Sunday 19 January 2020

High property prices ripping the heart out of our city

Homes only for the rich will turn the capital into a bland consumer playground, writes Donal Lynch

SOUL-DESTROYING: Many of Dublin’s greatest writers, like Brendan Behan, once languished in bedsits — but soon only the wealthy will be able to afford city living
SOUL-DESTROYING: Many of Dublin’s greatest writers, like Brendan Behan, once languished in bedsits — but soon only the wealthy will be able to afford city living
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Just behind the building where I live in the city centre, on the fault line between what you might call dirty old town and the tech hub, a new development opened recently. The luxury apartments in it were snapped up in a frantic 24-hour period.

There was no need for queues for these buyers; most paid cash, around the €400k mark for one-bedroom properties, and the whiff of that kind of money subtly changes a neighbourhood. Beneath the building a familiar yuppie-servicing ecosystem of fancy coffee shops and expensive deli has already opened. Our local five-star hotel has a new rooftop bar - the only other piece of major construction to be completed in the neighbourhood in recent times. These corporate amenities are the latest signs that the area, which just 10 years ago was considered urban badlands, has been fully gentrified.

These new arrivals will further push up the price of property and the quality of the coffee in the area. They are polite, quiet, and unlike the more 'indigenous' neighbours, they actually pick up after their dogs; I should probably rejoice in their advent.

But somehow they worry me. I'm lucky to have a place now, but if a consequence of the ongoing housing crisis is that only someone who can get their hands on 400k cash can afford to live in the city centre, then one day I will inevitably be priced out of here, to be replaced by a boring banker or a tedious tech drone who can afford the area. This might sound like no great loss to anyone but me, but the lesson of other big cities - particularly London and New York - is that when you drive out writers and artists and turn a city into a playground for the super-wealthy and tourists, you also rip out its heart. Lower Manhattan, once a bohemian and cultural mecca, is now a maze of doorman condos, Starbucks and yoghurt bars; a bland fortress of consumption. The only people who can afford to live there are corporate drones and wealthy frat kids.

In London the director of the Tate museum recently said that their housing issues have all but killed off the British capital's art scene. In Holborn a billboard appeared three years ago which read: 'What creativity can exist when only money can buy your next opportunity'. The journalist Caitlin Moran wrote about central London's empty mansions, which languish like abandoned museums while their owners winter elsewhere.

Dublin's heart, more than most city's, really does approximate Yeats's foul rag and bone shop. We are one of the few capitals in the world with winding residential streets that run almost into the centre of the city.

Despite the general failure of Temple Bar's original mission statement, we still have artists and writers living in the centre of town. We have a vibrant after-hours nightlife, which far surpasses and subverts the overpriced, over-hyped mainstream venues. We have more profit-free spaces - community centres and the like - than most capital cities. These are all part of our great tradition, but, more than anything, you never needed to be any great success to live in Dublin. Unlike other great capitals, ours accommodated failure and smallness. Many of our greatest writers, whose reputations bring the hordes of tourists to Dublin, lived their lives barely getting by, on the cadge. (They languished in bedsits which would be outlawed by a subsequent government.) This toleration of failure went hand in hand with a capital that seemed impervious to gentrification. Besides the 'ethnic cleansing' of the IFSC construction, no regeneration plans have ever seemed to make a dint in the tenement-like atmosphere of the north inner city, for instance. Nobody can imagine calling it 'Dublin's North Central Quarter' as it was dubbed in a recent Government report on the area. It remains a ramshackle, broken-down place, where the little people can still, just barely, afford to live.

That might soon change too. The housing crisis has meant Dublin is now a place that says yes to every new branch of Starbucks and no to the poor souls whose fortunes condemn them to work there. We are in danger of becoming a city of the super wealthy - the 400k cash buyers - and immigrants crowded four to a room, with the rest of the population squeezed out to the commuter margins. The cost to the soul of the city will be immeasurable. The poor people, the artists, the young - these turn the wheels of the city, just as much as corporate interests and without them Dublin will be somewhere between a museum and a generic consumer playground.

But what can we do? Perhaps part of it will be changing how we hold politicians to account and the language we use. The American writer Jeremiah Moss described a process in New York which he called hyper-gentrification. By this he meant "the complicity between municipal government and big private money to reconfigure whole sections of a city, with dubious consequences, chief among them the ceding of space, goods and social currency from the ordinary classes to the ruling order". After the best part of a decade of a Fine Gael-led Government, maybe it is now time to start using words like 'complicity' to describe its inaction on the housing crisis. Until it solves the riddle we will be left with a capital in which only gleaming, wealthy successes can live.

And that, by our own high standards, will be a terrible failure.

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