How London Became a Playground for the Rich

By Henry Wismayer

When I think about that morning last summer, when London awoke to television images of a West Kensington tower-block engulfed in flames, there’s one interview I can’t get out of my mind. A young man told the BBC that the fire felt like a predictable moment: the culmination of years of being made to feel like the city wanted them gone.

“[They] put them shoddy plastic things on there that set alight because they want more reasons to knock these blocks down… I’m not even so sure that was totally an accident,” he raged, as if some cabal of corrupt councillors and property developers had thrown a lit rag through the letter box.

It was a crazy notion, issued in the heat of fury and grief. However, in the days that followed, as we began to learn about the truth of the fire last June — about the inferno that fed on cheap flammable cladding and about the confluence of municipal neglect, outsourcing, and value-engineering that permitted 72 people to die in their homes — it was easy to feel sympathy for the man’s sense of victimhood. For the outside world, the Grenfell Tower fire was a horrifying tragedy and a blight on the conscience of those who let it happen. But for many Londoners, it exposed something rotten in the marrow of London itself. For us, the fire was an instant and terrible symbol of a city in a tight spiral of dysfunction, where the ideas that once sustained it are breaking down beyond repair.

It is no longer possible for a lifelong London resident like me to pretend that the city is a united, happy, and enviable place.

In the 18 months since disaster befell the Lancaster West Estate, the condition of the British capital has seldom been out of the national conversation. As with most topics of commentary in deeply divided post-Brexit Britain, London tends to be presented in binary terms — either paradise or hellhole, depending on your point of view. To idealistic liberals, it remains a cradle of tolerant coexistence, the place where multiculturalism works. The rainbow city that would have given Donald Trump hell had he dared to show his face here. To hysterical conservatives, by contrast, the city is “Londonistan” with a Muslim mayor, benighted by terror-attacks, no-go zones, and spiralling crime. In April, when the press marked 50 years since the Tory firebrand Enoch Powell made his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech on the apocalyptic dangers of multiculturalism, there were many who pointed to this year’s escalating murder-rate as evidence of Powell’s prophecy come to pass.

The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. London is not a Powellian Gomorrah. But it is no longer possible for a lifelong London resident like me to pretend that the city is a united, happy, and enviable place, either. The questions that surfaced in the aftermath of Grenfell haven’t gone away: Why did this tragedy hold such terrible resonance? Why, for millions of us, did anger about the circumstances surrounding the fire transcend its immediate context, feeding a growing sense that London no longer functions for the good of the people who live here due to forces far beyond its citizens’ ken and control?

The young man’s rage was for the victims still burning behind him, but it was a rage of which many of us shared a fragment.

For decades, London’s rare achievement was its mixed-income communities. These came into being thanks to a post-war history of town planning, which set out to ensure that no area of affluence could become an island, aloof from the hoi polloi. Some of the resulting mix was deliberately engineered, and some of it was accidental. In recent years, however, it has been plain to see that this covenant — which envisioned people of different means and walks of life living in the same communities as neighbors — has started to crumble.

In my other life, I do occasional work as a landscape gardener, tending the lawns and flower beds of south London’s more affluent inner suburbs. Last month, a neighbor wandered up to me to bitch about the homogenization of her neighborhood. Next door to where I was working, a newcomer to the street had commissioned an overhaul of their recently acquired semi, and the excavation conveyors were churning all day long, puking up London clay to make space for a new basement. “When we moved here 40 years ago, I was a junior legal researcher, my husband was an assistant lecturer,” the neighbour said, over the din of the machinery. “This road was all teachers and police officers. Public servants. Now it’s just bankers, bankers, bankers. What the hell’s happened?”

Ask any cynical long-term Londoner, and they’ll likely offer up any number of answers to this question. The erosion of London’s social-housing stock, which once inoculated the city against the creation of rich and poor ghettoes, is certainly one. The increasingly globe-trotting tendencies of the super-rich is another. Disproportionate city incomes have furnished a portion of residents with the financial leverage to re-fashion an area overnight if a neighbourhood happens to become popular with a certain well-monied milieu. Meanwhile, the suburban dream, which only 20 years ago still lured people out of the inner city, has long since expired.

Together, these processes have combined with London’s chronic housing shortage to transform vast swathes of the inner city over the past decade. To walk through certain parts of London today is to enter an eerie dystopia of late capitalism run amok. All over town, from Battersea to Stratford, vast welters of towers are in the throes of construction, invariably encircled by billboards depicting attractive white people at rest and play. But longtime Londoners know from experience that these towers are not really homes to be lived in but bricks-and-mortar commodities, investment opportunities that until recently were seen as safer than any government bond. If you ever find yourself walking through developments that have been recently finished and sold, you’ll discover street-level plazas devoid of people or even much evidence that many people are ever here. Meanwhile, in the golden postcodes of Westminster, Chelsea, and Kensington, the streets of old money have become a magnet for global capital of dubious origins. A government report published in May said the city was awash with “dirty money.”

In her 2017 book Big Capital, Anna Minton described this scramble for prime London real estate as the catalyst of a “domino effect,” whose effects ripple outwards across the capital and beyond.

“The super-prime market displaces established communities to new areas, driving up property and rental prices elsewhere,” she writes. “And as current policies are geared to attracting foreign investment and building luxurious apartments rather than affordable homes, there is nothing to act as a counterweight.”

When a city changes this fast and on such an inhuman scale, it is impossible to live here without feeling unmoored.

The sense of apartness precipitated by these developments is in large part architectural. London used to be a low-slung city, but many of these luxury towers are vertiginous and imposing, dwarfing the besieged remnants of what came before. But arguably more significant than this aesthetic discordance is the social upheaval it augurs. As more and more towers have gone up, so too have socio-demographic lines that once felt blurred become abrupt and partite, as the runaway cost of housing manoeuvres people into economic enclaves, and poverty is pushed outwards into peripheries and ghettoes of disadvantage. Traditional places of commonality, where shoulders rubbed, have been replaced by pockets of consumption. High-streets that once displayed a multifarious range of shopfronts and establishments have evolved to reflect more stratified times: the poorer areas with their betting shops and pawnsters, the wealthier ones lined with estate agents, restaurants, and prim cafes. Our civic spaces and landmarks have been commodified as cash-strapped councils look to make up budget shortfalls by monetizing their assets or repurposing public libraries into private gyms. Boundaries, both physical and social, have started to rise across the city.

Now, the streets feel more fractious as established communities dissipate. People in their 30s, unable to afford the cost of raising a family here, are starting to leave in droves. And we who remain are left with a curious sense that we are an inconvenient vestige of a city that no longer exists, like obdurate stone buildings amidst gleaming pavilions of glass and steel.

Today’s London remains successful in many ways: as a summer playground for the super-rich; as a giant laundromat for the global kleptocracy; as an iconographic background for tourist photos and the glossy pages of a Hong Kong realtor’s brochure. But as a constellation of neighborhoods? No longer. Certainly not so much as before. Quickly — almost too quickly to track — London’s covenant is coming undone.

The trauma this has imposed in the places where the last dominoes tumble is all too easy to ignore. The most obvious victims of rising housing costs and hollowed-out communities — the minimum-wage workers trundling in from distant outskirts to service the offices, the growing number of homeless in doorways, the social-housing tenants relocated into cramped temporary accommodation when the bulldozers move in — remain largely voiceless. Their abasement, like so much of that which afflicts the London underclass, is hidden away in the backwaters, in food banks concealed behind council estates or displaced out of town.

But to focus exclusively on these ostensive miseries is to miss a wider, more inchoate, malaise — a sense of a city adrift, changing in ways its residents don’t condone and feel powerless to prevent.

We have become a paradox: the progressive city nostalgic for the past.

This more universal condition can be best described not as displacement but dislocation. It’s the feeling of being abruptly estranged, be it emotionally or physically, from your existing state or place. Cities are always transitory, prone to endless flux, but when a city changes this fast and on such an inhuman scale, it is impossible to live here without feeling unmoored.

Yet for all that the anger that this transformation of London has surely engendered, protest remains in short supply. For the majority, it seems, vast, anonymous cities can seem governed by an irresistible determinism, as though their evolution were ordained by Newtonian law. This sense of fatalism does not tend to energize vigorous resistance. In addition, so much of our yearning for the London we’ve lost seems ostensibly counterintuitive. The city I grew up in was hardly an urban paradise. Many of my most vivid memories are recalled with a maternal hand at my back, ushering me past scenes of a recessional metropolis, rendered in grey. London then was a place where cardboard shanties still proliferated beneath the Southbank undercrofts, and grifters peddled ersatz perfume from splayed suitcases in the West End. The air was tubercular, the Thames flowed an effluent brown, and every road seemed strewn with litter, chewing-gum, and dog shit in varying stages of putrefaction. But still I yearn for that time before the city was cleaned-up and prettified, before the pigeon-feed sellers had been turfed from Trafalgar Square. The other day I saw a car with a bumper sticker that read “Make Peckham Shit Again,” and I couldn’t help but smile. We have become a paradox: the progressive city nostalgic for the past.

Meanwhile, apologists for the turbo-charged gentrification of inner London exonerate its degradations with mealy mouthed bromides about “market forces” — just another ineluctable reality of late capitalism, like sweatshop labour and high-street homogenisation. Things we grumble about on social media but, for the most part, can’t bring ourselves to protest over because to protest would be like screaming at the tide. Our sense of disquiet at the changing cityscape fades imperceptibly into London’s background ennui, lumped in with tube strikes and traffic jams and all the other unavoidable exigencies of urban life.

However, when you consider that millions of Londoners have profited from those “market forces,” what is happening in London start to feel less like a cosmic inevitability and more like a deliberate and concerted human effort. As the tsunami of foreign property investment has increased demand for a stagnating supply, those of us who own homes have seen their value rocket. In recent decades, owning a London home has become the U.K.’s easiest path to fast cash. This is London’s guilty secret: that so many of us have suckled on this indemnity that we cannot admit its inherent madness, that it is a time-bomb that must explode, taking with it a million shattered dreams.

The 2016 Brexit vote has exposed the intractability of these hypocrisies, as the predominantly left-leaning city finds itself in a Faustian pact, at once lamenting the financial sector’s malign influence but terrified at the implications of its potential evacuation. As Britain’s appeal to investors continues to be undermined by a lack of post-Brexit certainty, recent reports indicate that luxury properties are struggling to sell. Suddenly, an economy predicated on casino banking and rentier capitalism feels frail and dysfunctional, one fiscal paroxysm from catastrophe.

“It is strange, the bustle,” wrote Sarah Lyall in a New York Times article on post-Brexit London last April. “Construction crews are still putting up buildings, monuments to London’s future, as if nothing has changed. But you can hear faint footsteps, too. Banks, investment firms and other companies are making contingency plans to move elsewhere, if necessary. What then?”

Against the backdrop of atomisation and uncertainty, it’s perhaps little wonder that these anxieties have begun to manifest in the city’s darkening mood. Londoners used to laugh about the inaccuracy of our irascible reputation — of London as a snarky town where dour commuters wouldn’t stop to help a lost tourist. This wasn’t true, not really. But now the streets feel angrier, more riven. A city of blithe coexistence has become a city of sneers.

Are we really surprised? Looking on, as your home gets taken away from you by forces you don’t really understand and that you feel powerless to resist, there is a point at which dislocation transmutes into nihilism and rage. Suddenly, each new skyscraper feels like an act of violence; each house renovation in the stomping-grounds of our youth becomes a desecration. Wealthy newcomers appear not as new neighbors, but as colonizers; hipster beards and vintage shops become hallmarks of an enemy within. Each appropriative bar or café, simulacrums of the melting pots they supplanted, becomes a reminder that London’s hallowed diversity, to many of the city’s residents, is merely ornamental — a desirable backdrop so long as it doesn’t press too close.

Often, when I feel this resentment brewing, I remind myself that I am getting older, and that chagrin over rapid change is perhaps as much a product of sentimentalism as it is legitimate dismay at social dysfunction. Until an inferno in a north London tower-block shakes you from the stupor, reminding you that the cost, for some, is all too real.

On the road in south London where I grew up, from the top of its steepening hill, you can see one of the broadest views of the British capital for miles around. On clear days, it presents a crenelated horizon of the whole city: from Wembley’s arch in the far northwest, past the stretched pyramid of The Shard and the jumbled towers of the Square Mile, to the more angular ones of Canary Wharf, looming over the estuarial Thames.

London looks extraordinary from up here, immortal in its way, a proving-ground for the western dream of unending growth. Every time I look at the view from the upstairs window of my mum’s hillside house, I spot some unforeseen concrete core, the spinal column of a future tower, inching into the horizon.

Yet this scene that once evoked wonder now elicits nothing so much as bitterness and foreboding about the future. If I pick up some binoculars, I can see Grenfell Tower far to the north: that burnt-out sepulchre where so many died in their homes, gasping for air. And when people ask me why their pyre became such an emblem of modern London, I just say, “Look around.”

We live in a place that knows only the price of bricks and has forgotten the people who give them value.

This fucking city has betrayed us all.