Gentrification in Kensington
The name, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, has connotations of affluence, aristocracy, and the elite. This is the borough of a royal residence, Kensington Palace, situated on Kensington Palace Gardens. This road was known locally as Millionaires’ Row when Sharda was growing up, but now it’s Billionaires’ Row, an avenue of private homes, embassies, and a royal palace on the most expensive residential street in Britain. Near to Kensington Palace Gardens are high-end department stores like Harrods and Harvey Nichols, and supercars, Ferraris and Lamborghinis, speed down Knightsbridge into Chelsea. In March 2022, ITV News reported that residents were pleading for a larger fine, more than the current £100, for supercars that were as loud as jet planes and would wake people up in the night.
But Kensington is also where the Grenfell Tower fire happened in 2017, on a council estate in Notting Dale ward, one of the most deprived areas in terms of socio-economic wealth in the UK. A fire that led to 72 people, including 18 children, to die in the most horrific circumstances, in the middle of the night. The fire was a product of years of mismanagement, health and safety failures and the refusal of local authorities to listen and respond to the concerns of people living on a council estate. Indeed, the disparity in Kensington between the wealthiest and the poorest is outstanding. It is also physically evident when walking from the tower-blocks in Ladbroke Grove through to the villas around Phillimore Gardens (a walk that takes no more than twenty minutes). These socio-economic extremities were familiar, and a normal part of growing up in Kensington.
In 1964, the British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term ‘gentrification’ shortly after carrying out research on an urban planning project in the north of Kensington. By this, she meant the movement of the middle classes or ‘gentry’ into urban areas, movement which then significantly transformed the socio-cultural character of the area and displaced the resident working classes. Sharda's research has shown how this now classic wave of ‘gentrification’ did not stop there, and neither did it only impact the north of the borough. She looked at three building biographies – of Lancaster West Estate in Notting Dale, and One Kensington Gardens and Webb Place both on Kensington High Street – to show how gentrification in its different forms (buy-to-leave, state-led and corporate ownership) continues to have a detrimental impact on the everyday lives of tenants across private, council, and regulated tenancies in the borough. She also researched different aspects of gentrification processes, such as the speculative financialisation of housing by the council, the slow violence of gentrification and the unhoming and survivability it triggers, the latter seen in various creative acts of resistance. Sharda used a mixed methods approach of secondary discourse analysis, some statistical data, 30 in-depth interviews with residents, four ethnographic biographies, autoethnography, ethnography, photography and questionnaires with 79 responses. Overall there were 109 participants (including 11 Kensington and Chelsea councillors).
Sharda found that behind the facade of Kensington’s opulence and its large, gated complexes, luxury homes, palaces, royal parks and embassies, are many residents who are often ignored or overlooked. They have experienced and continue to experience loss of community, the sanitisation of public space (that is, removing the signs of a lived environment), the displacement of their friends and neighbours, and ongoing threats and harassment from private, state and corporate landlords. Kensington is their home yet the financialisation of property investment and the demise of social housing means that the borough is increasingly reserved for the transient elite and the wealthy few. Nonetheless, we are still here. Many of the residents given voice in this research will be, to use a quote from one former Kensington resident, the last of the ‘regal poor of Kensington’. In putting together this research and putting on this exhibition, Sharda and Nevada hope to increase awareness of their plight.