This post was first published on the The Stirrer by a couple of malcontents operating out in the badlands of South Essex.
We’ve seen it happening in London for a good few decades now. Formerly scruffy neighbourhoods but with a sense of community being gentrified, with the original working class inhabitants pushed out to or beyond the margins of the capital. In many of these neighbourhoods, there was a trajectory. Empty buildings were taken over by artists looking for cheap/free space to work from. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a wide choice of empty properties to pick from. Once a cluster of artists had established themselves, there would be a few coffee shops and cafes moving in to serve the needs of the artists.
Then the cheap and cheerful artists studios started to get more professional or were converted into loft apartments. Whole buildings started to get gutted and retrofitted as trendy apartments. The rough and ready graffiti and street art were replaced by slicker, more ‘professional’ looking murals. The neighbourhoods started to become ‘desirable’ and were salivated over in the property sections of rags like the Evening Standard. The artists who originally set up shop in the old warehouses found themselves being ‘thanked’ by the developers before being moved out, having performed their unintended role in making the area they were in ‘trendy’.
We watched this process from out here in the badlands of the south of Essex, thinking ‘it will never happen here’. We smugly thought that places like Grays and Basildon would never find themselves on the frontline of the battle against gentrification and the social cleansing that comes with it. But, as the property market in London reached levels that started to force even well paid professionals to move further away from the centre of the capital, the frontline of gentrification moved out with it.
Basildon is just under forty minutes on the train from Fenchurch Street station on the edge of the City of London. It’s a relatively easy commute. With the decline in traditional, physical town centre retail, it was clear that inevitably, the area devoted to retail in the town centre would shrink. A number of developers saw the opportunity and started buying up redundant chunks of the town centre, emptying out the shops as the leases came up for renewal, while drawing up plans for wholesale demolition and their replacement with apartment blocks targetted at affluent, young commuters.
The previous leader of Basildon Council, Gavin Callaghan, who led a Labour/Independent alliance positively salivated at the prospect of levelling vast swathes of the town centre to be replaced with high rise apartments. Callaghan and his administration were ousted in the local elections back in May to be replaced by a Tory administration led by Cllr. Andrew Baggott. Anyone expecting the schemes for high rise apartments to be scrapped is now bitterly disappointed. All the current Tory administration are doing is working to lop a few stories off the tops of these developments. Could this be that they won’t be seen from the Tory voting, leafy heights of Billericay? Cynical? Us? Yes, and with good reason!
So, over the last few years, sections of the town centre have been getting emptied out, prior to demolition. In comes the artwashing. This was a process started by Callaghan’s administration and is being carried on by the current one. Empty buildings awaiting demolition are an eyesore. If you’re trying to sell a vision of Basildon that will attract the young, affluent commuters you want to entice into the town centre to live in these apartment blocks, you can’t have the place littered with empty buildings. Call in the artists! Not the local ones as their vision may be a bit too raw and visceral because it reflects the reality they experience living in Basildon. Nope, engage the consultants such as Things Made Public and Future City to bring in the ‘right kind of artists’ who will provide murals conveying a vibrant but ultimately false image of what Basildon is about.
One of the local artists we know, Stephen Waters, is passionately fighting the artwashing that’s now being inflicted upon Basildon. This is the Facebook group he has set up as part of this fight: Basildon Against Artwashing And Gentrification. We’ve re-posted a couple of his pieces over on the Thurrock and Basildon Heckler blog – here they are:
As well as the artwashing, there’s also the question of what to do with the iconic but long neglected Brooke House high rise block right in the middle of the town centre. Brooke House is on the database of Historic England as a Grade II Listed Building. The building may look iconic from the outside, inside the block, it’s a very different and considerably grimmer story. The public areas inside the block haven’t seen a coat of paint in…decades. You can tell by the colour scheme which no one would dream of using now unless they were seriously into retro. Residents in the block have been lobbying Basildon Council for years to try and get them to undertake vital improvements to no avail…until now…
It has dawned on Basildon Council that to make the town centre attractive to the more affluent demographic they want living in the apartment developments to come, having a neglected high rise block right by the main square in the town isn’t exactly going to help with the sales pitch. So after decades of neglect, Brooke House is going to get a lot of money thrown at it to give it a facelift. Understandably, the residents are pretty cynical about the motives behind this. Basically, they see this as a cosmetic exercise to ‘tart the block up’ so it doesn’t get ‘shamed’ by all the new apartment blocks that will be springing up over the next decade.
Returning to the artwashing, on Saturday 11 September, there was an event organised to promote these murals. Stephen Waters and a number of other activists weren’t having it and called a picket of the event at short notice:
As with our Alternative Estuary hats on, we were due in town anyway to hand out ‘zines and flyers at the Basildon Vegan Market, it would have been rude to not have joined the picket. We duly did and while the numbers weren’t great, there was some useful engagement with passing members of the public. There was also some useful engagement with some of the artists who created the murals where they were asked to think about what their work was being used for.
The picket brought together an interesting array of local activists. It was a great opportunity to meet face to face, chat, plan, plot and strengthen the bonds between us. This is what it’s about for us – local action, engagement and network building that will build a solid base for radical change. This morning was one of the most productive and morale boosting things we’ve done in a fair while. We owe Stephen Waters a lot of thanks for pulling this off:)
When we walked through the town centre after the picket was over, as well as the heavy promotion of the murals, we noticed there were a lot of other events and activities going on. No wishing to be cynical but we couldn’t help thinking there was a bit of a propaganda edge with the council actively promoting what can best be described as place selling that would convey a ‘vibrant’ image of the town. The thing is that the happy, fluffy ‘vibrant’ image that was being promoted felt like it was imposed. It didn’t feel like it was an organic part of the town that reflected the experiences of the people living there. That’s place selling for you…
The thing about place selling is that it’s never about actually promoting a location as it is. That would mean telling and facing up to some uncomfortable truths. It’s always about selling a vision of what the council and developers want the location to be become. Which inevitably means erasing some, if not all of what the place currently is, warts and all. It’s basically selling a lie. A lie that’s aided and abetted by the artwashing we’re seeing in Basildon town centre and those artists and cultural organisations involved in implementing it. Which is why we felt we had to make a stand to draw people’s attention to what’s really being done to the town.