Stories of gentrification and resistance from Ladbroke Grove and Kreuzberg

It is almost exactly the same distance, about 4.5 kilometres, from London’s Marble Arch to Ladbroke Grove Tube Station as it is from Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to Kottbusser Tor U Bahn Station in the heart of Kreuzberg.

But it is not just proximity to major landmarks that connects these two inner city areas: Both districts played a key role in the history and development of London and Berlin after the Second World War, as vibrant working class communities, centres of immigration and social activism, music and culture, and now seemingly relentless gentrification.

Ladbroke Grove and Kreuzberg were both badly bombed during the war and many buildings were left derelict and abandoned for long periods of time. However, the damage was particularly severe in Kreuzberg, which prior to the war had been a densely populated industrial area at the heart of Berlin. With the post-war division of the city into four sectors, Kreuzberg quickly became a neglected enclave of West Berlin, largely out of sight and out of mind for the city government. It became even more isolated in 1961 when the Wall was erected right on its doorstep, hemming residents in on three sides. The wall created an impenetrable barrier between Kreuzberg and the thousands of residents of East Berlin who worked in its factories and as a result the factory owners began to recruit workers from southern Europe and Turkey to fill the low-paid jobs forcibly vacated by the residents of the East. The immigrants were originally hired as “guest workers” but eventually established a permanent presence and helped to create a uniquely diverse community.

Ladbroke Grove had been one of London’s worst slum areas in the 1930s, and after the war it was one of the few inner-city areas that the new migrant workers from Ireland and the Caribbean could settle. They faced intense and overt discrimination with many landlords openly stating “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs.” The migrants were crammed into crumbling, rat and cockroach infested buildings, with several families having to share one bathroom. They were exploited by rapacious landlords and had little legal protection against rent hikes and evictions. The migrants from the Caribbean moreover were subject to daily racial abuse and sometimes violent attack by gangs of white youths.

The now internationally-known Notting Hill Carnival originated in Ladbroke Grove in the late 1950s as a community event designed to bring people together and overcome racial tension in the area. The carnival did help on a superficial level but tensions continued to simmer until 1976 when a massive riot broke out. The riot was a response to years of police repression, which had increased significantly in the mid-1970s with police using stop and search provisions to target and harass young black men in particular.

Film maker and musician Don Letts at Notting Hill Carnival riots, 1976.

The riot reinvigorated the community and led to the formation of numerous grassroots organizations designed to improve the lives of ordinary people and tackle the issues that led to the riots in the first place, such as poor housing, discrimination and lack of access to social welfare.

The squatters’ movement of the 1970s was one of the most important developments in the Ladbroke Grove community with residents of Freston Road famously declaring independence from the United Kingdom in 1978 and establishing the free state of Frestonia, which lasted the best part of decade. Frestonia had its own National Theatre, postage stamps and the district’s most famous musical residents The Clash recorded their 1982 album Combat Rock in part at Frestonia’s People’s Hall.

In Kreuzberg too, the squatters’ movement played a huge role in revitalising the community by occupying abandoned buildings, preventing the authorities from evicting poor working-class families, and establishing self-governing and self-sustaining communities. The squatters created an oasis of social activism, music and art in the staid, bourgeois metropolis of West Berlin in the 1970s and 80s, which attracted disaffected youths from all over West Germany and beyond.  International musicians and artists like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and The Ramones also became part of the Kreuzberg community.

The alternative state of Kreuzberg was tolerated by the Berlin municipal authorities up to a point but tensions were never far from the surface and on 1 May 1987, anger and frustration boiled over when police broke up the traditional May Day festival resulting in two days of rioting. The riot was however just about the last stand of the resistance in Kreuzberg. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Kreuzberg once again become an integral part of the unified city and international capital saw huge potential for redevelopment. Many squatters had already achieved legal status at this time and as such stood to benefit from the influx of new money. Those still on the fringes of society were gradually squeezed out. Rents started to rise, new businesses moved into the old squatter buildings. Hipster coffee shops and boutiques catering to the needs of young creatives and internet entrepreneurs gradually replaced the traditional neighbourhood cafes and bars that defined the old community.

A transformed squatter building in Kreuzberg today

There is still enough of the old Kreuzberg or perhaps it is just facsimile of the old Kreuzberg to make the district a mecca for young party-goers but many of the old residents complain that they are now just extras on a film set created by the international tourism industry. In Ladbroke Grove meanwhile, many residents were literally extras in the notorious 1999 movie Notting Hill which white-washed the district and presented it as a quaint home for oh-so-amusing arty types. Today, house prices in Ladbroke Grove have also risen to the point where very few people can afford to buy or even rent and the vitality that once characterized the place has largely withered away. The Notting Hill Carnival is still an important date in the community calendar but it has now become a largely corporate event, seemingly more concerned with branding than a celebration of community solidarity.

However, there is a chance that one terrible event in June this year could revive the old community spirit of social activism, not only in Ladbroke Grove but across London and the United Kingdom. The fire at the Grenfell Tower, adjacent to the former free state of Frestonia, killed more than 80 people, including many refugees and asylum seekers who were crammed into the 24-storey tower block because they had nowhere else to go. The response of the public to the tragedy has been remarkable and, as long as the community remains united and gets continued support, there is hope that real change will come about in social housing policy and local government accountability. That said, if the official inquiry into the disaster drags on for years, as many fear it will do, and the survivors are dispersed, there is also a chance that the guilty will go unpunished and the remaining working class families of Ladbroke Grove will be finally pushed out by creeping gentrification.

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