How Govanhill is fighting gentrification with community

Gentrification may seem relentless, but, after years of new artisan cafes and rising rent prices, Govanhill is still pushing back. We speak to some local businesses about how a focus on community has been integral to combatting gentrification

Feature by Katie Dibb | 05 Mar 2020
  • Govanhill

Glasgow’s Govanhill has a rich history of migration which has made it the most ethnically diverse neighbourhood in Scotland. It has welcomed a regular changing population of migrants: Irish, Jewish, Italian, people from Punjab and other parts of the Indian sub-continent and, most recently, economic migrants from Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania. Govanhill’s seemingly perfect microcosm of creative interest, cheap rent and diversity has made it an especially attractive place for people, like myself, to move to. But with this new insurgence, the inevitable signs of gentrification have arisen, foreshadowing a potential future which could put minorities at risk of displacement.

As Pete Saunders wrote, gentrification is like pornography: “you can always tell what it is when you see it.” It is particularly prevalent around Govanhill's Victoria Road with artisan coffee shops, organic food stores and trendy restaurants continually popping up. However, at the risk of sounding like a baby boomer muttering about hipsters, the tell-tale signs of gentrification are so well-known that it almost feels pointless to keep mentioning them. And it’s also not as simple as a new cafe offering organic oat milk lattes; these visible manifestations are more symptoms than causes of what is a systemic issue. While most people can point to gentrification’s common signs, not many people can explain the source or offer a solution. Often conversations about gentrification can lead to feelings of doom and inevitability, but there are practical ways that the current community of Govanhill is fighting to prevent it.

MILK Cafe has been around for nearly five years and has already witnessed many changes in Govanhill. As a self-funded, not-for-profit social enterprise, MILK strives to support the local community, running a timetable of free English classes and informal workshops aimed at refugee and migrant women in the area that don’t rely on language to communicate but still offer an opportunity to practise English. In the early years, business was rough but a growing number of customers meant MILK were able to offer work experience and training to recruited volunteers, some of whom have gone on to be hired as paid staff. 

Like many of the businesses in Govanhill, MILK relies on revenue from both locals and the influx of visitors to the area. Addressing the conflict that MILK relies on visitors to support the local community, Morna who runs the cafe says: “I don’t think that deflects from our desire to be a community organisation, and particularly the migrant and refugee community.” Indeed, a major reason these new customers are attracted to the cafe is because of MILK’s community work that includes free sewing classes and pottery workshops. People want to support the cafe because they want to support integration within Govanhill’s community.

Speaking to Jim Monagham, the Arts Coordinator for Govanhill Baths, he agrees with many that Govanhill has a unique relationship to gentrification. “It’s one of the few places that seems to be resisting it,” he muses. “Only the public sector is building housing and millions are being spent to buy back property from the private to the public sector, meaning rent and house prices are not rising like elsewhere. As an area we are bucking the trend.” 

However, despite Monagham’s very welcome positivity, there is concern around the regulation of housing associations which are separate entities from the government. Particularly, the rise of mid-level housing, for example the Housing Association and Southside Letting, which only advertise at those with a household income between £15,000–£37,000. Is this a way of getting a diverse range of clientele renting in social housing or is it a step towards developing a more profitable market?

Although affordable, public owned housing is an important aspect in offsetting the effects of gentrification, it’s not a complete solution. Speaking to displaced former residents of gentrified areas, there is a common recurrence of the psychologically isolating results of gentrification. Community owned housing helps allow current residents to stay in the area but it doesn’t offer comfort in seeing a once familiar locale changing. That’s why businesses such as MILK cafe, LGBTQ+ bookshop Category is Books and Govanhill Baths, all of which have community-minded intentions, are so important, as spaces where both locals and visitors from further afield can come together.

This is where some responsibility begins to lie with the individual, especially newcomers, to support organisations that have community at their heart and seek out places that are already integral to the local area. Gentrification is a mammoth beast that relies on institutional change rather than individualism, but we can all still do our bit to do our research, diversify where we spend our money and, on the whole, just try to be a good neighbour.