Henry Palmer wants to halt the narrative that describes gentrification as inevitable and confront what he sees as the biggest social issue facing cities around the world.
The author and part time comedian, who organises the monthly People’s Comedy night in the Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft warehouse on Jamaica Street, also wants to provide an insight into untold stories of communities he grew up alongside.
It was a night in the Star & Garter in Montpelier that first set Henry on a journey to writing his debut book, Voices of Bristol: Gentrification and Us, which officially launches on Saturday in Waterstones on Union Street.
“Seeing local people – the likes of which I’d grown up with – sort of cut off from the dance floor, marginalised by middle class students was shocking,” he says.
“It was the lack of social integration, local insecurity and student audacity that stirred me wrong. I thought, ‘It’s all right for you, dipping your toe in working class culture before returning to your Clifton apartments.’ I later learned of the phenomenon known as ‘studentification’ and went from there.”
Henry spent the first few years of his life in a damp flat in Fishponds, before moving to Whitehall with his mum and younger brother when he was five. Here, he credits his Jamaican-British neighbours for giving him a more organic understanding of Caribbean culture.
It wasn’t until he went away to university that he encountered the very different perspectives of privileged students – the kind who looked on in disbelief when he opened a can of Spam.
Later, on his return home, Henry started to notice the divides and a stint as a taxi driver gave him ideal opportunity to study the city from a sociological point of view. He encountered all kinds every night, including people who mocked him for his Bristolian accent.
Eventually he decided to make his voice – and those of others – heard and started collating perspectives of people in fast-changing neighbourhoods, such as the one grew up in.
“The underlying issue is housing,” says Henry, sitting back in the big leather sofa of the Hobgoblin on Gloucester Road prior to the launch of the book.
He is softly spoken – almost shy – but passionate about his subject matter. “When people from an area can no longer afford to live there, they are displaced – one of the biggest problems is displacement of those people.”
Defining gentrification as the influx of a higher socio-economic group moving into a lower socio-economic area, Henry says that rather than seeing it as a “normal process” people should be engaging with the real issues it causes.
“Culturally, that involves understanding local people’s plight, like being forced out of their home or the resulting homelessness. Institutionally, it means voting for anti-gentrification policies – most of which pertain to housing.”
Among these actions would be repealing right to buy, the introduction of a land value tax deterring developers from ‘banking land’, borrowing to replenish council housing stock and building public revenue streams, argues Henry, who dismisses ‘regeneration’ as a euphemism for ‘gentrification’.
He reels off a number of housing developments across the city and the small percentage of affordable homes they are offering, adding; “with any regeneration zone the question must always dawn: regeneration for whom?”
It’s a poignant point to make sat in a pub just up the road from arguably one of the fastest-changing areas of the city – where Blue Mountain has been brought for £950,000 by developers with plans to turn it into a mixed-use development, to give just one example.
Poet Lawrence Hoo is among the many who provided accounts for the book. Speaking about the process, Henry says: “Of the hundreds of people I spoke to about the issue, some were engaged and some weren’t. The testimonies that I’ve used in the book were those that were in line with the reality as I understand it.”
He argues that commentators who say gentrification is a good thing are being disrespectful to those – particularly black and ethnic minority people – who have been discriminated against in the workplace, not been afforded the same opportunities as others and face being displaced from their own neighbourhoods.
What does he hope the book will achieve?
“To provide an insight into untold Bristolian stories,” says Henry. “And be read by them too, as well as the normal intelligentsia crowd. I would be deeply fulfilled if people read it and had their views changed, even if it was just a little bit.
“There must be more to life than this obsession with ownership and the right way of living. Housing is a necessity rather than something we should have to work for.”
Ultimately, he would love for Bristol to become an exemplar for cities across the world, representing a way to overcome gentrification and build more harmonious communities.
Main photo by Gemma Hanson
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