The melting ‘melting pot’ / by Peju Oshin

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In recent weeks and months, there has been an increase in debates and conversations with regards to race relations, immigration and the state of the British economy. This, of course, comes as no surprise with the run-up to the General Election and the mad dash by politicians trying to syphon votes from their opponents in a bid to gain more seats, swing the undecided and above all gain a majority.

Frequently visited topics in election debates and manifestos by some minority parties have served as a catalyst for simmering unrest. These conversations have highlighted increasing favour towards devolution as counties around the United Kingdom become increasingly more vocal about their feelings of neglect caused by those in Westminster. The root of this neglect is attributed to a perceived uneven distribution of resources being plundered into the capital whilst the rest of the country is left to fall into destitution.

The above is an important topic of conversation to engage in, but for now, the focus of this piece is elsewhere.

Having studied architecture briefly and later gaining a degree in interior design, it perhaps goes without saying, that I have an invested interest in our built environment. Prior to this, I studied Sociology at A level alongside English Language, Fine Art and General Studies. These subjects combined gave me a good understanding of social issues and how they are affected by external factors. All that I have detailed so far made my topic of research for my dissertation much easier and simplified the process of choosing a title:

“Concrete Heroes & Villains: Has Brutalist Architecture fragmented or cemented communities in inner city London?”

For those of you who may not be familiar with the term Brutalist or Brutalism within architecture, it makes reference to a style of building prevalent in Europe between the 1950s and 70s characterised by its vast amounts of exposed concrete used. When looking for examples of these buildings, they can typically be found in capital cities and are synonymous with council (social) housing. To further contextualise this, the majority of buildings that have been built in this style are currently being demolished, bar the Barbican Estate which is held up as a symbol of modernism and contradictory to visually similar buildings across the capital is occupied by middle-class residents.

Prior to graduating, I had always wanted to work in the retail sector. Not as a core staff member but in the role of designer and bringing a brands identity to life. However, all of the roles I have held so far focused on residential projects. Is this part of a higher purpose? I'm not sure, but being in these positions informs my interests, the questions I ask and my writing.

Whenever described in the media or by our mayor, London is often referred to as being 'multicultural', a 'vibrant mix' and often a favourite 'a melting pot of rich cultures'. Boris Johnson saying “London would fall like Sparta without immigration” (Huffingtonpost.co.uk, 2014).

From my observation, it seems that this oh so wonderful melting pot is on-route for melting into nothingness. We are all entitled to personal views, but as new broadcasters and journalists travel the country talking to people on the streets in the run-up to the GE 2015 I have become increasingly alarmed by some of the rhetoric expressed by the ‘indigenous’ population. Many of these people fear a drain on resources such as housing, the NHS and the availability of jobs (many of which they feel are beneath them, refusing to do) ever echoed by parties such as UKIP who constantly blame the countries state on immigrants as opposed to reevaluating wider government policy.

To give this further context:

Local councils have been seen to be playing to the tune of developers through the promise of newer and more profitable homes in their boroughs. In particular, the Heygate Estate in South London has heard discussions concerning its regeneration for the past decade. As the plans for the Brutalist estate now considered to be in a prime location because of its great transport links and the Elephant and Castle Underground station in Zone 1, it presents itself as an unmissable opportunity. As the building was emptied of residents over the past few years the realisation of regeneration became more tangible. In replacement of the estates are proposed new low-rise maisonette style buildings with beautifully landscaped walking and communal areas. The fact that remains is the residents that were decanted from the Heygate Estate are unlikely to be able to afford to move back to the area or even the newly built homes. Although the built residential complex brings a substantial amount of new homes to the site through better spatial planning only 25% of the newly built homes will be deemed as affordable. Alas, the term affordable is relative and solely depends on the individual’s earnings. This raises questions with regards to fairness, due to costs of living increasing at a faster rate than earnings.

Oshin, P. (n.d.). Concrete Heroes & Villains: Has Brutalist Architecture fragmented or cemented communities in inner city London?. Undergraduate. London Metropolitan University.

Gentrification v Regeneration has been long debated, with many believing the term ‘regeneration’ to simply be a whitewash of the term gentrification. The shift in terminology occurs dependant on the groups being spoken to. The resistance to opposition often comes from the 'lifestyle' sold to locals which appeal to middle-class aspirations with hopes of benefitting them which is increasingly becoming apparent that it is not likely to be the case.

Class structures and the way we categorise people has changed vastly over the past half-century due to varying factors. It has become increasingly difficult to identify social class which has its pros and cons. However, what is easier to see is the uprising of 'trendy' areas seen as projects by 'hipsters'. When new groups move in, opportunities arise for the sharing and gaining of cultural capital. But this movement of people also has its disadvantages; communities being broken up because they can no longer afford to live in particular areas due to gentrification/regeneration following in quick succession. With the departure of these indigenous communities, the sought after culture and vibrancy of these areas vanish with the people often leaving behind empty shells being replicated by those with no understanding. The latter may draw comparisons with the concept of cultural appropriation as there was never that opportunity for these groups to live together, exchange dialogue and make moves towards social cohesion.

It is clear to see the housing market in the capital is completely and utterly out of control. The housing crisis gives rise to my ‘Melting melting pot’ notion. In recent news, we heard of the poor door (Collinson, 2016) scandal in Aldgate which to see in this day and age, is quite frankly distasteful and re-exposes the divide between rich and poor in the capital. In support of this, the BBC aired a show which exposed the realities of the housing crisis in London including the fact that many Londoners are spending more than half their wages on rent (Rooms, Rogues and Renters, 2015).

London is slowly but surely turning into a city full of glass facades and brightly rendered buildings. But who lives in these places?

Many of the flats in new builds in previously undesirable areas are dormant. They are dormant, yet unavailable due to their acquisition by foreign buyers who have no desire to live in these homes but simply buy them as an investment - essentially an ISA account. This is not an objection to the acquisition of property but the posing of a further provocation: How can anyone feel comfortable with our capital steadily turning into a ghost town and a steady lack of homes for its dwellers to live in?

The lack of ‘affordable housing’, a term which is relative does one thing, it pushes us ALL further out of the city. First and second generation born brits, immigrants, economic migrants and even the 'indigenous' populations and communities are at risk of this displacement. It is with this in mind that we must consider what the value of the city will be and where all of its allure excitement will generate from, if, when one visits the people who have been instrumental in creating its ‘vibe’ are no longer able to do so?

Growing up in London I have always loved and appreciated that we all live harmoniously (to some extent) amongst one another supporting the notion of the ‘melting pot’. This integration is demonstrated through the absorption of language which we often see imbedded into youth culture and often permeate into mainstream culture. Our friends teach us words and phrases belonging distinctly to their mother tongues, we pick words up from shop keepers, waiters and people we meet in everyday situations. These influences even filter through into our cooking at home, an act which is so personal and culturally specific. Food can offer an entry point into understanding other cultures and a space for exchanges about experiences which can lead to the creation of fusions in the form of dishes and values.

We have a long way to go in terms of social cohesion as there are many problems to deal with, including a never-ending cycle of and often unnecessary moral panic, but within this, we must acknowledge that our beautiful melting pot is under threat. It seems that it is time for a call to action, a period in which we should band together, talk to local MPs, vote for change and most importantly engage with our local communities to action the change that we would like to see.