Wednesday, 7 January 2009

How gentrification destroys the past

In some ways I have nothing against gentrification. I suppose you could have seen me as one of the gentrifiers of Stoke Newington when I moved in, during the 1990s - wealthy enough to buy a house and do it up, which I suppose counted as 'gentry'.

And I have nothing against regeneration, either. But when it's implemented in such a way that it resembles Stalin's forced migrations, rather than trying to improve the existing life of an area, I worry. I worry, for instance, that we're losing a lot of real history and local culture in the East End to the London Olympics - and that those things can never be replaced. The allotments, the mixed housing estates, the refuseniks of the old council flats, are never going to be renewed.

So I was sad to see what is happening to Sulukule, a district of Istanbul by the Theodosian walls. First of all, it's one of those rather downbeat areas where little wooden houses shelter under Byzantine ruins; part of the continuing history of Constantinople, Byzantium, Istanbul.

Secondly, it's where the Roma of Istanbul now live. (Apparently they've already been chased out of Beyoglu and Fener by high rents. Fener isn't exactly swish.) And they are being forcibly evicted, and sent to live in (expensive) flats 40 km out of the city. Presumbly with the rather cynical expectation that they won't be able to pay the rent.

We saw this kind of thing happening in the UK in the 1960s - the destruction of working class communities in favour of idealistic modern housing. Governments find their working class and Romany citizens embarrassing, and the places they live demeaning - so they want to build utopian projects. Not in order to help their citizens, but so the city looks modern. So it impresses the middle classes, the investors, and (perhaps) foreigners who will invest here.

It's sad. Sulukule isn't just any old community either - it's one of the world's oldest Romany communities, and it's the place where most of Istanbul's gypsy music scene happens.

Sign the petition for what it's worth. I was number 3026.

And on a slightly different subject, I was sad to see the demise of Woolworths in the UK. 'Woolies' didn't have a raison d'ĂȘtre any more, it's true - its variety store format was deeply outmoded. It sold CDs and pick'n'mix, and an assortment of other stuff that kept changing and never really included anything you needed.

But it was part of English life. And some of the stores were classics, Art Deco style 1930s buildings which were defiantly modernist in a still very Victorian-Edwardian style high street. There's one in Ilford that looks like something out of Flash Gordon.

I don't miss the smelly vinyl floor and flickering strip lighting of the most recent stores. But I wonder if somewhere, there isn't a Woolies that could be spot listed, or preserved as a sort of Museum-of-Woolies, so we don't entirely lose our heritage?

(Apropos of Woolies, why is it that every time I have a good idea for something to write about, Jonathan Glancey has it first. I'm getting quite fed up...)

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