Gentrification: Why “There” Isn’t The New “Here”

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While out and about over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about how we see cities. Not so much how we actually see them – though the fact that spring has finally come to London has made it extra-beautiful to behold (see image). I’ve been thinking about how we see them in our minds.

To explain, here in London, house prices are rising fast. And rapidly rising house prices mean rapid gentrification, which in London, were you to map it out, takes the rough form of an ever-expanding circle.

As living in central districts becomes too expensive, outlying areas become colonised – those on low incomes lead the way, followed by artists and other creatives, then hipsters, then young professionals, then young families, then older people looking for somewhere with “an edge” (which is actually by then long gone), then the established wealthy bring up the rear, with those on low incomes who once lived in the neighbourhood having long, long since been pushed far further out.

Of course, the above is an extremely oversimplified version of a very complex phenomenon. But I think it’s a good summary of what is happening in London, particularly in east London, my part of the city. I’ve gradually moved further away from the centre of the city over the past ten years in terms of where I work, where I live and where I hang out, which I guess you might see as as good a very rough indicator of the progress of gentrification as any.

This process, found in other cities, including New Orleans, but I think particularly acute in east London, means that everywhere is always the new somewhere or perhaps the old somewhere else. Dalston used to be the new Shoreditch. Clapton and Hackney Wick used to be the new Dalston but isn’t that now Peckham? And is Walthamstowe the new Clapton? People in east London have these discussions all the time.

To be honest, I’m not really a fan of this conversation. Dalston, where I live, is the old just about everywhere now, but I still like it. I like Hackney Wick and Clapton too, and would like to spend more time in Walthamstowe and Peckham. I think this “new” and “old” business is a slightly destructive cultural process that, instead of valuing areas and accepting urban change as inevitable, races through neighbourhoods, jacking up living costs in the process, only to deem them terminally uncool a year or two later.

Here is a manifesto for city dwellers. Live somewhere. Like it and enjoy it. Visit other places. Try to like them and enjoy them too. Whatever neighbourhood you’re in, as an inhabitant or a visitor, accept its good and bad points. Accept it will change. You’re somewhere special – it’s not the old or new anywhere. It’s itself, and there’s nowhere quite like it.



Good Friday Gumbo

Yesterday, Good Friday, I was cooking dinner for some of my favourite people, so I decided to make one of my favourite dishes from my favourite cuisine – New Orleans gumbo.

I used “LaDonna’s” “Creole Gumbo” recipe from the Treme cookbook inspired by the HBO TV series, a beautiful work of art and a wonderful philosophy treatise as well as a cookery manual. I’m slightly sad it’s now somewhat splashed and spattered, but I find all my very favourite cookbooks end up this way.

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I probably should have made gumbo z’herbes, a greens-based version designed to suit Lenten dietary restrictions and traditionally eaten in New Orleans on Maundy Thursday.

If you’re tempted by the thought of this, a recipe (along with some interesting thoughts about the dish) can also be found in the Treme cookbook courtesy of “Albert” and Leah Chase of renowned New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase.

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But my guests love seafood and sausage, so I had to go for the classic version.

Like all good cookery projects, this one started with a stock of great ingredients: meat, fish, vegetables, spice.

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First, roux and okra. This combination of a French cooking technique and an African vegetable is a sign of the rich mix of influences on New Orleans cusine. Okra can be hard to find in London; the ones I bought at the Turkish greengrocer near where I live came all the way from Mexico. 

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Gumbo can also have filé powder in its base, an ingredient derived from the sassafras tree and first used by Native Americans, another significant part of the Louisiana melting pot. But it’s almost impossible to source in the UK, so I left it out.

Next, appropriately for an Easter dish, the “holy trinity” – bell pepper, onion and celery. I wish I could have used the extra big and tasty Fenland celery I grew up with during my childhood in low-lying and watery East Anglia, which always reminds me a little bit of the Louisiana wetlands. But it’s out of season at the moment.

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Then the rendered sausage. We don’t have andouille or Creole hot sausage in London – “LaDonna” says in her recipe that she’s never seen Creole hot sausage outside the city. So I used my imagination and picked a mixture of Spanish chorizo and black pepper beef sausage.

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I made the fish stock from Scottish langoustines, that might just have come from the waters around the Isle of Skye near to where my parents have a cabin.

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Gradually the ingredients start to come together. First, the roux and okra are added to the stock, then the sausage, and then the vegetables and shrimp meat.

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The pot simmers, and the flavours blend.

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Towards the end of the cooking process, I added some shell-on langoustines I’d reserved – in my family, you’re not eating seafood if you’re not getting sticky hands and sauce on your shirt!

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Creole spice blend is the final addition, and is yet another ingredient that’s commonplace in New Orleans but hard to find here – so I made my own: black pepper, white pepper, cayenne, paprika, thyme, oregano, basil and what you could call “delta salt”, another part of my East Anglian childhood.

As I mixed these together and smelled the sweet herbs, spice and soft heat, I thought I could sense the Italian influence on New Orleans cooking.

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The cooked gumbo rests for a while, and is then reheated and finally ready to serve, traditionally over hot white rice.

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I also added some garlic-buttered French bread and a celery leaf and parsley salad dressed with olive oil, white wine vinegar and lemon juice. And it all must have tasted all right as all that was left at the end was washing up.

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Alligator Tacos


It all started with alligator tacos. Not eating alligator tacos (this photo isn’t mine, sadly) though I’d love to try this Louisiana delight. No, this week I’ve been so busy I’ve barely had time to eat anything.

But I did manage to go for a run, during which I listened to a great podcast item about Mexican food across the US, including the Louisiana take on it, and also happened to go past my local Mexican restaurant at the same time.

Doing so made me think about Latin American culture in London. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll know I’m always on the lookout for anything New Orleans-related in my home city, and Latin America is a part of the New Orleans cultural gumbo.

The city has long historical links to Haiti and Cuba, and New Orleans has often been dubbed “the northernmost Caribbean city”. Much of the architecture of the “French” quarter is Spanish colonial in style, its distinctive features dating from Spain’s forty year rule of the city in the late eighteenth century. And in recent years, the city’s Latino population has grown rapidly, partly due to an influx of construction workers since Katrina.

The UK meanwhile has strong ties to the formerly British Caribbean nations, which have given London a rich Caribbean culture. However, Latin American influences in London are less evident. Until just a few years ago, for instance, it was pretty much impossible to get the kind of authentic and good quality Mexican food here that’s easy to find in many parts of the US.

Things are changing. I was recently fortunate enough to come across online magazine Jungle Drums that’s doing an amazing job of charting the presence of all kinds of Latin American culture in London, particularly Brazilian culture.

And on food again, I used to love going to Sabor, once a north London restaurant near where I live that, unusually for an eaterie here, served amazing food from all across Latin America.

Very sadly, Sabor closed in 2012, but is now up and running again in the form of a pop-up venture. I’m planning to sign up for their latest event and – who knows – maybe, just maybe, there’ll be alligator tacos on the menu…

Image: Alyson Hurt


Death In London, And All That Jazz


Death is something we all have in common, whatever city we live in. Yet even after we die, social divisions and injustices can still be very evident.

That’s true of New Orleans, an old city where contemplation of death is unavoidable for the living – it’s literally a place on the map. There are jazz funerals and magnificent above-ground tombs with their broken columns and staues of angels. But there are also sites like Charity Hospital Cemetary where thousands of impoverished victims of the city’s nineteen century yellow fever and malaria epidemics are buried in mass graves.

There’s the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, dedicated to “the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death” in the Treme neighbourhood of the city. And then there’s the bodies still unclaimed after Hurricane Katrina, now memorialised by a monument at Charity Hospital Cemetery.

London too has its own distinctive traditions for marking death – only today I saw a traditional East End funeral, horse-drawn hearse, black feathers, top hat and all, pass my window. And as in New Orleans, how you lived determines how you’ll be treated after you die. The number of “paupers’ funerals”, burials for those who die without resources to pay for their sending off, is on the rise in the UK.

This fact is the inspiration for a play I saw last Saturday (from which the image is taken): human rights-focused theatre company Ice and Fire‘s new production The Nine O’Clock Slotnamed after the unpopular time of day when those without friends or relatives to pick a better time tend to be buried.

The piece has a striking start. The venue, usually an art gallery, has been temporarily set up to look like a funeral parlour and action commences with the audience being welcomed by a presiding minister and then ushered into a narrow stairwell and towards an unknown underground zone for what’s been billed as a “a downward journey from the world of the living to the off-limits world of the dead and dying”.

The action that follows, covering the connected stories of four economically and socially impoverished individuals buried together, has excellent dialogue and is extremely well-acted. There’s interesting use of jazz music which, in London as much as in New Orleans, evokes the rich and bittersweet complexities of life, as lived by the deceased. Interestingly, the tracks used include “St. James Infirmary Blues”, in which living and dying in London and New Orleans are woven together.

But there’s much about the play that’s not assured. After the promising beginning that makes full dramatic use of the building’s twists and turns, the work settles into trotting through a one-location incident-packed narrative that sometimes, because of a few overblown set pieces and unnecessary plot twists, resembles an episode of Eastenders.

I’d also add that there are sections that could be unbearable for anyone who’s endured or contemplated the death of someone close to them – there’s pain to be felt here that I don’t think a theatre company should set out to induce in its audience.

But maybe I didn’t really like the play because I simply don’t believe in death. Let me explain. It’s become somewhat fashionable for morbid contemplation to be fêted as a signifier of the value of life, a view I can sympathise with but am now coming to think I can’t fully subscribe to.

I think if you take an audience down into the grave, you need to let them rise out of it again. Thinking about death is an important part of life, but life should be the point – once you’re dead, you’re dead, in this world at least. In a play like this one, and in our lives in general, we should remember the dead but ultimately focus on the living.