The New Urban Crisis: When Nothing Is Trickling Down



This post is the second in a three part review of Richard Florida’s book, ‘The New Urban Crisis: Gentrification, Housing Bubbles, Growing Inequality and What We Can Do About It’. PART 1

Last time we discussed gentrification in general terms. What does it look like in Edinburgh? Here is what I have observed happening in our community as gentrification has taken effect (and continues to do so).

1. Historic street names are now being changed to market the area to the new affluent buyers. For instance, the area next to Niddrie has always been known as ‘Greendykes’ and is famous for containing the blocks of flats where the two Trainspotting movies have been filmed. The whole area was demolished and it has now been renamed ‘Greenacres’ in an attempt to woo more affluent family and first-time buyers. The same sort of thing is happening in London, with local authority planners taking the word ‘estates’ out of use and calling them ‘neighbourhoods’ instead.

2. The local blocks of flats were given a complete makeover in preparation for the building of new townhouses and homes immediately next to them.

3. Council houses were bought and sold off to developers with the promise that a certain percentage of uprooted residents could move back. That is rarely, if ever, happening. Instead many of the houses are going to immigrants, which is causing racial tension.

4. House prices have gone through the roof, so it is practically impossible to get on the housing market if you work in a service industry or working-class job (as defined by Florida).

5. Rents are also astronomically high with the same effect.

The fact that the cost of living in Edinburgh’s city centre is so high, coupled with a chronic housing shortage, means that the local authority is gentrifying our scheme in an effort to tempt the educated middle classes to buy here. They’ve built a state-of-the-art library (a sure sign of gentrification, according to Florida), a shopping centre, supermarkets and new schools. The reality is, things are better for those that can afford it. Click To TweetNote that none of these things were available to the indigenous populace until the affluent needed somewhere more affordable to live. In the next decade (maybe even now) Niddrie will no longer be a scheme and most of the indigenous population will have moved on to other schemes or have been forced to relocate to places like Fife where house prices and rentals are much cheaper. The new, incoming middle class will know nothing of the deep history of the area and of the old house and street names. Nor will they care. They will just swarm the community and the dominant class will ultimately hold sway. All the while we are meant to be grateful because these policies have made things better. The reality is, they’ve made things better for those that can afford it. Those who can’t will be brushed aside and, for many, not all, their lives will not really have improved at all.

 

One thing Florida certainly nails in the book is the class divide in the UK. I want to park here for a moment because time and again I am coming up against majority culture (middle-class) evangelicals who think I am making this stuff up or that I am being divisive for even mentioning it. Yet, this American dude sees it as clear as day. There is a class divide in this country that is, and has been, growing decade upon decade. Again, much of the middle-class evangelical church is in denial. Yet, here we are as working- and/or service-class Christians (and the unemployed) asking where all the good, theologically solid churches are in our communities. Where are our leaders represented in UK Christianity? Some churches will point to ethnic diversity as proof that they are being inclusive, but the presence of a few dark-skinned people in our churches does not negate the issue of a class divide in our country and in our churches.

The problem, as I have observed it over the last 18 years, is that much of the church-planting and revitalisation movement (around the world) has followed global sociological and economic trends rather than the Bible. In fact, much of it mimics gentrification. Let me explain what I mean. Gentrification assumes a top-down approach to housing and social policy (at least in the UK – but this is generally true worldwide). By improving a geographical area in terms of housing and services the idea is that the poor indigenous populace will benefit by default. It is called the ‘trickle-down effect’. The reality is that while there are improvements to many of these communities, the poorest remain poor and are forced out of their homes and communities. The problems are not solved, they are just moved on.

Equally, there are some church leaders in the UK, indeed the world, who continue to maintain that our evangelism and missionary efforts should be concentrated on the leaders, politicians, artists and culture-shapers in our societies. In other words, let’s pump our finances and strategies into the upper and creative classes. This, they maintain, will have a trickle-down effect when it comes to reaching the poor. Some call it ‘planting upstream’. In other words, let’s plant churches in financially rich communities and then, in the future, we can fund work in poorer areas. With money and influence, the thinking goes, we can have more effect planting one of these financial powerhouse churches than five poorer churches that drain resources. It sounds logical enough. It even sounds feasible. Except it doesn’t work, and if the leaders advocating this approach don’t know it, then they ought to. The reality in church circles is the same as the reality in gentrification.

There is no trickle-down effect. Somebody recently challenged me on this and said there were more evangelical churches in rich communities doing mercy ministry than ever before, so how could I even make these claims? My answer is that much of the mercy ministry being carried out by richer, middle-class churches into our communities is anything but. Click here for a previous post where I look into this in more detail.

The fact is that ‘upstream churches’ are not really financing church planting and revitalisation ministry in the UK. There may be those who have helped the odd work or maybe even planted one or two churches (rare if it is even happening). But nothing like the scale that is needed to turn things around in our country. Upstream churches with upstream budgets fund upstream building projects before they will fund downstream Christians to plant in schemes and council estates. That’s the reality. 20schemes is almost entirely supported by Christian individuals and small churches (50-100 members) outside of the UK and not by rich, upstream churches. We have a couple of examples of large churches that regularly financially support us, one in the UK and the other in the USA. Some churches have given us one-off gifts, but nothing that comes close to funding this kind of ministry over a long period of time.

I can tell you for a fact that not one of our independent church planters had ever been successful in a grant application from an evangelical organisation in the UK. This changed recently when we were granted a large grant by the FIEC to upgrade a church building in a scheme in Edinburgh. We have also hugely benefitted from the generosity of HeartCry, a mission organisation in the USA that funds our work in Glasgow. But, aside from our two Presbyterian brothers (their denominations look after them), most of my church planters struggle to raise money for their salaries. In short, I do not know one church planter working in the council estates and schemes who has been helped by this trickle-down model at the local church level. Brothers in schemes and estates are all struggling for money and volunteers willing to move in and help them form teams. Larger churches may throw them a few pounds now and again, but nothing like what is needed to fund a church planter and his family properly and for the long term.

This post is the second in a three part review of Richard Florida’s book, ‘The New Urban Crisis’.

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Posted by Mez McConnell

Mez McConnell, is the Senior Pastor of Niddrie Community Church (Edinburgh, Scotland) and the founder and Ministry Director of 20schemes. He has been involved in full time pastoral ministry, both church planting and revitalisation since 1999.

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