January 27, 2020

How Gentrification Affects the Poorest

Gentrification is an emotive issue for many on our scheme. Much of the old housing and tenements have now gone from what was, historically, regarded as ‘old’ Niddrie. In its place are green fields, building sites, new flats, houses, and a variety of government agencies and voluntary services.

Almost everything feels shiny and new. The school, the doctor’s surgery, the library, the mini supermarket, and our own church building. Even the blocks of flats near us have been given a facelift. Not long ago, the council dug up the local burn (river) and put in a road system leading to the new children’s hospital. It’s all looking good. Regeneration, at this level, is our friend.

But there’s a darker side to this phenomenon.

Loss of Community

It appears that community life has now been pushed to the fringes. For instance, real ‘Niddrons’ congregate at the local ‘Miners Club’ and socialise together. The new, young, up-and-coming middle class, on the other hand, would not be seen dead in there. (But, then again, you do have to be recommended by a local). The local community centre runs the odd club for the young and the old, but they don’t do much for the hundreds of unemployed in between, nor for the new working/middle class. Then there are the immigrants, who just lock their doors and keep their heads down at night.

In all the new building work, there seems to be little thought given to how we bring all these social groups together. The indigenous locals have a strong sense of community, the arriving middle class have brought a strong sense of materialistic individualism, and the immigrants have imported a commitment to maintaining their cultural identity. Even early on, tribalism is evident.

But sociologists talk up regeneration as an opportunity to ‘reinvest’ in communities like Niddrie, as though it’s that simple. Reinvest what? Building firms are getting rich, certainly. Grants are being handed out to every social issue pressure group you can think of—so they are doing very well for themselves. There are many here who work in our community but are not, in any sense, a part of it.

Socio-Economic Experiment

Niddrie, in many ways, has become a giant socio-economic experiment and a sort of proving ground for progressive urban policies. Refurbish the place, build some decent(ish) homes, attract young, first-time buyers, hand out a bit of social housing, and ensure a place for the city’s growing immigrant populace. Generally, all of this is done at the expense (rather than for the benefit, as it’s so often sold) of the poorest. Where are they going? That’s my question. All of our social issues are not being resolved by regeneration here in Niddrie. They are just being diluted and, like chess pieces, problem people are being moved around the board that is Edinburgh city.

For instance, many of the ‘new community’ meetings I’ve attended have been run by outsiders. Likewise, many of the ‘old community’ meetings I’ve attended are attended run by cultural insiders. There doesn’t seem to be a real consensus or merging of the two worlds that the powers that be have foisted on one another.

Positively, the drug problem has abated somewhat (although it is still very much prevalent). The streets do seem safer, certainly cleaner. In parts, at least. On the other hand, the poorest are being forced out of homes they have lived in for generations. Many are running scared by forces outside of their control that are telling them to either keep up or get out. For many of the residents, it feels like they are merely hedgehogs staring down the massive steamroller of social change. Bob Lupton agrees:

“Resisting gentrification is like trying to hold back the rising ocean tide. It is surely coming, relentlessly, with power and growing momentum. Young professionals as well as empty nesters are flooding into our cities, buying up lofts and condos and dilapidated historic residences, opening avant-garde artist studios and gourmet eateries. If market forces alone are allowed to rule the day, the poor will be gradually, silently displaced, for the market has no conscience. But those who do understand God’s heart for the poor have a historic challenge to infuse the values of compassion and justice into the process. But it will require altogether new paradigms of ministry.”

Granted, he is talking out of an American context, but I still think his point travels. In all of the council’s concern for urban regeneration and the ‘betterment’ of our scheme, this does not extend to any spiritual element whatsoever. Better buildings and facilities won’t make a jot of real difference to the lives of many here, especially if the middle classes see ‘community investment’ in purely financial terms.

Comprehensive Investment

If, then, they won’t invest wholeheartedly in the community, we Christians need to. We need to do more than just move into these areas. Indeed, moving lock, stock, and barrel into the community has to be about more than some vague, ‘incarnational idealism’ and more about investing in our community in a comprehensive manner. What could that look like? Here are four suggestions.

1. Christians should seek to join community committees and boards (schools, neighbourhood watch, community festivals, etc.). We should have a stake in local discussions and decisions. Within this we should be living by the justice principles of the Bible in seeking to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves or find trouble communicating effectively. I sit on some local boards, and people trust me to speak up for them because I live in Niddrie. They know that I love the people and my community.

2. We could offer night classes for training and development. Do you have a particular skill you could pass on? We should be passing whatever skill-set we have on to those around us, actively looking for ways we can share this within the community for the benefit of all.

3. We should be innovative in how we do our personal outreach. Of course, the gospel and the local church must remain at the core. We should be feeding our members a good, biblical diet, while also encouraging a broader community-mindedness. Certainly, the church must not get caught up in social action for the sake of social action. Our mission is eternal. At the same time, we must not use the mistakes of the past to justify an intellectual ‘Word only’ approach to our community living. ‘Gospel primacy, Word centrally, and mission constantly’ should be our motto.

4. Christians must work harder at trying to build a rich and authentic community. We must be the catalysts for bringing people of all stripes together. We must model it in our fellowships and we must beat the drum in our communities. People will only buy into that which they see in action first. Look for ways in which your church can do this.

For all the talk of ‘missional intentionality’ in church-planting circles, we must be intentionally biblical and gospel focused as we work out how to respond to these issues which, for us, though painful, are not going away.

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