Review by Kirsteen Paton
Regeneration Songs: Sounds Of Investment And Loss From East London (2018) edited by Alberto Duman, Dan Hancox, Malcolm James & Anna Minton. Published by Repeater Books.
This is the first time I’ve listened to a soundtrack, to read a book, which is influenced by a three-minute soundless film and it was a refreshing and immersive experience. I’ve read more than a few books on gentrification and regeneration and so many of these urban studies can often be econometric, positivistic and flat. They too often lose the vital point that regeneration and gentrification are lived processes. Regeneration Songs: Sounds Of Investment And Loss From East London recognises this and offers powerful, novel ways to think, write and speak about processes of gentrification, as well as, how we might listen to and resist them. Through 26 contributions from a mix of artists, architects, academics and writers and 17 songs from Music for Master Planning, this collection tells stories of the meaning and impacts of the ‘Regeneration Supernova’. This large-scale regeneration project was born of the 2012 Olympic Games wider infrastructural redevelopments in the boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney, East London. Regeneration Songs explores the different ways in which place is simultaneously imagined, lived, contested and fought for. The idea for the book was stimulated by a promotional film produced by Newham Council, which book co-editor and contributor, Alex Duman, obtained through a Freedom of Information request. Unbeknown to residents, their area had been branded and packaged into a promotional film form as an ‘Arc of Opportunity’ and peddled to potential global investors at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. This formed part of the latest venture in a history of large-scale regeneration projects in East London since the 1980s. Text included in the video makes the claim ‘London’s Moving East’, which is a reference to Newham’s geographical location in the city and its new prospective Eastern market (see Pace’s chapter). In the introduction, the editors pose the Lefebvrian question about the regeneration of East London: who is it for? And the film’s play on the two Easts partly captures this contest between capital and community.
Regeneration Supernova is certainly no modest statement nor aim from Newham Council. A supernova is an astronomical event in which a star explodes violently leading to intense luminosity before catastrophic destruction. This hyperbole reminded me of the grandiose failed plan to demolish the Red Road high-rise flats as part of the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony; a spectacular announcement from Glasgow City Council that modernist social housing and the welfare state were dead and this was the new dawn of neoliberalism where global capital investment would rise in its wake. Regeneration Supernova feels like it has the same level of neoliberal ambition. Erasure. Wipe out and start again. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that such drastic tactics of gentrification are utilised in the East Ends of cities and formerly industrial places which are not so readily polished and repackaged as places of high residential distinction – Newham will never be Islington and Dalmarnock will never be Hyndland, for example. But the boons of residential distinction can be trumped by global investor capital, and placemaking is conducted in a way which knows its market and how to appeal to the most suitable investors (we get some insight into such city marketing processes in Hatherley’s chapter on Manchester and Sheffield). The ‘Arc of Opportunity’ – the marketing slogan Newham Council used to describe the area of development – is an equally ambitious term. It’s a direct synonym in marketing speak for Neil Smith’s rent gap. This theory celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, published in Smith’s 1979 article, Toward a Theory of Gentrification: A Back to the City Movement by Capital, not People. Regeneration Songs attests that it is still as potent today. The rent gap describes the gap between actual ground rent and potential ground rent. The potential value is the space of speculation and imagination. It is the very space which is being interrogated, in orthodox and radical ways, through the varied contributions in the book. This collection offers a debate about East London’s value: real and imagined (see part 6 Future Fictions); cultural and economic; and historical (notably Brownhill and Cordell’s contributions) and futuristic. The book explores ideas around placemaking and its varied meaning which can become geared towards extracting value but also provide vitality. As the editors note ‘our concern is not then for the spectacle of Newham provided to global investors, but also what it means for residents in Newham to live in such fiery imagery’ (p.12). I think the questions which come across more strongly in the book than who is it for? is what is its value and who defines it?
While the rent gap is at the heart of the processes discussed throughout, the book doesn’t actually cohere around a core thesis. The quote from Doreen Massey offered in the introduction: ‘spatial organization is integral to the production of social relations and power relations and is not merely its result’ provides a soft frame for the edited collection. Although not a sociological text, this book has pronounced sociological tendencies. It speaks to sociology’s scavenger tendency (Urry, 2005), assembling and curating ephemera from poetry, posters, policies, old regeneration plans, memories and narratives and voices and sounds. The book comes with a download code for the related musical project, Music for Masterplanning in which musicians from East London sound tracked London’s Regeneration Supernova. These textures and layers are what make this book so immersive and interesting. The musical element is a particularly powerful one. The recent work of Luke De Noronha on Deportation Discs and David Beer’s Punk Sociology attest to the methodological and epistemological power of music. It is utilised with great effect here to examine place, people and memory – bringing the art of listening (Back, 2007) to its most literal meaning.
The first section of this book, Regeneration Songs, politicises and historicises regeneration processes. In Opening Conversation, Anna Minton positions the local government as a central agent, and not passive victim, of marketisation, peddling the Arc of Opportunity out to global investors. Newham Council actively and even aggressively pursued this – an important point about regeneration processes today. Early gentrification debates pivoted around whether people or capital were the drivers of gentrification – which Smith’s (1979) article prominently weighed in on. Today we need to pay close attention to the role of policy makers, local councillors, MPs and local housing providers. It is not only private companies who benefit but the state, which drives gentrification in multiple ways. Douglas Murphy’s chapter is particularly useful in focusing our gaze onto the architects of property plans and deals including Boris Johnson and those who profit directly from them. And going again beyond the capital v people driving gentrification debate, Andrea Phillips forwards a more productive question when she asks ‘How can the role “the artist” in inverted commas pursue radical agendas around housing without getting embroiled in gentrifying processes’ (p29). These felt like important areas where our attention should be when confronting gentrification.
My own sociological proclivities drew me to sections 3 Sounds and Visions, 4 The Lived City and 5 Fighting Back. Joy White and Dan Hancox explore the East End’s major musical export, Grime and Owen Hatherley ties place-based music and cultural capital more squarely to political economy, exploring Manchester’s Postrave Urban growth Coalition and Sheffield’s cultural industrial/steel industry. Hatherley’s chapter includes a great excerpt from urban academic Justin O’Connor and a curious tale involving Richard Florida, Tony Wilson and Tom Bloxham, Founder of Urban Splash and former chancellor of University of Manchester.
In the section Fighting Back, the discussion of what can actually be done is rather muted. This is a little frustrating given the earlier questioning of the role of the local state and of the potential role the middle classes and artists in oppositional politics. These vital questions are left unanswered. Only in Phil Cohen’s chapter do we get a partial response in his proposed three-way alliance between generation rent, creative class and the precarious workers all living in the same area. It reminded me of Satnam Virdee’s recent call for a politics of solidarity, based upon stretching our conceptions of the working class to encompass the idea of multiethnicity. In gentrification politics, this is essential and should also be stretched further to include these different class sections. Cohen’s seems like a meaningful response to these political processes and offers a tentative vision for class politics which may be aimed at fighting gentrification and the financialisaton of housing. Indeed, a strong analytical framework which binds the chapters and the message of the book was lacking. While I found the questions posed in the opening conversational style chapter helpful, I don’t think the style of the chapter was a useful way into the book. The discussions between Phillips, Duman and Minton were more obscure than explicatory, especially for the non-academic audience to whom this book should appeal. Similarly, some reflective conclusion which responded to the important questions posed in the book would have really consolidated the book’s intervention into gentrification processes and debates.
That said, it’s like no other book. It’s full of rage and hope and casts a critical light on those profiting. Most of all, it acts as an archive of people and place and as a radical form of bottom-up placemaking that is so important in the battle for the city.
Kirsteen Paton is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool. She is the author of Gentrification: A Working-Class Perspective (2014) and, forthcoming, Class and Everyday Life (2020). She tweets @KirsteenPaton.