There Goes The Neighbourhood


Charles Booth’s massive study on the London poor, created at the end of the 19th century, has been compared to present-day London in a new study. Booth had used school board visitors, who provided very detailed records of how families were living. The project was expected to last two years but took 20, and the results demonstrated that the scale of poverty was actually greater than anyone had imagined.

Booth categorised the population into seven classes, from “wealthy” (defined as those with at least three servants) to “vicious semi-criminals” at the bottom. The modified classifications are still in use today.

By matching Booth’s findings on the geography of poverty to recent records, the researchers were able to compare patterns of social deprivation and mortality. Guess what they found?

Nothing has changed.

Rich places have stayed rich, and poor places have stayed poor, although the overall standard of living has risen. And the longer people spend living in poor places, the sooner they die. So, as the City of London opens the doors to ‘One New Change’ today and boardrooms announce giant pay rises, the government slashes funding and prepares to shift low income families out of wealthy areas, and it all stays in balance.

The most remarkable thing is how a century of social policy has failed to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Most people spend as much as they can afford on the biggest house they can buy – but it has to be in the right location. For the same money, you can always get a bigger house in a cheaper location but that is not what most people choose.

The survey explains: Despite the attention given to gentrification, it actually has little impact on the social pattern of the city. Most places don’t gentrify, and simply stay the same. Even the Blitz failed to change the capital’s social structure. Blocks of flats were built to replace the houses that had been lost – and the same people were put in them.

I live in so-called ‘hot neighbourhood’ King’s Cross, but it’s changing only by building a completely new town on derelict land. So before you start taking out the walls of your home and waiting for organic markets to open in your neighbourhood, it’s worth remembering this sobering thought;

You don’t change London, London changes you.

5 comments on “There Goes The Neighbourhood”

  1. I don’t think London is alone in that regard. Here in Bordeaux, I keep hearing about a renewal of the Saint-Michel area, but every attempt to date has seemed to wilt and die. To take a striking example of it, there was a fascinating documentary made in France about the departement of Seine-Saint-Denis, in the north-east of Paris. Currently broadly caricatured as an area for disenfranchised populations and high crime rate, where even police don’t dare to go, it’s always been used as a wasteland where migrant workers were encamped, and minimal money spent on basic amenities, thus turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some architectural attempts to build modern projects in the 70’s ended up compounding the problem, since those brilliant architects just forgot to provide for shops and everyday life.

    Still, there are some examples where gentrification seem to have taken hold, though, especially in the States, where people colonised poor neighbourhoods like SoHo in New York and drove away the original poor inhabitants. What about Limehouse and the Docklands in London? I grant there are still run down areas left, yet overall the standard of living there seem to have gone up appreciably since good Dr Fu Manchu used to exercise his peculiar trade there.

  2. Martha says:

    Yah but, those of us lucky or perspicacious enough to live in or have lived in Kings Cross like it the way it is. God forbid (that) gentrification should take hold and work there.

  3. Rosemary says:

    I live in Covent Garden but I can`t afford to buy anything here, have never been for a meal here and go to Walworth or Kentish town to get my shopping. Having said that I can enjoy all the museums, art galleries and parks, street entertainers,and of course people watch for free. I see rich people get out of limos and step over a homeless person in a doorway. If my rent goes up I will be joining them! Still, life`s rich tapestry and all that, London is still the best place to live in all the world just for the variety.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    How much concern is there over that homeless person in the doorway? I understand that American development projects are required to include subsidized housing as part of their permit to build. We ask them to support low cost housing somewhere in the municipality, which isn’t the same thing at all. I don’t like gentrification which is only about people who could afford to live anywhere. Kings Cross is a fascinating place, but surely there are parts of it that could do with some maintenance work? And yes, I know that there have been people sleeping in London doorways as long as there has been a London, but I remember the eye contact I made with a man in a sleeping bag just outside a Vancouver theatre. I felt I was apologizing for walking through his bedroom and he was almost laughing. He needed more than tacit permission to sleep among those bushes.

  5. Rosemary says:

    One of the most poignant sights I have seen recently were of a young couple in a doorway off Fleet street. There was a full moon,they were lying face to face talking quietly, he was stroking her hair, an old radio was on softly and a dog was curled up on their legs. I felt such an intruder and it deeply moved me. During the day the same street was full of `suits`, full of self importance and talking too loudly about their business deals. I know who I`d rather spend time with.

Comments are closed.