The mock-vintage interiors and elaborate coffee bean selections might be enough to make your skin crawl on entering a hipster cafe, but a protest in London last month revealed just how much damage is being done to local communities by gentrification.
The much-discussed ‘Cereal Killer Cafe’ located in Shoreditch in east London was attacked on the night of the 26th September in a protest carried out by hundreds of Londoners carrying pig’s heads and torches, “daubing the word “scum” on the shop window and setting fire to an effigy of a police officer”, The Guardian reports. The cafe seems to have become the symbol of inequality in east London to these protestors.
The protest is just one concrete example of a widespread ‘hipster bashing’ that some claim has become a culturally accepted form of racism. The hipster and his trust-fund dependant, vegetable and beard-growing, apolitical, pseudo-intellectual laziness, has become symbolic for the larger economic forces that drive gentrification. The hipster, by metonymy, has become the harbinger of neighbourhood commercialisation and community devastation. The protest, although sensationalised by reporters and the afflicted, reveals just how real this hipster-hate has become. The question remains: is the hipster really to blame?
The hipster has attracted a wide range of connotations in recent years. In the US context, Anthony Gruzo writing for Salon, claims, the term has become a concept “without referent or political salience”, and one that is the result of a “typically American anti-intellectualism, decked out in liberal bunting, subtle homophobia, and recognizably manipulative appeals to white, middle class resentment, now aimed at the lazy hipster who either lives on his trust fund, or…abuses public assistance.” The range of associations the term is able to take on, to Galluzo, reveals once again how “racist templates are multi use tools.”
I don’t want to endorse this view too strongly: the hipster, despite the recent attack, is a stereotype generally attached to a comfortable middle class, who do not suffer all too much at the hands of prejudice. I do want to take the opportunity to emphasise that the hipster and his/her cafe is a product of a process of gentrification that exerts a much more drastic discrimination on the long-time residents of neighbourhoods. While the Cereal Killer Cafe in London might highlight the inequality within these neighbourhoods, it is important that we aren’t led too far astray by association, and that we interpret these protests as a critique of a structural exclusion rather than an attack on one specific cafe as the sole enforcer of gentrification.
Yet it isn’t hard to see why the Cereal Killer Cafe might hit a certain kind of nerve among former Shoreditch residents. The area is located in Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in London, with the highest child poverty rate in the country-it reached 49 per cent this year, increasing from 42 last year. As one protester, Will Harvey, put it in his piece in The Guardian, “Many parents in the area suffer the indignity of relying on food banks to feed their children while the new Shoreditch residents can make a successful business selling children’s cereal for £ 5 a bowl.” The protesters needed a target that would draw attention to the gross inequality that exists in the area, and The Killer Cereal Cafe fit the bill pretty well.
Perhaps, though, picking such a publicised target worked against the protesters. The cafe had already appeared in interviews prior to the protests, memorably following the embarrassment last year when a Channel 4 reporter grilled one of the owners with some questions about the poverty in the area. The cafe, in the aftermath of the protest, received a lot of attention once again and, instead of acting as a symbol for inequality, was presented as the sole victim of the protest in the media. Rather than calling attention to, as Harvey put it, “inequality and social cleansing”, the media basked in the quirky aesthetic of the café and its multi-coloured cereal boxes.
The rally of support for the Cereal Cafe following the protests shows just how much attention the protests drew to the cafe. Small-business owners pitted together to get the Cereal Cafe back into shape. Shop owner Gary Keery, said he had received an “amazing” amount of support since Cereal Killer Cafe was attacked. Local businesses have dropped off gifts and offered to help repaint his storefront, which was spattered with red paint during the protests.
The shop owners even received the support of Mayor Boris Johnson who tweeted his condemnations of the “violent protests”.
When Boris Johnson claims that the shops are the lifeblood of the city, he overlooks the livelihood of the protesters who, for a large part, live below the poverty line. The discourse following the debates has become more about the rights of small businesses to prosper, than about the rights of individuals to basic sustenance.
The owners of small businesses in all gentrifying areas pitch the same defense —their right to earn an honest buck. Businesses also suffer under the demands of inflating rent prices and need to get by, they claim. “I still have to pay over the top rent for my premises and pay the 12 staff I have employed,” Mr. Keery responded following the Channel 4 bashing. Small business owners are not single-handedly going to “solve the poverty crisis.”
The protests have drawn attention to the rights of small business owners and their struggles, leaving aside the truly urgent facts: that the area of London has the second highest unemployment rate in London and the highest rates of long term illness and premature death, for example. The protesters, it seems, will need to find a different angle if they want their efforts to direct attention to the plight of less sensational victims. Call it racism, or call it a strategic call for attention, but hipster bashing does not seem to be doing the job.
Perhaps the protesters should consider a new local target for their next protest. They will be spoiled for choice with the centre of Britain’s hipster culture, Brick Lane, just down the road. Or they could take a hit at “Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium” where visitors pay to sit at a table amid hoards of rescue cats. Or perhaps, we need to see that the likes of The Cereal Killer Cafe are not the real executioners here, nor are they the most strategic targets in a campaign for real change. The proliferation of these specialty cafes is the product of an economic trend already well underway; one that needs to be regulated by the government whose economic interests it serves. This way, the appearance of the next artisan cereal shop may no longer signal inflated house prices and impending doom for local residents.