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Arts feature

The moral case for gentrification

Gentrification is not a recipe for twee middle-class accessorising; it’s about bringing dead cities - like Detroit and Stoke - back to life

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

In its pomp, they used to say that what was good for General Motors, Detroit’s Medici, was good for America. Detroit was imperial. Like Rome, it stood for the whole. Michigan Avenue was like something from a Roman urbs: a decumanus maximus of this planned city that created and was enriched by the automobile. Then, like all empires, it began to collapse.

By the time of my first visit 30 years ago, there were already clusters of youths on street corners picking their teeth with switchblades. All the signs of decay were present: boarded-up shops and discount stores. The Renaissance Center, a mirror-glass tubular tower whose form suggested a car’s cylinder, had just been built as a rearguard gesture. Its name mocked the encroaching reality.

Soon, Detroit was derelict and tumbleweed was blowing down its desolated avenues. The bankruptcy of General Motors confirmed its decline. Ironically, it had offices in the Renaissance Center. There was white flight and a poisonous cocktail of disinvestment and deindustrialisation. The city could not pay for itself and its services. Large tracts of its land were abandoned and handed back to nature. The population fell. It was sub-prime central.

History has seen cities wiped out by plague and volcanoes, but none which has gone into terminal and apparently irrecoverable economic decline. The industrial city is a defining phenomenon of our culture and now, it seemed, no one had any more use for one of the greatest. It had been an untested assumption that our cities would continue to grow and prosper. Perhaps they do not. But what do you do with a dead city? No one seemed to know. Detroit did not even have the energy to consider ‘managed decline’, the cant term for urban defeatism.

Property prices entered the territory between comedy and tragedy. You could buy an entire house for $10,000. And then something rather marvellous happened. With property now accessible to artists and entrepreneurs who had hitherto experienced practical difficulty in embracing capitalism, life and business returned. The availability of cheap property has always been a stimulus to enterprise and Detroit began a faltering revival. True, it cannot be confused with the arrogant riches of Palo Alto, but it’s a model for urban regeneration. This is exactly as Jane Jacobs predicted in her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. You couldn’t call Detroit genteel, but it may soon appreciate the benefits of gentrification.

We have our own Detroits. In fact, we have hundreds of them in what we have been told to call the Northern Powerhouse, a name that might just have some of the hubris of Renaissance Center. With London developing a supranational city-state identity transcending political control, the future’s up north. Most Northern Powerhouse rhetoric has concentrated on Manchester, but this is misleading, as Manchester does not have much of a problem. Since Marx met Engels and Rolls met Royce, it has been a powerful nexus of politics and money. Today Manchester is well managed and prosperous.


The problem in realising the Northern Powerhouse vision lies in the many secondary cities that do not enjoy Manchester’s advantages of being an educational, media, sport and financial centre. Stoke-on-Trent would be an example. And a depressing one, too, since Stoke was the home of Josiah Wedgwood, a designer-maker of unusual enterprise and originality. ‘Wedgwood’ became perhaps the very first modern branded product and one of the best messengers of the Industrial Revolution and the prosperity it created.

All the rhetoric about the Northern Powerhouse has concentrated on tech hubs, political devolution and high-speed trains. Perhaps a little more of the debate should concern architecture. It is notable what great buildings once did for the north of England. Manchester’s mills inspired the visiting German neoclassical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who fed his vision directly into what became the Modern Movement. Liverpool became known as the ‘New York of Europe’ and Peter Ellis’s Oriel Chambers on Water Street established the building technology that made American skyscrapers possible. Great architecture always stimulates. In our own era, Bilbao, a Basque Detroit, has benefited magnificently from an inspired new Guggenheim Museum. Not everyone admires Frank Gehry as an architect, but there is no gainsaying what his architecture has achieved for a blighted and disenchanted city.

But besides statement architecture there are other more interesting prospects for urban futures beyond London. Why not see the Northern Powerhouse as an enormous gentrification project? One reason is that people are squeamish about gentrification. But why?

Gentrification is about middle-class migration and resettlement. As our predecessors left the Rift Valley in search of new horizons, we entered Brixton and the Meatpacking District. As London becomes a two-class city comprised of either the annoyingly rich or the wretchedly dispossessed, there is ample scope for migration to and resettlement in the north. Already, back-office staff from insurance, banking and law firms are being moved out of London to work in less expensive commercial space. So where are they going to live? Stoke’s terraces may yet see a splash of Farrow & Ball, Ocado deliveries, lead planters with box trees and a higher Audi count.

The enemies of gentrification fall very clearly on one side of the Great Divide in political thought. The term was coined by the sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964 in a study of Islington’s new ‘upper-class ghettoes’, which the Marxist Glass evidently found less worthy than the lower-class ghettoes they replaced. The very term is rank with class-based loathing since it evokes the lassitude and privileges of an imagined older gentry.

Yet the arguments for gentrification are strong. It’s a process that enhances derelict properties, creating wealth the while. It’s a free-market proof that cities are living organisms that can evolve positively rather than deteriorate negatively. And let’s not be squeamish ourselves: let’s admit that gentrification, for its beneficiaries, is nice evidence of social promotion. The arguments against are strong too, although mostly expressed in the quaint neocolonial language of sequestration and the exercise of economic privilege to the disadvantage of the poor.

Marx wanted everyone to travel first class. This would, architecturally speaking, mean the gentrification of all the country’s secondary cities, a project as pleasing as it is unlikely. But if that’s not to be contemplated, the alternatives are to accept the inevitability of decline. We can hand ruined and moribund cities back to nature; reforest Victorian Nottingham.

The gentrifying alchemy also works on unloved Modernist mega-buildings, of which we have an ample national stock. Sheffield’s Park Hill was transformed by the developer Urban Splash, and Erno Goldfinger’s NHS kremlin at Elephant and Castle is now smartly residential. Meanwhile, Peter and Alison Smithson’s spectacularly rebarbative Robin Hood Gardens estate will, perhaps, be saved by fashionable youth even as the original tenants disdain it. The same process occurred at the Cité Radieuse in Marseille, where Le Corbusier’s workers’ utopia did not have much appeal for those workers, but now that it has been repopulated by doctors, therapists, designers and, indeed, our own Jonathan Meades, it works very well indeed. The unspeakable question in the foundations of this debate is: does the sty make the pigs or do the pigs make the sty?

Of course, it’s not impossible to take delight in the contemplation of ruins. The historian Macaulay imagined a New Zealander visiting a future London and contemplating the wreck of St Paul’s from a crumbling London Bridge. Gustave Doré depicted the scene and made it look like a nasty version of Hell. And in 1953, Macaulay’s descendent, Rose, wrote a fine book called The Pleasure of Ruins which explained the beauty of desolation. There is beauty in calamity, but it’s an inhumane indulgence to advocate it. Besides, Leicester’s desolation has human consequences that the rubble of the Roman Forum did not.

Gentrification is a state of mind, not a recipe for twee middle-class accessorising. The facts of Audi and Ocado and posh paint and planters are trivial. Gentrification is about returning cities from the dead. So it’s a vital obligation. It happened in Detroit. It can happen here, but only if there is a solid architectural vision for the Northern Powerhouse to match the frankly nebulous political one. Jerusalem? Thy name is Stoke-on-Trent.


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