Where There Is Smoke: The Grenfell Tower as a Symbol of Modern Gentrification

Daniela Arango – Colombia

The Grenfell Tower Disaster was a fire that killed over eighty people, and truly opened London’s eyes to the severity of the housing crisis that its residents were facing. Months later, one can begin to see how both the causes and the effects of the disaster are emblematic of larger problems like gentrification, and how solutions to these crises can begin to be created.

“The people who died and lost their homes, this happened to them because they were poor.” So says musician Akala or Kingsley James Daley in an interview with Channel 4’s Jon Snow. Behind him, one can see the still smoldering frame of the Grenfell Tower. Curls of smoke spiral upwards, framing the tower in a thin grey. The rest of the sky is a clear blue; the trees, also in frame, are bright green.

Daley’s sentiment is not a unique one, despite being rather confrontational. In the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the conversation quickly turned to how the event represented social inequality rather than simple administrative clumsiness. Residents of the building and similar London high-rises began to see the Grenfell Tower as a symbol and started using it as such. Indeed, as the wreckage was cleared, public debate focused on what it was that the tower had come to represent.

The fire at Grenfell Tower began burning around half past midnight on the morning of June 14th, 2017, continued to rage for sixty hours and killed over fifty people. Despite the fire being attributed to a malfunctioning fridge-freezer, however, residents and local activists speculated that the tragedy was a consequence of negligence and the local government’s apathy towards the people that lived in the tower.

This speculation arose from the fact that the Grenfell Tower was public housing built in a rich area of London. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where Grenfell Tower burned, has a population that is 71% white and a greater percentage of high earners than any other local government district in the country, yet Grenfell Tower was built under the council housing system. These ‘council houses’ are buildings constructed by the government on secure tenancies at low cost, to allow lower-income workers to enter the housing market. The high-rise—home to almost six hundred people—burnt so fiercely because of renovations that had left the building’s exterior vulnerable to heat. And so it was this, combined with a year-long attack on social housing by the Conservative party, that pushed many to instantly jump down the throats of the local council.

The government is, clearly, an easy target—it is a scapegoat that, in the given situation, could very well be justifiably singled out but is, nonetheless, a faceless, nondescript figure that is easy to blame. Residents can point fingers at this figure and make accusations of classism and systematic economic segregation but, in the wake of the fire, this scapegoating of the government also became a way for media outlets to express opinions on other social issues. Indeed, two days after the tragedy, The Guardian published a piece titled Look at Grenfell Tower and see the terrible price of Britain’s inequality. Similarly, The New York Times chose to invoke issues of race with their article Would a White British Community Have Burned in Grenfell Tower? The media chose to participate in the attribution of blame just as much as the public.

This isn’t to say that these journalists are wrong—not at all. In fact, the disaster does not only represent problems of inequality but also provides evidence of these problems. There is almost no doubt that the building’s renovation was calamitous, and it has been confirmed that the cost of renovations was prioritized over the safety of residents. A petition launched on change.org after the fire called for the full resignation of the cabinet of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It stated that “given the Council’s failure to respond to the litany of safety and fire concerns raised by Grenfell Tower residents, we have no confidence in this Council’s ability to manage or build public buildings.” But despite the truth that these complaints contain, one cannot help but feel that they miss out on a more significant debate that is not so black and white.

Three and a half thousand miles away in New York, the same kinds of problems pop up time and time again regarding the housing conditions of lower-income households. Specifically, the word ‘gentrification’ is used rather frequently when referring to this phenomenon, but it would seem strange to equate the Grenfell Tower Renovation with what is traditionally considered gentrification.

Typically, gentrification would be associated with a situation where middle-class families buy properties in lower income areas that eventually adapt, economically and aesthetically, to match their tastes. To describe the situation as gentrification, therefore, one would have to note that the renovation of the tower only occurred to appease residents of the borough that did not live that tower itself. Those would be the Londoners whose taste (middle-class) was not sated by the brutalist architecture of the Grenfell Tower, and who, over many years, nudged the local council into changing the skyline to match what they wanted to see. Even the re-allocation of money, moving government wealth away from the tower’s structural safety and towards other interests, is evidence of the fact that the Grenfell Tower disaster is a symptom of gentrification.

In May of 2016, the New York University Furman Center published a special report on gentrification in the city which put Williamsburg, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, as the borough with the highest percentage change in rent from 1990 to 2010-2014. Specifically, rent increased by 78.7 percent. The two most prominent racial groups in gentrifying neighborhoods are still Black and Hispanic, but, if one visits Williamsburg, you are instead greeted by the sight of White families playing in the park and hip, modernist architecture. Moreover, the neighborhood is filled with a mix of both commercial and millennial shopfronts, and traditional Hispanic groceries or African-American barbers—businesses that have been there for many years and have, previously, defined that neighborhood.

Yet the appropriateness of each shopfront is a question of taste. One can’t say that a certain type of store belongs there and that another doesn’t—we can only assert that there is a specific breed of businesses and buildings that have appeared as the result of gentrification. This is not a value judgement; it is a simple fact, and it does not claim that the influx of businesses with gentrification is either right or wrong. In the case of Brooklyn, there has yet to occur, thankfully, a physical and human catastrophe of the same nature as the Grenfell Tower Disaster. One could argue, however, that the slow, definite, pushing out of lower income families that can no longer afford rent and necessary living materials in the area is a catastrophe in itself. With the Grenfell Tower though, a different type of gentrification has caused disaster. The tastes of the middle class and their ability to sway policy have slowly made London an almost unlivable city for the less wealthy. Where the less wealthy have tried, resiliently, to live—such as The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea—they have suffered at the hands of an ever-vicious housing market. It is a housing market that strong-arms them into investing in properties that are ultimately unsafe.

This is what lies at the heart of the less-black-and-white debate about housing, gentrification, and scapegoating. One cannot denounce anyone’s right to live in an area where they have fairly purchased a property, or been subsidized to purchase a property. This refers to both the rich and the poor; those of all backgrounds and classes, for just as the new residents in Williamsburg have a right to the homes which they live in, the old residents have a legitimate claim to that area as well. Where The Guardian and The New York Times (amongst other media outlets) have attempted to demonize gentrification, they have failed to acknowledge the actual people trying to live their lives on both sides of the argument. Just as lower-income families should not be pushed out of their homes, therefore, the conversation on gentrification should look to build itself more constructively around the integration of different social groups.

The true tragedy of gentrification, therefore, is the fact that the integration of different economic communities can never and will never be instantaneous. In situations where communities find themselves living together, it is too often the negligence or poor planning of authorities that leads to the suffering of lower income groups. This is because the respective authorities of New York and London have not done enough to mediate, monitor, and manage the pace of gentrification and living situations of lower-income families. Perhaps from the smoldering embers of the Grenfell Tower, however, there can be borne a new hope—that governments and councils will take note of the responsibility which they have, fully committing themselves to integrating all demographics into their communities and listening to the needs of the less-privileged.