By Dominic Hinde
All images are by the author and dated Sept 29th 2015.
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Four years ago I bought a flat on Edinburgh’s Leith Walk with no insulation and a dodgy fuse board. This year I ripped out the fuse board, pulled apart the kitchen and starting painting. This simple act of looking after my own home is intensely political, and here is why.
I’ll say this straight up – I am complicit in a pattern of social cleansing that is as potentially destructive as the one that caused protestors to attack the infamous cereal café in London this week. What’s more, I am actively aware of this and know that just by being here and living my life I perpetuate it.
Unlike September’s new intake of renting students and young couples, I did not move to Leith Walk because it was cool. For at least the first three years I lived on the street people would refuse to come for nights out at the local bars. The street itself was nothing to shout about either, with a parade of weird and wonderful shops interspersed with pubs doing disco karaoke and blasting out dance hits at lunchtime. My girlfriend of the time looked on aghast when she went to the local ScotMid and could not find avacodos as readily as in her central Stockholm neighbourhood.
In the first six months that I lived in my flat I found people asleep in my stair on three occasions, two of which involved them taking heroin. I was witness to two assaults from my bedroom window and would often have to go down and bleach the floors by the door to get rid of the smell of stale urine. This kind of stairwell problem will be familiar to anyone who has lived in Edinburgh or Glasgow without a lot of money, often in sub-standard rented flats.
Four years on and the avacados are in ready supply. Outside my window there is now something approaching a cycle lane. One of the disco pubs has become a Tapas bar, and someone recently started a community food network.
There are two ways in which you improve an area like Leith Walk – you either socialise the housing so that the buildings are kept safe and help the people who live there, or you allow the area to gain the illusion of regeneration through its annexation by capital-poor but culturally rich people like me. We may not earn an awful lot, but we do not have the social problems and insecurity that the people who preceded us did. What’s more, in time our wages will likely increase slightly. If we have children they will raise the attainment levels of the local primary schools, we will paint our front doors and complain about pavement parking. In Edinburgh the council and the government have chosen to let the latter happen. After the catastrophe of its phantom tram and the collapse of the waterfront redevelopment–most of Leith docks are owned by a hedge fund paying no tax in Scotland–the gentrification of Leith Walk has been an entirely laissez faire process.
[The Council's own economic assessment of Leith revealed it lost 3500 jobs in five years. A new strategy for the area points to trams, creatives and tourism – predicting that the docks will remain, “an under-used investment-starved asset right at the heart of Leith.” see Greener Leith - Ed.]
One of my neighbours is a case in point. She is in late middle age and suffers from mental health issues, aggravated by alcohol dependency. When I first moved to Leith Walk she would sit in local bars chatting to people she knew, but now the bars either side and across the street from her are gone. It is quite likely that the rent squeeze will mean she too will soon be gone, though where to is anyone’s guess. Likewise, the chip shop across the way from me was an odd place, a relic of a different Scotland that sold cigarettes, birthday cards and tins of lager alongside its chips. Whenever I went in there a gaggle of kids were always about, a boy in his early teens hanging about outside smoking Silk Cut. The chip shop closed eight months after I arrived and was converted into a two-level garden flat. I still wonder what happened to the guy from behind the counter and his assortment of unsold greetings cards.
The people filling in the gaps in Leith Walk are both perpetrators and victims in this. Unable to buy elsewhere and tired of living in overpriced and poorly managed rented housing, the only avenue open to many people is to buy the cheapest possible flat and do it up. A lot of people do not want to be homeowners, but right now they have no other option. As the first generation who will be poorer than our parents, buying a portion of a crumbling tenement is also a sound investment in Britain’s bizarre property market, where you can earn more in a year on a home than you can in five through pay rises.
From this moral minefield emerges a question; can gentrification be good? Leith Walk has definitely become a nicer place to live for me these past few years. I can go out and eat a Portugese breakfast every morning if I want, or go to one of the newly opened restaurants serving Mexican, Italian and Polish food. I have more or less imported my friendship circle to the streets around me, and there is less visible crime. New galleries and performance spaces have opened up, and the supermarket now has a fresh pastry counter and sells BrewDog craft beer and twenty pound bottles of wine. For its longer term residents too, Leith is undeniably a nicer area.
For the moment Leith Walk still represents a mixed neighbourhood of old and new, and so far there has been nothing like the gentrification wars of London or New York. It has some way to go before it reaches the levels of cleansing in places like Glasgow’s Finnieston, and worse still Shoreditch, now little more than a working-class theme park for City traders munching on designer hamburgers. The danger is that the annexation of yet another inner suburb masks the real divisions in the Scottish capital that show no sign of disappearing.