Gentrification of Leith saddening

The Leith Walk in Edinburgh, where small family-run businesses such as this are being replaced by shiny office buildings and sterile chain stores. Photo: Getty Images
The Leith Walk in Edinburgh, where small family-run businesses such as this are being replaced by shiny office buildings and sterile chain stores. Photo: Getty Images
For the last two months, I have been living in Leith, a delightfully eccentric and family-oriented portside neighborhood in Edinburgh.

Contrary to what Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting would have you believe, there is more to Leith than heroin addicts and mobsters. Rather, Leith is a vibrant hub for families, artists, students and marginalised peoples.

What's alarming, though, is the subtle but pervasive creep of commercialism, shiny office buildings and sterile chains down Leith Walk towards the beating heart of the community. Where once there flourished dollar stores, family-run cafes and Polish grocery stores, there is now a sterile array of Starbucks and Costa coffee shops, tanning salons, yoga clubs, pricey gyms and shoebox-style student housing.

What's worse is that this gentrification has only just begun. The Drum Property group has decided to demolish a number of gorgeous red sandstone buildings at 106-154 Leith Walk, where previously a number of lively and much-loved local businesses operated.

So far, the following planning details have emerged: there are to be 500 student flats, a hotel, five-storey buildings and only 54 so-called ''affordable homes''. In retaliation, the Save Leith Walk movement has sprung up, a grassroots public campaign with the aim of preventing this demolition, protecting the heritage of the Walk and celebrating ''the very essence of what Leith is''.

The existing building is of a beautiful, historically important style, constructed in the Art Deco manner. But now it's been boarded up, and the empty shopfronts sit there uselessly. I shudder to think of the glass and concrete monstrosity that will arise in its place, and I worry about the detrimental impact an influx of people will have on already pressured services such as GPs and transport.

So what exactly is gentrification? You may have heard this term bandied about in discussions about hipsters, microbreweries, waxed moustaches, pop-up cafes and veganism. Basically, gentrification refers to the process by which higher income households displace significant numbers of lower income residents of a neighborhood. Often, families and marginalised people are pushed out of their homes by corporations hellbent on implementing destructive housing policies for their own financial gain. It's not a term synonymous with ''urban revitalisation'' as many people have suggested. Gentrification instead encompasses the negative effects of these ''investments'' in a neighborhood - the dislocation of traditional low-income residents and the disintegration of the area's social fabric.

Gentrification is a gnarly topic, because many of us benefit from it. And we shamefacedly remain ambivalent, continuing to splash out on expensive ''street-inspired'' food and hideous cocktails at arty-farty bars.

We snap up any opportunity for cheap, new housing, ignoring the poorest members of our community who have been displaced by these giant apartment buildings. For those of us who exist in the margins between ''getting by'' and ''struggling to make ends meet'', there's only so much we can do in the face of gentrification.

But I'd like to encourage you to make a start by acknowledging your own privilege. You may have moved into an area post-gentrification, and that's OK as long as you own it and use it to bring about positive change. Learn and respect the history of your new neighborhood. Work to preserve it and build a sense of community with your neighbours and people on your block. Create friendships and alliances with those struggling so you can work together in the interests of the wider community.

Actively protest the privatisation of parks, libraries, schools, roads and community centres. From cheerful parks where children can play to libraries where anyone can access knowledge, public domains are the flesh and blood of our communities. And while we're at it, let's demand affordable housing for all. Gentrification cannot occur without housing inequality.

Buy locally produced food and drink, and make socially conscious decisions about the places you go to. Does this new coffee chain hire local bartenders and waiters? Are they paid a living wage? Is this new bar accessible for those in the disabled community? Is this wealthy new church LGBTQIA+ friendly? Think twice before giving your money away to Starbucks - invest instead in a coffee from a family-owned business.

Learn to advocate for yourself and others by reading up on the tenant rights laws in your area and visiting local organisations such as the Disability Information Service for extra information. Don't sit on this information - share your knowledge with others.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, vote. Vote on the availability of social services, rent control, affordable housing and the actions of large corporations. Hold your council and spokesmen to task and use your combined voices.

Since starting this article, I have left Leith and headed down south to Oxford. I know I'll be back in Edinburgh before too long, but I'm worried about the little community I hold near to my heart.

Will Leith have changed for the worse by the time I return? For the sake of those who have been there far longer than I, I hope not.

-Jean Balchin is an English student at the University of Otago.

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