February 29, 2020

Understanding Britain’s Underclass (Part 2)

McGarvey is at his angriest—and most correct—when he is disseminating the effects of gentrification in our schemes. To him, this process is basically about “the practice of getting rid of any evidence that the community is working class” (74).

When I look at my own community, it’s hard to disagree. Street names that have stood for many decades have been canned to reflect the wishes of the incoming middle-class buyers. Huge posters have gone up all over the scheme of families with perfect teeth and smiling children playing on the rug in their beautiful new ‘townhouse’. Even the local flats on the estate had a multi-million-pound facelift, which the locals cynically (and most likely truthfully) say was done so that the housing managers could easily sell the new apartments and townhouses that faced the old ones.

McGarvey hits the nail on the head: “It’s not hard to see why so many people roll their eyes whenever they hear the word ‘regeneration’. The very homes they grew up in and played around as children, perhaps before raising families of their own, are often only remembered as terrible mistakes; embarrassing blemishes which had to be erased from the city skyline. . . . Regeneration exposes the ravine between people who see this community as a ‘project’ or a ‘scheme’, an ongoing enterprise or a problem to solve, and the people who actually live here.” (75–76)

Gentrification: Both Good and Bad

I am in little doubt that the vast majority of working-class people, small business owners, and the local authorities view the regeneration of Niddrie as a good and healthy thing. It is often associated with ‘weeding out’ the inherent social problems and ‘lifting up’ the area in which it occurs. Much can be said about this topic, but I just wanted to point out a few good and bad points of the gentrification of our housing schemes.

  1. Good: If you own your own home and your housing prices go up as the area improves.
  2. Bad: If you don’t own your own home and you have to move out of a place you have lived in for generations to make way for developers. It appears that gentrification might just make the poor poorer! (Surprise surprise.)
  3. Good: If you are a local business, because new people and redevelopment attract new consumers.
  4. Good: If you are involved in the building industry (for obvious reasons).
  5. Good: If you have been plagued by ‘problem people’ and ‘drug houses’ which are being removed from the area.
  6. Bad: If it means that the new middle class brings their individualism and personal materialism with them (which they often do).
  7. Bad: If you are a church (like ours) that saw huge swathes of local children in their Sunday Schools diminish as people were relocated.
  8. Good: Skills and a growing work ethic return to the community.
  9. Bad: The community is destroyed by those who move in as first-time buyers and have no communal interest other than securing their foot on the property ladder and moving ‘up and out’ as soon as possible.
  10. Bad: If you would like to own your own home but can’t because of ridiculously high property prices (and rentals).
  11. Good: If you are a landlord, for the reasons stated above.
  12. Bad: For those wanting to rent but who don’t meet the criteria of the new landlords because their income falls well below requirements.

So, is this process good or bad for Niddrie? It’s difficult to tell. Niddrie is certainly a quieter place than it once was. A safer place? Not particularly. The new people moving in are suspicious of the locals, and vice-versa. It has enhanced a divide that has always been there, but now it is on their doorstep.

A guy watching a young family move into a £200K house on the site where his pals used to live is not best pleased about it. Of course, the wealthy move in and are huddled together, marked out by their shiny new homes, making them a target for many. On the other hand, there is a renewed sense of pride about the place. The arts are still going strong and there is still a good community vibe and lots of great local initiatives. There have been a couple of locals who have started businesses and are doing well for themselves thanks to community grants.

But this is an experiment in social engineering that will be measured in another ten years, and beyond. At the moment, the ‘indigenous’ community (those that are left) are going along with it (they have to) and new people are tentatively moving in. How (and if) we move toward communal synergism will be the interesting thing. Certainly, it offers challenges to us as a church as we seek to model Christian community (with poor and middle-class believers together) but it has also caused us difficulties with incomers who call us ‘the junkie church’ because we are so established with the indigenous populace.

Are We Really Poor?

I get asked this question a lot when I am overseas. Obviously, it’s a difficult one to answer when I am stood in a slum in Brazil showing people photos of the nice houses and gardens of Niddrie. In fact, when I told them this was an area designated ‘deprived’ in our community, the whole congregation burst out laughing. And so, I had to educate them a little.

McGarvey puts it succinctly. “Yes, it’s certainly true that a Western child has less chance of dying of hunger, dysentery or malaria than a child in Rwanda, but that is little consolation when you are being verbally abused, beaten or sexually assaulted in an alcoholic home.” (94)

Try telling a child from the scheme whose dad beats his ma’ unconscious every night that he has it better than a child that lives in a shack in Brazil with two loving parents trying their best to provide for him. Try telling the scheme child that he’s not poor when he’s not really had a hot meal this week and he’s been living off mouldy Rice Krispies and gone-off milk. When I bring Brazilian friends to Niddrie and they comment on the regeneration, I always remind them of Jesus telling the Pharisees they were like whitewashed tombs (Matt. 23:27), yet full of dead men’s bones (yes, I know the Lord meant something different, but the principle applies). Putting a shiny gloss on the place does not for one second solve the myriad social issues being faced by many of our residents.

I remember hitting the streets at sixteen. I was no longer under the care of the state. I was no longer under the care of anybody. That was me done. This was in the years before the plethora of support workers that people get now. I was on my own. Angry, violent, and fed up with a world that had no sympathy for me or my background. McGarvey captures the emotion well in a series of quotes.

McGarvey’s Quotes

“The children of those from poor and dysfunctional homes usually garner our sympathy until they reach adulthood and then, it seems, all bets are off. The truth, whether we want to accept it or not, is that the neglected and abused kids, the unruly young people, the homeless, the alkies, the junkies, and the lousy, irresponsible, violent parents are often the same person at different stages of their lives.” (95)

“Beneath everything, all I was looking for was connection; to feel understood, heard and supported. To feel respected, safe and loved.” (96)

“It was as if the only thing that qualified my opinion was the fact that I had been poor.” (104)

“I was learning that there were limits to what you could say when you wanted to talk about poverty. I was learning that even the harshest childhood experience wouldn’t get you a free pass to cast a critical eye on the structures around you.” (105)

“What I learned was that, no matter your background, you were cast out the second you offended the people who are in charge of your empowerment . . . the minute you start telling your story in service of your own agenda and not theirs, you’re discarded. Your criticism is dismissed as not being constructive. . . . Look out for the people. The people who pay wonderful lip service to giving the working class a voice, but who start to look very nervous whenever we open our mouths to speak.” (105)

“I didn’t write about myself because I think I’m important, it’s because that’s what I've been conditioned to do in order to be heard.” (106)


Next week, in the final part of this review, we’ll discuss conclusions and solutions for those living in poverty. You can read last week’s review here.

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