Photo by Dominic Alves
Joseph Todd,  January 13, 2015

London’s Poor Fetish

Photo by Dominic Alves
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Visit any bar in the hip London districts of Brixton, Dalston or Peckham and you will invariably end up in a warehouse, on the top floor of a car park, or under a railway arch. Signage will be minimal and white bobbing faces will be crammed close, joined together in a Stockholm syndrome recreation of the twice daily commute, enjoying their two hours of planned hedonism before the work-sleep cycle grinds back into gear.

Expect gritty and urban aesthetics. You’ll see railway sleepers grouped around fire pits, scuffed tables and chairs reclaimed from the last generation’s secondary schools and hastily erected toilets with clattering wooden doors and grafittied mixed-sex washrooms. Notice the lack of anything meaningful, anything with political substance, or soul. Notice the ubiquity of Red Stripe, once an emblem of Jamaican culture, now sold to white “creatives” at £4 a can.

The appropriation of these symbols and spaces is deliberate, a move by Capital to commodify working class and immigrant culture. These bars are pitched to the middle classes as a way to experience life on the edge and escape the bureaucratic, meaningless, alienated dissonance that pervade their working lives.

Consider the warehouse; once a site of industry it has tumbled down this very path of appropriation. At first it was the de facto site for squatters and free parties—the disadvantaged of a different kind, transforming a space of labor into one of hedonistic illegality and sound system counter culture. Now the warehouse resides in the middle class consciousness as the go-to space for every art exhibition or party. Its industrial identity has been destroyed, and any transgressive thrill the warehouse once represented has been neutered by money and middle class civility.

Nonetheless many warehouses do still function as clubs across southeast London, pumping out reggae and soul music borrowed from the long established Afro-Caribbean communities to white middle-class twenty-somethings who can afford the £15 cover. Eventually the warehouse aesthetic will make its way to the top of the pay scale and, as the areas in which they reside reach an acceptable level of gentrification, they will likely be turned into blocks of luxury flats. Because what else does London need now, but more kitschy, high ceiling-ed hideaways to shield capital from tax?

Likewise, the much-heralded “street food revolution” was not a revolution at all, but a middle-class realization that they could abandon their faux-bourgeois restaurants, and reach down the socio-economic ladder instead of up. Markets that once sold fruit and vegetables for a pound a bowl to working class and immigrant communities soon became venues that commodified the culture of their former clientele. Vendors with new cute names but the same gritty aesthetics now serve overpriced ethnic food and craft beer to a bustling metropolitan crowd, a crowd that pays not for the cuisine but for the chance to bask in the aesthetic of a formerly working-class space.

This is the romantic illusion that these bars, clubs and street food markets construct; that their customers are the ones on the edge of life, running the gauntlet of Zola’s Les Halles, eating local on makeshift benches whilst drinking beer from the can. Yet this zest is vicarious—only experienced second-hand through objects and spaces that have been sanitized enough for the middle classes to inhabit. Spaces that have been duly cleansed of anybody who is actually working class; the former clientele both excluded by the increased prices and relegated to the roles of service staff.

The illusion is delicate and fleeting, though, because as soon as a place becomes inhabited with too many white, middle-class faces, it becomes difficult for any of them to keep playing penniless. The braying accents crowd in and the illusion shatters. Those who aren’t committed to the working class aesthetic—yuppies dressed in loafers and button-downs rather than scruffy shoes and vintage wool coats—begin to dominate, and it all becomes just a bit too west London. And so the Zeitgeist must roll on to the next market, pool hall, or dive bar ripe for discovery, colonization, and commodification.

Not all businesses understand this dynamic, however. Champagne and Fromage, an explicitly bourgeois restaurant, waded into the hipster darling food market of Brixton Village in late 2013, upsetting locals and regulars alike. Attracted by the hip kudos and ready spending of the area, the restaurant’s premature arrival inadvertently pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, that the other restaurants were simply a collage of meaningless symbols and aesthetics, shorn from their original contexts to create a faux-working-class experience—an experience that was nothing more than an illusion.

Joseph Todd is a writer and activist based in London. You can read more of his work at www.jatodd.com

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