Is London a city of ghettos?

Some people are of the view that London does not have ghettos. To some, visiting London feels like you’re visiting one hundred countries at once, as if someone has taken the world, shook it up like a giant snowstorm and people from around the globe, landed in and around London, forming a random assortment of people and juxtapositions, with no apparent pattern. Arguably, compared to other British cities, ethnic groups are more randomly dispersed amongst London, and any one area usually has a mix of ethnic groupings. London is celebrated for this fact and contrasted with towns and cities in the north of England, where people of particular ethnic groups have congregated, effectively creating two towns in one, ghettos, in which people of other ethnic creeds, are made to feel unwelcomed, the ghettos often reflecting enmity between the White British and the Asian British. Perhaps one of the reason London has not become as ghettoized as some of the northern cities is that there are many ethnic groupings. It is more likely for ghettos to form when there are just two or three ethnic groups, because then the differences become simpler to grasp, are magnified, and places become more easily identifiable as belonging to one group or another. In a city like London, with over one hundred ethnic and language groups represented, there is less a feeling of them and us, and more a feeling of me and everyone else.

However the sheer diversity of London is arguably not enough, in and of itself, to prevent the formation of ghettos. After all, it is said that it is the rich random mix of London, which makes it different to New York, a city of immigrants, divided into areas characterized by particular ethnic groups, into which one treads gingerly if one is not from that group. Part of the reason for why London lacks the New York ghettos is that it has less space available to it, and people who want to live here, have less choice about where they live. The fact is, newcomers to London might, in an ideal world, choose to live next to their brethren, but more often than not they are faced with the choice of a flat in a place they are told to live by a local authority, usually surrounded by a mix of strangers, or homelessness. The normal processes of group identification and consolidation are tempered by the structural pressures of price, space and geography.

Orin Hargraves, in his book Culture Shock, argues that another reason for why London is less ghettoized is the availability of low-cost housing in each London Borough, which means there are poorer people and members of poorer immigrant communities in every part of London. Hargraves, an American, is arguably contrasting London with American towns and cities where housing tends to be private, and where many areas have been developed exclusively for the rich. This means poor immigrants arriving into the city cannot live there, and are likely to be huddled together in slums and favelas. This, arguably, is more an American phenomenon than a British one.

Furthermore it is principally about ghettos of class rather than ethnicity although to the extent that certain ethnic groups are disproportionately represented in particular classes, so ghettos of class become ghettos of ethnicity. Reflecting on Hargraves point, it is certainly true that traditionally, Borough councils have sought to mix up the housing stock to achieve a social mix. I am always struck, when I walk through Hampstead village, a peaceful sanctuary for the more salubrious minded of London’s elite, and when I walk through Flask Walk and Well Walk in particular, by the Council housing on Well Walk, which sits opposite the plush Hampsteadian Victorian town houses opposite. The council housing has been built to blend in seamlessly to the Hampsteadian environment, but when you peer hard at the Camden Council insignia dotted around the buildings, and with time notice the characters that come in and out of the development, you are suddenly taken aback by the contrast in the social classes of the people on this street.

Maybe one of the reasons that Borough Councils have tended to ensure a mix of social housing in London, is because the Labour Party have been reasonably strong in the areas, and they have been keen to ensure poorer people live all over the Borough to maintain their vote in future elections.

All this is rapidly changing however, in the twenty-first century. Local authority budgets have been slashed. This has gone hand in hand with the rapid growth of the financial sector in London, as the state together with a cabal of international financiers and banks, seek to hollow out London of its working class denizens, and refurb, spruce and feather it up, for an emerging breed of global elite, a cabal of international financiers, bankers, banks and oligarchs. Local authorities then have been keen to demolish social housing and use the space for developers to build new glassy towers, housing the new financier footservants. At the same time, the Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition has been determined to drive people out of London who are not high earners, through capping, reducing or scrapping benefits. This means that even when local authority housing is being preserved, poorer tenants have to move out, and wealthier ones are taking their place.

Arguably then Hargraves portrait of London will look quite different in twenty years time, ghettos of class will have emerged, arguably London itself have become a ghetto of the well paid, we may even see the City Wall of London remounted to keep the Barbarians and Iceni out. Certainly, newly arrived poorer immigrants will find it harder to live in London, and London’s poorer immigrant communities may need to find alternative accommodation in other parts of the city, outside of the city altogether. Or they may, as they have traditionally done, find innovative ways of surviving in amongst the interstices of Lonodn’s growing wealth. The back gardens of Southall’s semi-detached and terraced suburbs are said to be full of garden sheds, being used as accommodation for families and newly arrived immigrants, looking for low-rent solutions. London’s ethnic composition may therefore change, and with the creation of ghettos of class, may come ghettos based around ethnic identities. Whatever happens, it should also be borne in mind that the development of London as a nest for a new global elite and its financier foot servants, will itself usher in a diverse ethnic mix from all over the world, although principally Asia, Europe and the States, creating a new mix.

Having said all this, whilst there may be a qualitative difference between London and some northern British towns and the city of New York, the argument that there are no ghettos, nor processes of ghettoization in London, is not tenable. Processes of ghettoization have always been at play in London. In 1712, Joseph Addison writing in The Spectator, suggested the different parts of the city had come to be colonised by wholly different nations: “the inhabitants of St. James’s, notwithstanding they live under the same laws, and speak the same language, are a distinct people from those of Cheapside, who are likewise removed from those of the Temple on the one side, and those of Smithfield on the other, by several climates and degrees in their way of thinking and conversing”. But again, perhaps Addison is referring to ghettos of class and profession, rather than ethnicity, religion and birthplace. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, a modest population of Black people, come as slaves from the United States, or had who were given sanctuary in London following their participation in the Seven Years War and the American War, were said to have lived in the relatively poor parishes of the East End; in the nineteenth century a small, well defined community existed at Canning Town just north of the docks.

Further, now in the twenty-first century, some areas of London are clearly developing large populations of one kind of ethnic minority or another. Shadwell and Poplar in East London have a large population of Bengalis, diminutive people, who are marked out from their more westernised neighbours by the numerous women that walk along the streets dressed in hijabs and burkas. In recent years aggressive youths, claiming Tower Hamlets to be some kind of Muslim land have physically and verbally harassed and intimidated anyone who looks to be breaking with what they consider to be Sharia Law.

Furthermore irrespective of whether there are geographic ghettoes in London there are undoubtedly psychological ghettos, whereby people of a given provenance tend to stick together and communicate uniquely with one another. I have heard stories of Bengali women, who have lived in the UK for over a decade but who have yet to learn a word of English, because they have yet to need to, which in part, is a reflection of the control that Bengali men exercise over their life, their inability to be able to venture into any sphere of life beyond the domestic, and possibly their lack of confidence and education. The Spanish are well known for congregating with other Spaniards, the Iberian climate promotes a more outward and gregarious manner in the Spanish, which means new arrivals to London find it difficult to bond with foreigners but very easy to bond with other Spaniards and similarly minded outgoing types. There are countless ethnic groups in London, which have their own radio station. For example there is a Greek radio station that is run from some second floor terrace just off the North Circular, and recently a new French London radio station was launched via the Internet. These psychological ghettos have been made possible by the critical mass of immigrant groups in London, public transport, which allows birds of a feather to flock together, and the internet, mobile phone and satellite television which allows compatriots to maintain a cultural and information bond with the homeland, their mother tongue and each other in London.

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