Gentrifying Partick: Looking back and facing the new frontier

By Kirsteen Paton

Courtesy of Stuart Wood 1500 Photography
Photo courtesy of Stuart Wood 1500 Photography.

Returning to Partick to have a launch event for ‘Gentrification: a working-class perspective’ offered an opportunity for reflection and celebration. I’ve since moved Leeds but I grew up in a shipbuilding town on the Clydeside and have a deep affinity with Partick. Going there is going home. The research began in 2006 under different political and economic conditions from today so there’s plenty to reflect on. First, much has changed in the neighbourhood fabric of Partick and yet much has not. There are signs of transformation such as new shops and private housing which sit awkwardly alongside signs of disinvestment but in all not much more than you would expect from the passing of 8 years. Similar to Partick’s weathering of slum clearance policies and demolitions in the 60s, it remains, for the most part, in tact. This speaks to the ineffectiveness of using market processes to deliver regeneration – they stall in a financial crisis and I will return to this point later. But much has changed in relation to gentrification which has evolved from being a fringe neighbourhood process. It is fully institutionalised as policy: it is pervasive and everyday. Yet we actually know little about what it is like to live with gentrification at the everyday level. In studies of gentrification, working-class experiences are either absent or they are assumed to be victims, displaced from their neighbourhood. In the book I offer the stories I gathered from 49 residents of Partick, locational narratives, if you will, of living in, or trying to live, in Partick. In this piece, some of those stories will do the talking. And herein lies the celebration. Contained within the stories of struggle and resistance is a celebration of working-class lives. I also call upon these stories here to encourage our attentiveness. Through them we can recognise the complex evolving structures of capitalism and the new frontier of gentrification.

The Harbour development was my initial point of interest. It instigated this research: how would these new luxury flats and the incoming march of the well-heeled effect residents in Partick? I was working with WestGAP who were supporting local families and individuals who were experiencing poverty, experiences often invisible within this socially diverse neighbourhood. Our concern was that this form of regeneration would add additional pressure, threatening much needed local resources and displacement as house prices and demand rose in Partick. While that was happening on the local, internal neighbourhood level, on another the Harbour development was being was touted by Glasgow City Council as a redemptive regeneration project to transform the Clydeside. This area bore the scars of deindustrialisation with the closure of the shipyards, the Meadowside Granary and various related industries.  It is important to remember the era – this is under a New Labour government so things can only get better, right? These were time of aspiration and modernisation. The development would revitalise, bring investment, create jobs and this prosperity would, of course, ‘trickle down’ to nearby residents. The Council proclaimed that the Harbour project would deliver change on the Clydeside on a scale not seen since the industrial revolution. This was not merely marketing hyperbole; it is a part truth. The project was transformative but not in relation to the regeneration goals it was seeking to achieve.

To explain this, it is fitting that the book launch took place in The Sparkle Horse pub, formerly The Dowanhill, where I’d carried out interviews with some residents. I interviewed Steve [1] there. He was 38 and had been unemployed for a few years, drifting in and out of casual labour that he picked up from people he met at this local. Steve’s account of his life was a testimony to the ravages of deindustrialisation and neoliberalism which marginalised young men with a generational industrial working-class history.  Steve said he took the ‘easy route out’ yet it was far from it. This began with a YTS placement in cabinet making when he left school in the 1980s but things took a downward spiral:

Steve: Aye, for a young boy it was alright, you know, earning decent money. There was no apprenticeships, Mrs Thatcher scrubbed all that. So I just got sick of the crap wages after a while when I should have been getting higher rate. Out of my pals, only one got an apprenticeship in the shipyards in Govan:  proper training. None of us got anything, any training like that so it was just labouring jobs.

Steve said he took it badly when his boss as a YTS cabinetmaker refused to send him to college:

It was a classy job, making classy furniture. [when he did not get the opportunity to go to college] I just hit the ground and hit drugs. I said this job didn’t matter but it did matter, obviously.

I ask him about class and if it was something he identified with:

Steve: No, not anymore. Used to say working-class but now I say socialist.

Kirsteen: Why?

Steve: Because there’s no such thing as working-class anymore now is there? The jobs aren’t there anymore.

For Steve, since traditional industrial working-class occupations no longer exist, neither does working-class identity. So what does ‘working class’ look like? I realised then this was a critical part of the story and not just in Partick but my own town and echoed around post-industrial neighbourhoods across the UK. Understanding the meaning and effects of urban restructuring meant understanding the correlated processes of class restructuring: how urban restructuring restructures class. Steve’s story reveals that there was much more going on than the immediate effects created by the Harbour development. The Harbour development was symptomatic of urban restructuring and ergo economic, cultural and social restructuring and therefore the restructuring of everyday working-class lives.

Photo courtesy of Tom Brogan.
Photo courtesy of Tom Brogan.

All too often with gentrification, commentators focus on the manifestations: the new bars; cafes; farmer’s markets, as the problem. This distracts us from the real structural source. This diverted view is a classed one whereby the new additions to the neighbourhood are seen as culturally middle class and positive as opposed to the old, traditional, tired, cheap, working-class spaces. This notion of difference in culture and values, strongly evoked in regeneration projects, suggests working-class culture is deficient and requires redemption. It seems that gentrification is less about displacement of the working-class as it is about gentrifying the working class in terms of culture, values and behaviours associated with industrialism such as support for social housing and welfare. They are encouraged, instead, to aspire to more, to be homeowners and consumer citizens. Yet it was clear that people in Partick wanted regeneration. They hankered for new shops, bars and services in the neighbourhood. The differences between the working-class and middle-class resident was economic. The working-class are distinguished by not being able to afford to enjoy the trappings of ‘renewal’. And this is something that area-based regeneration does precious little to help. There were no tangible improvements in the local labour market, therefore none for Steve’s life chances and the many others like him.

Sylvie’s story offers further elucidation. She was 19, studying design at college and looking to start an interior design business. She was living with her gran in a socially rented house in Partick. The second generation of industrial workers, Sylvie grew-up in public housing and wanted to stay in the area and was registered with Partick Housing Association for her own socially rented flat. When I met her she was sitting in the sunshine at a table outside one of the new bars in the neighbourhood, sunglasses on, drinking a glass of white wine. Sylvie chose the place because she liked it; I arranged interviews in locations like The Dowanhill. Sylvie rejected it in favour of our more stylish location. We chatted about her life, family, plans and dreams. When I mentioned that I’d seen inside the Harbour flats, she asked me to describe what they are like in detail. She then asked how much a flat would cost to rent which, at the lowest end, was £700 per month for a two bedroom unit. Sylvie contemplates this as I do: as a flatshare this is not entirely unattainable. She declared that she wants to live there and piped:

Not all the way up, maybe half way, with a wee balcony. Maybe the penthouse though!

We can see just how complicated this is. The Harbour development is part of the wider privatisation of housing. It represents a sleight of hand whereby Sylvie, raised in social housing and facing limited housing choices, is a potential future Harbour resident. These apparent beacons of modernity are the prospective high rises of the future. Only this time round, the landlords are private owners, not the local authority. But most of all, I tell this story as it illustrates this much overlooked point: these processes are negotiated by the post-industrial working class. Sylvie didn’t oppose this development nor was she displaced by it; she enjoyed the trappings it brought. The working class are encouraged to participate in gentrification, invited to take part, to be homeowners or private renters: better consumers. It is indicative of the New Labour ideal which is a recasting and extension of Thatcher’s Right to Buy project. But the problem is, they can’t afford to do so. That is why this is a ‘revolutionary’ scale of transformation and not simply hyperbole. The effects of gentrification run deeper than displacement of residents. Working-class residents are not simply victims of gentrification via displacement. Urban restructuring, which gentrification is a mediator of, is concerned with changing lives in post-industrial cities yet people can at times negotiate this on their own terms. The working-class have a paradoxical relationship with gentrification; invited to participate yet are not provided with the means to consume through job opportunities and improved economic conditions.

Let’s jump to 2013. I was back in Partick, stalking the streets looking for a cover image for the book. I noticed that many of those teashops, cafes and art spaces which had sprung up during my research period were gone. Gentrification in the neighbourhood had stalled following the financial crisis and recession. This exposes the very effectiveness of economic ‘trickle-down’ logic as a bogus mode of providing regeneration. How can such regeneration be delivered by capital when capital is not flowing? The advantage of time also lets us observe the use of gentrification in different economic and political conditions. With a Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government at helm, navigating these post-crash times through punitive austerity measures, we’ve seen public spending slashed and rising welfare conditionality. Glasgow’s hosting of the 2014 Commonwealth Games exposes the punitive evolution of gentrification. It was achieved here less through cultivating the aspiration of residents and more through their denigration. Rather than encouraging participation or consent, families and individuals living in Dalmarnock, where much of the Games development occurred, were displaced when land value was more important than having better consumers. Making better consumers from the residents of Glasgow’s poorest neighbourhood would be folly. The land holds more value, local residents devalue it and find themselves further devalued in the pursuit this value.  With the Games we see the new frontier of gentrification as it advances further than it did under New Labour. It attacks the poorest and yet asks them to be grateful for receiving this regeneration. And in today’s political climate, things can only get worse, not better.

Evictions are at record rates, homelessness is rising, housing benefits have been cut and it is forecast that private landlords will own £15 billion of property in 2015. The frontier in gentrification is now the full-scale commodification of housing. While I say frontier, it is clearly backwards, Dickensian even, as we are returned to the days of private landlordism. This is not a choice, as Sylvie sees it: it’s a sleight of hand and it’s a trap. The E15 Focus protests and New Era estate women in London fighting to keep their homes at affordable rent mirrors the protests of the women rent strikers in Partick at the start of the 20th century. This time around it isn’t local unscrupulous landlords exploiting women, it is global speculative capital and transnational landlords. We are alerted to the fact that global financial architecture profoundly affects local lives. Gross housing inequality is ravaging the UK. Through collective action, connecting these campaigns, we can work towards legislative change to safeguard housing. This also requires a cultural change, an undoing of the hegemonic project of homeownership which will include the decommodification of housing, a rejection of the normalisation of debt and a revalorisation of social housing and its tenants. The quicker we recognise that, the better placed we are challenge it. And this begins with hearing these stories.

[1] All names have been changed to pseudonyms.

Dr Kirsteen Paton – a former PhD student at Glasgow University – is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Leeds. She is especially interested in urban sociology. Kirsteen’s book ‘Gentrification: A Working-Class Perspective’, in which she re-examines the enduring relationship between class and the urban, came out in 2014.