I live in a part of London where the average house price increased from £356k to £502k in just two years. The busy but previously neglected zone 2 enclave of Peckham is having its moment. Whether that moment is one of progress or destruction depends on your perspective.
Hailed by publications as remote as American Vogue as a “cultural epicentre” after years of association with “Only Fools and Horses and gang-led crime” (lovely), media interest in Peckham is one dimensional: hot new artists, hot new pop-ups, hot property (prices). Walk down the main roads, however, and you’ll see mostly fast food, butcher-phone-repair-hair-salon hybrids, tiny specialist stores selling fabrics, end of lines, and music catering to an ethnically diverse population. For the majority of the community who have made their lives there in the last few decades, the spotlight has made little difference. So far. Plans of the local council and opportunistic property developers will change that, just as the arrival of enthusiastic young entrepreneurs and arty folk unwittingly laid the groundwork.
Local businesses that opened to serve local communities before the boom feel their time is limited. Shiny estate agents and hotel chains are springing up despite objections, pushing up already rocketing prices beyond the reach of most existing residents. Nestled in the middle of this is hipster culture. Wander off the main roads and find an ecosystem of tattooed barbers, cafes with reclaimed church pews, vintage shops, and foodie pop ups serving duck confit and lobster rolls, run mostly by middle-class in-comers who can afford to experiment with their dreams and can, if they choose, exist in a bubble catering only to people like themselves. There are so many new pizza places even Time Out is confused. As one food blogger advised visitors: “Pass the Afro-Caribbean hair salons and fish stalls and turn in to the haven…”
So if you live in an area like this and are Christian, with presumably an interest in your neighbours – or even a God-ordained call to reside there – how do you start to understand it, and can or should you do anything? A few thoughts and questions…
Self-awareness helps. In all areas of life, but particularly where your presence can further shift an area’s demographic. What cultural baggage do you bring? Who are you displacing? If you believe the area has problems, are you the answer you think you are? If you’re living in an area with known deprivation, will you identify with those struggling or those seeking to capitalise on years of under-investment? Be honest about your own self-image. Do you see yourself as cooler, more authentic, a solution, a blessing to others? Do they see you the same way?
Understand the bigger picture. Look outwards. Are your perceptions of problems correct? What is the history of the area? What are you propagating by being there? Will you respect and be open to other cultures? Finish the sentence: “It will be better around here when…” and forensically deconstruct your response. Pause and widen your perspective before you do anything.
Don’t remake a place in your own image. Who is likely to welcome your presence? People who look like you and share your interests? Do you visualise changing an area, cleaning it up, improving it? Whose standards are you judging that by? Are you prepared to lay down your own ideas and expectations of how a place should look? If you’re part of a church, does everyone there look and sound like you – or will when things really get started – and if so why is that? Whose needs are you meeting? Who are you prepared to dismiss or overlook?
Do a spiritual check. If you have conflated your faith with anything external – a subculture, a particular mission – what are the effects? If you’re bought into ‘hipster Christianity’ (which is a thing), what might be the pitfalls when played out amongst real people’s lives? Are you at risk of spiritualising what could be cultural colonisation? Even well-intentioned acts can cause damage if we’re unaware of our own privilege, and what we might call ‘justice’ may reinforce the powerlessness or disadvantage of others.
Invest in what matters to people already there. Even if you plan to be a temporary resident, if you call a place home don’t just take from it. Think about where you spend your time and money. What do your local schools need? Do local groups need volunteers? Are local projects desperately in need of funds? Have you heard the phrase: ‘no greater love hath a man than he lay down his own edgily-branded project for the sake of the existing community’? Have you talked to your neighbours yet?
Don’t add to the negativity. It’s possible to be clear-eyed about an area’s challenges without only seeing problems, and your presence as part of the solution, especially when talking to your peers. Challenge your own stereotypes, and be open minded. Don’t assume what gets a bad press is true or fair, and if you’re involved in work in the community, don’t play up ‘problem’ narratives. Treat those you work with and live around as your equals.
Don’t profit from other’s loss. Read this excellent and jaw-dropping blog about gentrification and ‘Christian justice’ in Chicago and count the ways not to bless the people around you.
Resist the bright and shiny. You don’t need to boycott the hippest place in town, but diversify your interests. Shop in the little shops the bloggers tell you to walk by rather than seeing people’s livelihoods as edgy backdrop. A long-established local restaurant told me how things had changed for them after 25 years, and what had been lost. “It used to be that people came for dinner. A relaxed evening, chatting. We got to know our customers. Now, it’s big groups who appear without a booking early evening and want service in 10 minutes before they hit the bars, and we never see them again. There’s no conversation, no connection.”