London is perhaps the most open city in the world—open to the millions who come for the day, for a decade, for a lifetime; open to global capital, which burrows into the city and sends up the skyscrapers which define London’s horizon; open to chefs and artists, inventors and entrepreneurs, preachers and charlatans. Moreover, the city’s leaders have made openness into an ideology. After the Brexit vote, the Labour mayor Sadiq Khan launched a “London is Open” campaign. The slogan has rung out ever since: At the most recent New Year celebrations, it was announced in seven languages just after the midnight chimes.
The ideology unites Labour and the Tories. Khan’s predecessor Boris Johnson (likely to be Britain’s next Prime Minister) used to half-joke that his political hero was the mayor in Jaws because “He kept the beaches open.” As a result, Johnson would concede, “some small children were eaten by a shark. But how much more pleasure did the majority get from those beaches as a result of the boldness of the mayor in Jaws?” It’s only half a joke because Johnson does fervently believe in “openness.” Perhaps only a quarter of a joke, because it identifies a real problem: Sometimes things are closed for a reason. As the old saying goes, freedom for the pike is death to the minnow. Likewise, openness to the strong means new threats to the vulnerable.
No, this isn’t a column about Brexit or immigration, two impossibly complex subjects. Another time. It’s about something much more clear-cut: How the old, the settled, the loved is “opened” for the sake of profit. This is the kind of openness celebrated by an HSBC ad campaign currently displayed on the city’s billboards. “YOU MEAN BUSINESS,” one billboard proclaims to Londoners, adding in smaller text: “You are open. Because you know being open is good for business.” Or as the mayor in Jaws put it: “We need summer dollars.”
What the HSBC ads don’t mention is the grief that has accompanied London’s financial success. Time and again, the city’s local councils have tried to sell off land to developers, who want to demolish the old buildings and put up luxury apartments or high-end shopping centers. Time and again, many locals have protested that they want to keep their homes and communities. And the dispute has had to be settled in court or by central government.
One of the best-known examples is the Heygate housing estate, in the Elephant and Castle area of Southwark borough. The estate was knocked down in 2011–2014 and replaced with apartment blocks, most of them for the well-off. Admittedly, the old estate was a brutalist eyesore. But it was also a home, from which the residents found themselves exiled. As one, Brenda, told the academic Anna Minton: “I was born in Elephant and Castle and I’d always lived around the area.” So had Brenda’s parents, her grandparents, and dozens of family members. “Southwark was our place.” But, despite the residents’ attempts to save the existing estate, the developers won. Under a Compulsory Purchase Order, the council forced Brenda and her husband to sell. With the money they were only able to move to London’s outskirts. As she related:
“It’s taken me years to get over the shock. I’ve got neighbours here but I haven’t got friends. My friends from London come up once a month but I used to see them every day,” Brenda told me, sitting with her iPad in her lap opened to Facebook. “This is my friend now,” she said.
There are, it appears, two kinds of openness. Some people open their hearts so much—to their family, to their neighbors, to their community—that they come to love a place. Others open up those places to a deluge of money and novelty. I’m not saying that local residents are always plucky victims or that big-money developers are always exploitative villains. But the clashes between these two groups reveal the limitations of the London ideology.
For HSBC, openness means cosmopolitanism and diversity. “We are not an island,” another billboard claims:
We are a Colombian coffee sipping, American movie watching, Swedish flat pack assembling, Korean tablet tapping, Argentinian striker supporting, Dutch beer cheers-ing, Tikka Masala eating, wonderful lump of land in the middle of the sea. We are part of something far bigger.
How multicultural! Except that spending a fiver on a pint of Dutch beer, or using a Korean-made tablet until it goes out of date, is literally the most superficial kind of engagement with another culture. This sort of openness—the fleeting consumption of a product that happens to have been imported—is good for business.
What’s bad for business is the sort of openness Brenda represents: an abiding, open-hearted loyalty to a place, a culture, a community. This can be terribly inconvenient to business interests. Look at the battles over north London’s Oriental City, a market whose unique shops and regular festivals made it a hub for different national cultures. It was closed down—or is that opened up?—to build a lucrative shopping center. The old shops and eateries had the right to return, but as Yip Fai Liu, chairman of the Save Oriental City Campaign, observed: “It took us 10 years to build the Oriental City community. When we come back in three years’ time, there will be no community left.”
Parts of Chinatown in central London have also come under the developers’ eye. Again, old structures have been replaced; again, existing residents—independent shops selling fish, jewelry, kitchenware—have been priced out. Eventually the pagoda, Chinatown’s symbolic heart, was demolished. The campaigner Jabez Lam called what happened to the area a form of “ethnic cleansing.”
People often tell us that today’s great political choice is between the open and the closed. Usually, like the mayor in Jaws, they seem convinced of the benefits of openness. They should be asked: Are you sure you’ve checked what’s in the water?
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.
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