In October 2016, the £150 million Victoria Gate shopping centre opened in Leeds City Centre. Beyond its doors are vast curved glass shopfronts, polished marble floors and golden chandeliers; an urban temple to commodity fetishism.
This grotesque development, which attempts to mimic the old arcades, sits as a looming shadow over its neighbours. Surrounding the concrete-latticed monolith are the spaces and homes of charities, creative industries and the small-scale traders of Kirkgate Market. This former industrial centre is now home to the likes of the Music and Arts Production (MAP) charity which provides indispensable first-hand experience of the creative industries to young people at risk of exclusion from mainstream education, usually from lower-income backgrounds. So how does the nauseatingly lavish Victoria Gate pose a threat to these communities and spaces?
The area of Mabgate, in which they reside, is some of the last land of Leeds City Centre to be conquered by the rapacious interests of capital. Most of the people who live and work in this community do not own the buildings or the land itself. They belong to a number of landlords, who for the most part have left their property to decay, and who are rubbing their hands at the sight of expanding developments on their urban horizon. The urban restructuring of the surrounding area, such as that where Victoria Gate sits, has propelled the market value of their land and properties skyward. One-by-one, properties are sold to developers to level and rebuild the properties into high-rent luxury apartments and properties to accumulate a higher rate of profit than could be appropriated from the communities that formerly resided there. These communities are uprooted and dispossessed from their productive spaces and homes. Powerless in the face of eviction, they are forced to move out to the urban peripheries. For organisations like MAP, if evicted, this will mean downsizing as a best-case scenario. To avoid this, MAP, a non-profit organisation, are required to raise £2.4 million in funds to purchase the Grade 2 listed building in which they are housed by 2019.
These processes of gentrification coincide with Leeds’ 2023 bid for the European Capital of Culture. Leeds City Council reported in their Outer North-East Community Commitee report of September 2016 that “the European Capital of Culture competition offers an opportunity to re-position Leeds in Europe and raise our profile internationally […] and generate a substantial amount of investment in culture, arts, education and infrastructure.” Evidence shows us that in reality they aim to overwrite the grassroots community culture, arts and education with a culture based on consumerism. This bid is masking the attempt to butcher and restructure the urban environment to serve the religion of economic growth at the expense of those less fortunate.
The effects of gentrification, globally, are well documented. From modern day Detroit to 19th Century Paris, the dialectical ballad of urban restructuring and dispossession is historical. This history displays the creative destruction of an economic system geared towards the accumulation of capital at any social cost. Whole communities are either uprooted or ghettoised as they are consumed by the continuously expanding structures of the city, ravenous for ‘economic growth’. This process is branded as ‘urban regeneration’ but for many it means social cleansing. The process of unregulated capital expansion will continue to happen under our noses whilst the blissfully unaware gawk at the magnificence of commodity porn.
Victoria Gate is the materialisation of urbanisation under the conditions of the current economic system. Its very existence poses an imminent threat to the surrounding communities. However, the keen-eyed observations of urban flâneurs are not going to stop these processes and save the communities, charities and spaces from catastrophe. No: political action is required. Demands must be made to democratise our urban environments and the spaces that are so intertwined with our identities. These demands should be a cry for the right to the city, for open access to use values and social justice for all and not an urbanisation based on consumerism, exclusion and displacement.
The next time you pass Victoria Gate, new luxury student and professional accommodation or grand business parks, ask yourself “… at what social expense?”. Adopt the right to the city as the slogan of a political ideal and fight for it, in which ever way you can, relentlessly.
Photo Credit: Original photo is from The Guardian, and has been edited by Sean Benstead.