Aesthetics of Vacancy in Lockdown London

Food delivery rider cycling past a boarded-up restaurant in Soho, London, November 2020. Photo by Yui Mok.
Christoph Lindner introduces a six-part dossier on Lockdown Aesthetics and Gentrification. In this opening post, he argues that gentrification has accelerated in London under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aesthetics of vacancy.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a dossier on “Lockdown Aesthetics and Gentrification.” To view other posts in the series, see here.]

We finished the book manuscript of Aesthetics of Gentrification in Spring 2020 just as the first wave of COVID-19 was spreading around the world and many cities were entering their first lockdowns. Bringing together an international group of authors from across the humanities and social sciences, this edited collection explores how gentrification is reshaping contemporary cities, resulting in seductive spaces and exclusive communities that exacerbate inequality while driving displacement. I recall deliberating with my co-editor, Gerard Sandoval, on whether to attempt some response to the emerging pandemic in our introductory chapter on gentrification trends and theories, so that the book would address in some small way what was clearly going to be a major, global disruption to the subject of our analysis. Not wanting to treat the pandemic in a cursory manner and not knowing in those early days how the situation would develop, we decided to reserve commentary. And yet, as I sat correcting page proofs for the book at my makeshift, work-from-home sofa-desk in lockdown London, it was becoming evident that pandemic conditions were changing the appearance and operations of gentrification, which normally depend on the very dynamics of mobility and presence that lockdowns are designed to impede.

Now, one year later, with the world focused on the vaccine rollout, the time seems right to reflect back on those early pandemic months and consider how the sudden pivot to home quarantine, deserted streets, shuttered businesses, halted construction, and travel bans – to name just a few effects – impacted on gentrification in cities around the world. To this end, I have invited five authors from the Aesthetics of Gentrification book to explore how gentrification has interacted with the phenomenon of lockdown (understood in broad terms as public health-related social-spatial restrictions), paying particular attention to its aesthetic dimensions.

How have gentrifying neighbourhoods in different cities around the world responded to the uneven impact of pandemic restrictions? Has lockdown produced new or different aesthetics of gentrification oriented around immobility, emptiness, disconnection, and related conditions? Has lockdown enabled gentrification by stealth? And how have artists and community groups practiced anti-gentrification activism under COVID? These are just some of the questions we explore in this dossier, drawing on our experiences across Amsterdam, Las Vegas, London, Los Angeles, Montreal, and Washington, DC. From the new ubiquity of online delivery platforms to the rise of Zoom-mediated activism, and from uncanny spectacles of urban emptiness to crowded spaces of public protest, the authors reflect on the diverse ways in which the pandemic has remade urban life while deepening urban inequalities and exacerbating urban tensions.

Ghost mansion in St. John’s Wood, London, April 2021. Photo by the author.

My own contribution to the dossier discussion focuses on what I want to call “the double emptiness of London” and is based on local observations in and around the city. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, London was already a global capital of spectral living, a city of extreme housing inequalities marked by a proliferation of ghost mansions and zombie flats (unoccupied luxury homes owned by absent investors). As such, an aura of vacancy hung over many parts of London, especially in the city’s more expensive neighbourhoods and newest luxury residential developments. In March 2020, as London entered its first lockdown, that aura intensified.

Many affluent international residents and corporate expatriates swiftly returned to their home countries. Some people fled to second homes in the British countryside. And yet others (albeit a very small subset of hyper-privileged residents) shot off to remote, foreign holiday destinations to hunker down and wait out the pandemic in comfort. From New York to Paris to Hong Kong, this exodus was repeated across the world. The effect here in London was the accentuation of an existing aesthetics of vacancy – a visual regime of emptiness and abandonment produced by the itinerant lifestyles of a global elite.

Despite this flight from the city, the vast majority of Londoners remained at home throughout lockdown, where we bore witness to the rise of another, more pervasive aesthetics of vacancy. This was produced by the sudden, forced closure of all non-essential businesses, which led to the entire city looking as if it had gone bankrupt overnight. Across London, shop and restaurant windows were boarded up, doors were padlocked, and lights were turned off. Meanwhile, office buildings everywhere stood empty and financial districts such as The City and Canary Wharf turned into vast, instant ghost towns.

Vacant store fronts, Northwest London, May 2021. Photo by the author.

Many businesses failed to weather the extended period of closure. Small, local businesses and the hospitality sector proved especially vulnerable. Behind the boarded-up facades, largely invisible to passersby, neighbourhood stores, restaurants, and service-providers were folding and, in gentrifying areas such as where I live in Northwest London, trendier and more up-market businesses moved in. On the street around the corner from my home, at least a dozen locally-owned affordable shops and restaurants permanently closed. Surreptitiously replacing them under the cover of lockdown were a string of high-priced hipster eateries and boutiques, including a bespoke doughnut shop, an Australian avocado-toast-themed organic café, a gluten-free bakery-cum-gallery, a French farm-to-table rotisserie, and a women’s clothing store selling £110 t-shirts. Most recently, a fleet of dock-free e-bikes appeared, suggesting that the neighbourhood had reached a tipping point in its transformation making it viable for fintech mobility to move in. At the time of writing, as London’s third lockdown is starting to ease, it is clear that the neighbourhood’s character has irrevocably changed. Along with that change, house prices and rents have skyrocketed, making the area ever more unaffordable.

In short, what happened under lockdown was a massive acceleration of gentrification. This was disguised by the aesthetics of vacancy and made possible by the pandemic’s radical interruption of everyday life, which created the conditions of enforced emptiness needed to displace people and businesses. London is not unique in experiencing such transformations, and versions of the same lockdown story are playing out in gentrifying neighbourhoods worldwide. After all, declaring vacancy has long been a tool to fuel gentrification, as Rebecca Amato shows in her chapter on New York City’s empty spaces in our book.

The double emptiness of London during lockdown – one form produced by privileged absence and the other by forced closure – presages what we can expect from the post-pandemic city. Ultimately, COVID has amplified the trend of spectral living, further normalizing zombie/ghost housing and further driving the displacements and dispossessions at the heart of gentrification.

Christoph Lindner, "Aesthetics of Vacancy in Lockdown London," Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 6, no. 3 (June 2021)
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