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, is passionately fighting the artwashing that’s now being inflicted upon Basildon. This is his Facebook page: Old Man Stan’s Bazzo Stick Gang – https://www.facebook.com/official.oldmanstan We’ve re-posted a couple of his pieces here on this blog – here they are:
On Saturday 11 September, there was an event organised to promote these murals. The aforementioned artist wasn’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.
Last but by no means least, 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 ‘Old Man Stan’ a lot of thanks for pulling this off:)