SK Speakeasy and the not-so easy politics around regeneration in South Kilburn, London July 2014

I recently attended SK Speakeasy, a public discussion and radio show about politics and regeneration in South Kilburn on K2K radio, a community radio station housed in South Kilburn Studios. Contrary to most radio shows which occur in a closed, studio setting, this program took place in the public, common area of South Kilburn Studios with a sizable audience and a passionate discussion.

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Why so much passion? Many reasons. South Kilburn is an extremely poor neighborhood. Its in the 1% most deprived areas of England in terms of income levels and benefit receipts. 49% of the residents are not in formal employment.

Moreover, the neighborhood is currently in the midst of a controversial regeneration process which began in 2004 and is estimated to last for another 5 to 10 years. This means that council estates are demolished, the residents are relocated willingly or unwillingly during the period of construction, and some of the former tenants are permitted to return to the neighborhood. This process also means that a neighborhood once dominated by a majority of publicly funded housing will become a mix of: private, market rate apartments to purchase, shared ownership (partial mortgage combined with rent), and council flats to rent for those on the waiting list. As a result, council tenants will no longer comprise the majority of residents, but a minority. To describe the situation in an understated “English” way, its an unpleasant situation. To classify it in a brash, American way, its social cleansing.

Beyond the poverty and the controversial regeneration process, there is the added history of the New Deal for Communities (NDC), which was a 10 year program that aimed to socially and economically develop the poorest areas in the UK. South Kilburn was a recipient of £55 million over a period of 10 years. Sadly, that period is remembered for scandal, corruption, and embezzlement.

The poverty, the regeneration, and the NDC scandals are the context of this neighborhood. Add to the mix: South Kilburn Studios (SKS)! South Kilburn Studios is a hub for creative businesses. In exchange for rent, tenants provide a form of community giveback. SKS’s space is supplied without cost by Brent Council and now, in its 4th year of existence, its funded by the South Kilburn Trust. SKS’s structure and purpose are innocuously positive, especially compared to millions of pounds whittled away by corruption. However, for many of the neighborhood’s residents, SKS itself has slowly developed into a symbol of gentrification and everything wrong with the regeneration process.

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How did this happen? As a tenant at SKS, I know sincerely that no one who manages SKS, funds it, or is a fellow tenant has interest in promoting gentrification and the displacement of low income people. However, the context and history of South Kilburn inevitably classifies SKS as a symbol of gentrifying process and the worst elements of regeneration.

First, SKS is housed in the former site of the New Deal for Communities. Simply by occupying this location, SKS inadvertently resonates with the NDC, its function as a source of funding for the community, and its problematic history.

Secondly, the site is at the crossroads of a number of social housing estates. The back of SKS faces the parking lot of another set of estates. In the parking lot, young men hang out in groups and drink P.Diddy’s’s very expensive vodka–£30 a bottle! On the other side of the street, more young men hang out in groups, drinking more of P.Diddy’s vodka.

Its a strange situation in which a hodgepodge group of SKS tenants: photographers, filmmakers, musicians, consultants, designers, etc, who are vaguely middle class in habitus (though not in earnings), walk in and out of SKS, carrying on with the day to day of running a business. The young men in the parking lot and the precinct (an English word for a square in a poor neighborhood) and the tenants have nothing to do with each other. The young men in the back are by and large of African descent. We tenants tend to be a mixed lot– a Benneton ad of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, lily white blond English to Grace Jones black– but are classified as white yuppies regardless of our factual multiculturalism.

The tension has been building for a while now, so luckily, the radio show was conceived to air and hopefully address these issues rather than sweep them under the carpet in the spirit of conflict avoidance and neighborhood unity. A close friend, Martin, randomly met Kaney, a highly articulate, young, South Kilburner, and together they proposed a radio show on politics within South Kilburn. Max, an SKS tenant who builds radio stations around the world and was one of the founders of K2K, responded enthusiastically, agreeing to produce the show.

The radio show and discussion were surprisingly successful and the room was full of young South Kilburners. I’ve been a tenant for over a year and I was pleased to see a genuine discussion between young adult South Kilburners and SKS tenants about the role of SKS in regeneration, the displacement of low income people, and what SKS offers to local residents. The South Kilburn youth present were articulate, analytical, and frustrated with the state of South Kilburn.

One one level, I was moved by what South Kilburn youth were saying. I heard the frustration about the lack of opportunities in the neighborhood and the general sense of helplessness against the tide of regeneration– a process that few residents feel is in their interests. At the same time, I also heard a deep sense of victimization and passivity, especially with regards to SKS and its activities. Based on the perception of South Kilburn youth in this discussion, the studio seems to host a vibrant program of events and training that intentionally excludes them.

While I empathize with this overall feeling of marginalization, I disagree with the claim that SKS intentionally excludes these groups of young South Kilburners. It seems that there is a misconception of SKS and its purpose. As a tenant who goes to my studio weekdays during office hours, I can accurately describe the daily activities as rather dull. Tenants sitting at desks, behind computers, absorbed in their work or procrastinating away into the lull of the internet like moths to a computer backlight. People making phone calls. Some work meetings. A community group working on a project in the public space. Tenants randomly chatting during breaks. Its hard to believe that anyone who is not actively engaged in these mundane, office activities, would find them compelling or exclusive– particularly people between the ages of 19-24. It seems that SKS represents the world of cutting edge London with glamorous job opportunities, which these young people are excluded from due to a combination of class, racial discrimination, and education. 

This radio show was the first in what will eventually become a monthly, if not biweekly public event. The conversations will not be easy but they will be worthwhile. Curious about the first discussion? Find it here.

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4 thoughts on “SK Speakeasy and the not-so easy politics around regeneration in South Kilburn, London July 2014

  1. Great article but what gentrifiers don’t get is just their presence is a symbol of dominance. You are guilty by association as soon as you show up… the legacy and cycle of superiority continues because of gentrifiers ability to create, find, finance, and explore new opportunities and obtain spaces (communities) to carry them out. The same young men in the parking lot would have a much harder time going into a middle class neighborhood and setting up shop (business and cultural wise).

    Why did you find it necessary to name and price the alcohol the men drank? What is the significance?

    1. Hi Shomari,

      Thank you for your engaged comments. First, re: gentrifiers as symbols of dominance. You are pointing at a contradiction that is an inherent problem in the gentrification discourse because it focuses too much on people and their symbolic capital rather than larger scale dynamics in which tenants’ rights have disappeared and owning property is seen as the only way to secure long term housing protection. There is not 1 face of gentrification, rather, its a dynamic. In the U.S, if a white, middle class person moves into a poor neighborhood mainly inhabited by people of color and migrants, that person is a gentrifier. Whether the gentrification happens in a year or 10 years, the presence of an individual who symbolizes cultural dominance sparks the eventual wave of change. According to people who decry gentrification, such a dynamic is inevitable–but its not. If tenants have the possibility of permanent rights, then the moving in of middle class individuals into low income areas does not signify such wide scale change and displacement.

      Re: the brand of the alcohol. I find it fascinating that a group of people who are systematically marginalized due to race and class, residing in a neighborhood that is in the 1% of the most deprived in the UK, are buying such expensive alcoholic drinks as a sign of luxury consumption as well as conforming to group consumption patterns and prestige markers. This examples flies in the face of dominant economic thinking that assumes that poor people are motivated primarily by materialism, that is, poor people buy low priced items because that is what they can afford. Actually, people of all income groups are equally susceptible to luxury marketing and communications. In this case, I found it particularly interesting that Puff Daddy is the spokesperson and why Puff Daddy’s symbol as a king of bling appeals to this group of young men.

  2. Hi Nazima,
    I was really interested in your article. I have been working in South Kilburn over the last four years in a community centre where I run a drama group for young people who are home educated. We are aiming to run a community drama project from Sept 2015- June 2016 and I think the regeneration issue would be a good stimulus from which to develop a piece of community drama. If you are interested in discussing this or could pass me on to anyone who you think would be, I would be really grateful. Best wishes.

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