What happens when gentrification strikes in your local neighbourhood? Look around, and you will probably be able to spot the telltale signs. First come the students and bohemian creatives who bring with them fixie bikes, underground club nights and even a vegan cafe or two. They will take pride in telling their friends that their area is ‘gritty’ or ‘a bit rough around the edges’, and that ‘the yuppies haven’t destroyed its character yet’.
And this is precisely what happens when said yuppies, attracted by cheap housing and the allure of a so-called counterculture, effectively take over the area. Smart delis and gourmet burger restaurants jostle next to fried chicken and charity shops, as the neighbourhood establishments become more and more like Time Out fodder. In the final stages, property developers inevitably snap up any abandoned buildings, all of which will most likely be transformed into luxury apartments with sterile white interiors.
The rather reductive picture painted above may seem bleak, but the reality is far more nuanced. One such neighbourhood on the brink of becoming fully gentrified is the area surrounding Holloway Road, which is one of North London’s busiest thoroughfares as well as a local hub for shops and entertainment. Sandwiched between Angel to the south, Highbury to the west and Archway to the north, Holloway Road effectively forms a cross-section of London’s varied demographics.
Further up the 3km-long road, kebab shops, nail salons and ethnic greengrocers reign supreme despite the presence of a Waitrose and Marks and Spencer in the main shopping complex. A little further south, a recently opened branch of Chicken Shop (selling ‘gourmet’ rotisserie chicken) sits a few doors down from a shuttered Organic & Natural deli. According to Sofia, who works at the nearby Holloway Express supermarket, it was open for just over a year. She believes that it closed due to a lack of customers.
He concedes that the poor will inevitably be displaced out of the area when the new crowd move in
This example shows that, contrary to stereotypes, gentrification can have some unexpected winners and losers. What complicates the picture is how many of the new, ‘gentrifying’ establishments tend to be local businesses themselves – in addition to the familiar coffee chains and Pret-a-Mangers.
Most would agree that championing independent shops is a resolutely good thing, but this then leads into an uneasy double-bind: the possibility that gentrification is partly responsible for both the demise of local businesses and their resurgence.
It’s a paradox that clearly plays out in conversations with various local business owners on Holloway Road. Luís Torres is the owner of El Rincon Quiteño, a homely Latin restaurant that sits squarely opposite the London Met campus. When it first opened over 20 years ago, Luís was serving more than 200 coffees every day to students and lecturers who flocked to his cafe. “Now, I am lucky to sell even 50 coffees,” he says. “There are too many shops, too much competition on Holloway Road – and too few people.”
And he’s right: for the entire duration of our interview, only two customers venture into the empty restaurant. Despite this, he thinks that the influx of new businesses onto the road is largely a good thing: “It will bring more customers into the area, I hope. I just want to survive.”
A few doors down, Eddie Oh, 24, is the proud owner of Sam, a newly opened Korean cafe with achingly hip, minimalist decor that seems like it should belong in Shoreditch instead. According to him, it used to be a takeaway for the three years before its current reincarnation. Most of Eddie’s customers are nearby office workers who come for lunch, as well as young professionals living in the surrounding area. Unlike many, he isn’t shy about appealing to the well-heeled, and is certainly optimistic about the future. “I think gentrification is definitely a good thing,” he concludes. “It brings lots of footfall into the area.”
Selin Sarialtin, 28, works part-time at Blue 17, a well-loved vintage shop that has been open for 25 years. She has lived on Holloway Road all her life and has a “weird love-hate relationship” with the neighbourhood. “We have lots of regulars – there has always been a strong sense of community around here,” she says. “But I have noticed a lot more men in suits over the past few years, and I have a feeling that they’re slowly creeping up from the Angel end of Holloway Road.”
But Muhammad, 30, is far less ambivalent about the changes happening around him. His cafe, Panino Espresso, only opened last week and it’s already had a very good response from customers. “The previous cafe that used to be here was quite posh, but I’ve tried to make mine more accessible to a wider range of customers,” he says. The prices are certainly competitive, but the bright, comfy interiors hardly scream ‘greasy spoon’ either.
Instead of being the stereotypical mustachioed white hipsters, many of these business owners are upwardly mobile, entrepreneurial second-generation immigrants who have been living in North London for most of their lives.
Muhammad worries about the large homeless population nearby, who sometimes sleep in shopfronts on Holloway Road. “I don’t want to generalise, but sometimes I see them drinking and think they may take drugs,” he says. He hopes that gentrification and new business openings will eventually smarten up the area: “There’s nothing wrong with it. A greater social mix would definitely not be a problem.”
The Barn, down near Highbury Corner, is fast becoming one of Holloway Road’s most popular brunch spots. Kaski Uklaj, 28, has owned the spacious cafe for two years and business has never been better. When I visit, young freelancers are curled up with their MacBooks and flat whites alongside older people leisurely reading the newspapers. “Every area in London is changing, and I’m glad that Holloway Road is becoming nicer,” he says. “It reduces the crime in the area and brings more customers our way. But there’s still a long way to go – just look at the charity shops across the road!”
However, he concedes that the poor will inevitably be displaced out of the area when the new crowd move in. “It brings the house prices up, and when the middle class people want bigger houses for their growing families, they will also move somewhere else,” he says. “It’s just inevitable.”
Kaski’s pragmatic view of social change is similar to those of several other Holloway Road shopkeepers I spoke to. Instead of being the stereotypical mustachioed white hipsters, many of these business owners are upwardly mobile, entrepreneurial second-generation immigrants who have been living in North London for most of their lives. What’s notable is that they want to work with – not against – the incoming yummy mummy brigade.
Recent openings include a branch of the popular vegan bakery Cookies and Scream, as well as a branch of Sam’s Chicken that controversially plans to sell booze and avocado fries. But, as the closure of Organic & Natural shows, the path to gentrification does not always have a smooth trajectory. Whatever will happen to the diverse local businesses of Holloway Road, its thriving community spirit shows no sign of abating. In a borough with such high economic inequality as Islington, this is certainly needed now more than ever.
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Read more about Holloway road’s rich history.