out to get the “niggers”.
While senior officers tried to play down the racial aspects to the riots the internal Metropolitan police files released this month at the public record office confirm that the disturbances were overwhelmingly triggered by 300-to 400-strong “Keep Britain White” mobs, many of them Teddy boys armed with iron bars, butcher’s knives and weighted leather belts, who went “nigger-hunting” among the West Indian residents of Notting Hill and Notting Dale. The first night left five black men lying unconscious on the pavements of Notting Hill.
A “Caribbean Carnival”, was held on 30 January 1959. It was organised by Claudia Jones, a young activist in response to the riots and the state of race relations. The idea was further cultivated by Rhaune Laslett, and from there grew the carnival we know today.
The theory of the spectacle, which in itself is a refinement of Karl Mark’s ‘fetishism of commodities,’ sees the city as more than its literal definition. ‘A built-up area with a name, defined boundaries, and local government, which is larger than a village or town,’ but makes it something more. The city becomes a place purely engineered towards commerce. Everything about the city must lead to the movement of wealth from the consumer to the producers of commodities. It may seem strange to bring this into what on the surface appears to be a discussion about race and intolerance, but it is key I feel to discovering why these events have been ‘white washed’ from British history.
During the 70’s and 80’s the Notting hill carnival became a hotbed of racial tensions. Often instigated by the police. Leading to another riot in 76 and disturbances on a yearly basis. The media, in full swing generally blamed the black population (albeit cleverly worded) and enjoying I’m sure huge profits. However this situation could not continue. If the city is a machine of commodity transformation, it must by necessity be a well-oiled one. In this sense the area had to, for the sake of commodity, change. Though the late 80’s and early 90s the public perception of the carnival changed. It became a council organised spectacle and whilst wonderfully promoting multiculturalism, began to become a distraction from those events. If we consider Debord’s definition of spectacle,
“Spectacle is never an image but forms of social practice mediated by images,” (Debord, 1983, p. 4)
From this, we need to consider Gotham’s well thought out view of the modern festival. Which I say is what we are seeing in the process of change with the Notting Hill carnaval.
Urban spectacles are spectacular public displays, including festivals and mega-events, which involve capitalist markets, sets of social relations, and flows of commodities, capital, technology, cultural forms and people across borders. Spectacles have a long history, ranging from the festivals of the Middle Ages, the mid-19th-century Parisian boulevards with their flaneurs, and the international exhibitions in metropolises like Berlin and Paris described by Walter Benjamin and Georg Simmel. Today, spectacles are no longer discrete and isolated events but are rationally produced and scientifically managed by bureaucratic organizations for instrumental purposes, especially tourism-oriented revitalization (Gotham 2005, p226-227.)
As property prices in London soar, so too Notting hill has become gentrified and its history has been wiped away for as Smith explains.
Urban pioneers seek to scrub the city clean of its working-class geography and history. By remaking the geography of the city they rewrite its social history as a justification for its future. Slum tenements become historic brownstones, and exterior facades are sandblasted to reveal a future past … If the past is not completely demolished, it is at least reinvented – its class contours rubbed smooth – in the refurbishment of a palatable heritage, oozing fake authenticity (smith 1992 p89-90)
This can be seen near the end of the process in Notting hill carnival which despite still having almost yearly altercations, is seen to bring in about 96 million pounds to the local economy. I also believe, that this process is in its earlier stages in Brixton, which had its own troubles in the 80’s and today is starting to become gentrified. Thus, the memory of these events fades and dies. However whilst I am all for healing, there is something insidious about it happening in this form. True healing comes, I propose, through public scrutiny, inquiry, and apology, also there needs to be a period of time, in a country where we still feel the emotional fallout of a war some 70 years ago. To force healing through market forces will not work.
I was rather startled to discover, from a young, London born and raised afro Caribbean woman during class, that at no point growing up in this city, had she heard anything of these events. They simply haven’t been taught. She does recall the Enfield riots of 2011. These riots could be said to have had a similar genesis. As gentrification swamps the inner city, poorer families are moved out; areas like Enfield and Edmonton become the new Notting hill. In 2008, we suffered the global crash (part of which is caused by artificially high house prices). This coupled with a lack of investment in housing and social housing stock being already over capacity. Young people were unable to find work (unemployment was at 8.8%) and cannot move away from their parents. This, leads to overcrowding and high anxiety. At the same time, in order to create sympathy for cutting the benefits, right wing media create programs such as ‘On Benefits and Proud’, and ‘benefit street’; causing a whole generation of young people to feel angry, oppressed and attacked daily. Beneath all of this, the racial tensions which have never healed bubble away, adding to the pressure, especially with the rise of UKIP, and general anti-Islamic/migrant feeling. (It’s important, I say, to note that both the 1958 riot and the 2011 riot were at a time when fringe far right groups were becoming extremely vocal.)
On the 4 August 2011 a young black man was shot dead by white police officers, immediately the media machine jumped into action painting the victim in the worst possible light. Tensions mount and explode. Then other segments of the community, particularly the young, ignite into acts of violence and looting. The link to commodity culture is easier to see as a large part of the violence is aimed at austerity by looting.
A city needs to heal from its political, social and cultural wounds and can do so successfully. This can be seen in many of the wounds London has suffered in 2000 years. However in the case of Notting hill particularly, the troubles were largely brought about by greed in the form of high rents and exploitation and somewhat ironically, the troubles are being rewritten by greed in the form of gentrification and artificially high housing costs.
The white-washing of out cultural history for short term financial motives will, I say, cause more of the same. Eventually, we will run out of places to gentrify, than those on whom the city relies on for its unskilled manual labor, to clean the streets, sell coffee, and keep it alive, will not be able to afford to commute and the city will collapse in upon itself.
Black Britain, 1990, London: BBC Pebble Mill.
Debord, G. (1983, ). Society of the Spectacle. Detroit, Michigan: Black & Red
Gotham, K. F. (2005). Theorizing Urban Spectacles. City, 9(2), 226–247
Morrison, 1964, jungle west 11, London: tantum books
Smith, Neil (1992) “New City, New Frontier: The Lower East Side As Wild, Wild West.” In
Michael Sorkin (ed.), Variations on a Theme Park. New York: Noonday Press.
Travis, Alan, 2002, London: The GUARDIAN,
Vague, Tom 2014, Getting it straight in Notting Hill Gate: A West London Psych geography Report, London: Bread and circuses.