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Campaigner Dr Lisa Mckenzie on Why Nottingham Needs to Stop the Gentrification of Sneinton Market

5 November 20 words: Dr Lisa Mckenzie
illustrations: Raphael Achache

Having spent six years fighting against gentrification in London, working class academic and Notts lass Dr Lisa Mckenzie returned to her native city to find the same happening here. With more development plans tabled for Sneinton Market, including the demolition and replacement of extensions to Gedling Street and Boston Street to create retail and commercial space, as well as more student flats, she explores the potential impact of gentrifying the area will have on the past, present and future of working class communities...

I have recently moved back to Nottingham after seven years away. Six of those were spent in London where I experienced the daily battle working class Londoners face to keep themselves and their families in the city that they work and live in – the place where they were born and bred. It’s the communities where their families and friends lived, and home to the stories and histories they grew up with, their culture and their memories. This daily struggle for working class life has been known over a generation now as gentrification, a term created and used by Ruth Glass, a German/British sociologist, to describe what she saw whilst living in Islington in North London during the sixties. Glass noted that the poorest communities (the working class) were being routinely moved out of their neighbourhoods and replaced by wealthier families. She argued that this was not a coincidence, but a process of ‘gentrification’ – with the gentry coveting and using their wealth, power and influence to ultimately get rid of people they didn’t want to live near. Their ultimate goal was to live in those areas themselves, or to ‘clean them up’ in order to secure a higher return for those involved in property speculation and development. Over her long career, Glass referred to the gentrification process as a form of Class War. 

My life in London as a sociologist became the life of an anti-gentrification campaigner. As a working class woman, I understand at a very deep level how important family, kinship and community are to working class people, and the devastation that is caused when the very essence of working class life is under threat. While living in Bethnal Green I saw how younger family members were forced out of East London by increasing property prices and rent costs, as the area became increasingly trendy and fashionable. Those with more money moved to the area, enticed by craft beer and expensive coffee venues where once there stood East End boozers and pie and mash shops. Those that were left behind were often the elderly, who became totally isolated. As those with wealth moved in, and property developers speculated millions of pounds on the area, the most vulnerable and poorest were also criminilised and brutalised, as those same speculators put pressure on local authorities to move homeless people and sex workers away, and close down ‘unsavoury working class pubs’ and cheap take-away restaurants that might attract young people. Young working class people are always seen as a problem in gentrified communities. I fought many battles in East London alongside working class Londoners trying to halt, or at least slow down, this process that sought to get rid of them.

During that time, I noticed that this process of gentrification was as much about getting rid of working class history as it was about getting rid of the working class themselves. It wasn’t enough to make the future ready for the new middle class residents, the past had to be made clean and tidy enough for them to stomach, too. I saw a Jobcentre in Deptford become a pub/restaurant serving an experience of what it’s like to look for work with a designer G&T, and a gentrified pub in Hackney refuse to let a young boy, who had been stabbed, on to their premises for fear of his blood staining the newly reclaimed parquet floor. Sadly, I have a hundred similar, and worse, stories of the many ways in which the gentrification process hurts working class communities. 

Walking through Sneinton, the gentrification process is easy to see. When I left you could buy a cheap carpet and a second-hand wardrobe and still have change from £20

In the week that I returned to my hometown of Nottingham, I heard that gentrification was rampant in our wonderful city, as councillors agreed to demolish another part of Sneinton Market to make way for more student flats. Walking through Sneinton, the gentrification process is easy to see. When I left you could buy a cheap carpet and a second-hand wardrobe and still have change from £20. Those units have gone now, and in their place stand some fancy coffee and plant shops, and the area looks a lot snazzier. However, I’m pleased to see that some of the more traditional cafes are still there, and remain busy serving all-day breakfasts for reasonable prices. The Murat Food Centre still provides a much better alternative to Tesco’s World Food aisle, but for how long? 

There are some welcome new additions to the area since I left – the skateboarders who give Sneinton Marketplace life after 5pm, and the community of Roma families chatting, laughing and watching their kids play in the square. For an area that once felt very unsafe for a woman walking home at night, the new lease of life in Sneinton Market is welcome. In these dark days, it’s a real lift to the spirits to be able to stroll around a space that is home to so much life and creativity. 

However, I have a warning. As both a city and a community we must not get carried away with the gloss and shine that property developers offer us. Their goal is not the same as ours. Having the choice of a posh cup of coffee, a craft beer or a £5 cupcake is nice, but it needs to be one option, not the only thing on offer. Having a space for 2000 cash-rich students should not mean that the services needed by our local communities in St. Ann’s and Sneinton, like a cheap, good breakfast in a cafe they can afford, or a supermarket that caters for the local global community, should be sacrificed. I have recently read that the mushy pea stall in Victoria Market has recently closed – surely space can be made for the dying indoor market in the vibrant Sneinton area? If you abandon the things that make Nottingham a distinct city known for its culture, pubs, history and the wit of its people, we’ll be left with another identikit area of mini supermarkets, chain coffee shops and ‘private property’ signs everywhere informing us that families, skateboarders, children and our local accent are not welcome. 

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