Monday, August 07, 2006

On Gentrification

This seems to be a new word in the English vocabulary. Perhaps it's only "new" in the sense that it is getting a lot more visibility in this day and age. I first read about the gentrification of the seamier side of London a few years ago and thought, well, that can't be all that bad. But in reality, what is happening in Britain today is an attempt at a complete makeover of the traditional with what one friend calls the "Disney Theme Park characterization" of our society.

For my example I would like to take you on a tour of a lovely North Cotswold town, Chipping Campden. A little history of the place is worth spending a paragraph of your time (or so I believe) as it sets the scene. A Cotswold Wool Town, Campden was a wealthy place in the 16th and 17th centuries but fell on hard times when Cotswold wool ceased to be the best in Europe. By the end of the 19th century the town was a back water but, because of this, it was a well preserved back water. In came the Arts and Crafts Movement and Campden received its first "makeover". These visionaries, tired of the Victorian concept of mass production, aimed back to a gentler time and took houses that were falling down and remodeled them, adding their own imprint but otherwise preserving what would have been lost. The Movement did not survive for long (less than 10 years) but the legacy is strong and still persists in the hearts (and not a few businesses) in the town.

A hundred years later and Campden is enjoying another renaissance. This time as a tourist paradise and location for retirees and second homers. In itself there is nothing wrong with this. Except for the gentrification factor. Let me explain.

Here is a classic Campden home.

Cotswolds as it should be

Note the fine construction that is far from perfect yet all very normal. The brick on the gable, for example, is a practical solution for the chimney flue behind. The garden is typically olde Englishe, a sense of chaotic order that simply works, blending the house into its environment.

Next, a gentrified Campden house.

The latest Cotswold gentrification

This house is a complete makeover of a nondescript structure that nobody can really remember much about. The past several months have seen a plethora of contractor vehicles parked on the grass verge near but not in front of the property while the structure was enlarged and then conspicuously thatched. Finally the landscaper moved in with a signature design that has been seen twice before in the town. Red geraniums formally planted with conical conifers at regular intervals. The grass verge is conspicuous by its splendour while the adjacent verges are rutted and lacking in grass.

Yes, there are other examples. Even a lowly 15 year old cottage got the same makeover while in the satellite village of Broad Campden the firm of Knight Frank is offering this property for almost a cool £3 million (if the link is still active when you click on it, check out those conical conifers!)

Sadly this last example was a classic Arts and Crafts Movement barn conversion. Here is a photo taken several years ago:

Arts & Crafts Classic

The Cotswold "look" has since disappeared.