Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
How a London café that specializes in cereal became the latest flashpoint in the city’s ongoing gentrification debate.
London’s gentrification debate has taken a bizarre turn in the past week. On Saturday night, demonstrators staging an impromptu anti-displacement protest in heavily gentrified East London cut loose and attacked a local landmark, daubing it with paint. Curiously, their chosen target wasn’t a new skyscraper or luxury apartment development. It was a café. One that specializes in selling cereal.
The choice of the Cereal Killer Café as target might seem odd, but the protest has clearly struck a chord. The U.K. media has been debating it furiously all week, while as a Londoner my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been so dominated by the story I’ve honestly been a little reluctant to go near my computer. So how did a small business become the center of such a passionate debate?
To be fair, the café is no standard corner coffee shop, and it’s not in just any location. When Londoners talk about regeneration, gentrification and the supposed cascade of bars, beards and real estate bubbles they bring in their wake, they typically talk about the café’s home neighborhood of Shoreditch. They do this so much that this inner city district, considered poor until the 1990s, has coined its own local term for urban transformation—Shoreditchification. In this ongoing discussion, Cereal Killer has provided a handily located Exhibit A, a place whose novelty theme and high(ish) prices have been widely damned as the ultimate in hipster excess.
It first grabbed attention on opening last year thanks partly to an unusually hostile interview with the owners by Britain’s Channel Four News. The idea of charging up to $6 a bowl for cereal in an area that not so long ago was synonymous with poverty was too much for some. The café became yet another vehicle for that brand of middle class urban guilt that often expresses itself through anti-hipsterism—the sneering at the younger, more self-consciously cool type of gentrifier as if their clothes and pretensions were in themselves the motors of urban transformation. The fact that the café’s owners, Irish twin brothers, were so luxuriantly bearded that they looked like they’d dressed up as hipsters for Halloween only helped this further.
But actually attacking the place? That has gone too far for almost everyone, and everyone seems to have an opinion. From people deploring the attack on property to others noting how the protest missed the true agents of gentrification, the condemnation has been broad and loud. There’s been debate as to whether the protestors were just middle class poseurs or genuinely working class local residents. Elsewhere, there’s been some (actually quite constructive) whataboutism going on, with people flagging up better sites to protest. The café’s owners themselves have also waded in, pointing out how many better targets there are, and playing to type by saying of their business that it’s “more than cereal, it’s a cereal experience.” And finally, the protesters themselves have emerged, defending their actions and, not afraid of using a pun, accusing the café’s owners of “milking” the publicity to boost their profits.
If a justification could be made for the protest (not itself so destructive that the café couldn’t open the following day) it’s that it has at least gained major coverage for gentrification debates. The thing is, this debate has so far mainly involved scorn or ridicule for the protestors, or sympathy for people seeing their business sullied—hardly the sort of thing to galvanize support. Local residents who have been or risk being displaced remain noticeably absent from the discussion, while Cereal Killer itself is so obvious a straw man target that debating its culpability in gentrification hardly seems worth bothering with.
Protests like this may still be inevitable. London’s equality gap is becoming a chasm and many residents are hurting. The city actually has a committed, passionate network of activists fighting on many fronts on displacement issues, such as people being unfairly evicted from social housing to make way for redevelopment. Compared to Cereal Killer’s attackers, however, these people work in relative media obscurity and alone are not managing to halt the eviction of vulnerable tenants. In this pressure cooker atmosphere, where lawful protest can sometimes seem futile, it’s not surprising that tensions bubble over into apparently wanton public fracas, just as they did during England’s 2011 riots.
In fact, Saturday’s protest could just be one episode of a long, unruly autumn. This week, the protestors announced a second target, a controversial new museum celebrating Victorian East London serial killer Jack the Ripper that critics see as celebrating violence against women. It may create little in the way of change, but East London’s anti-gentrification protests could still be grabbing headlines for a while yet.