Book Review: Hubbard, P. (2017). The Battle for the High Street: Retail Gentrification, Class and Disgust. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hubbard’s book is about retail gentrification in Britain that takes place in the central shopping streets of British cities that are commonly referred to as “High Streets”. The author offers a thick description and thorough analysis of the ongoing change of the High Streets in Britain. This is not a smooth change process, built on social consensus; it is divisive and divided among social classes. Hubbard studies the social divisions on changing or gentrifying British High Streets by focusing on the dominant discourses around the issue, such as reviving the dying High Streets, and examining the problematized businesses, mainly related to adult entertainment – including sex and gambling – and fast food that are made scapegoats of the decay in the city centres. The book makes the reader realize that the definition of urban decay could bear social class implications. Hence, it comes out as a contemporary version of Bourdieu’s Distinction.

Hubbard strengthens his argument that the revitalization of High Streets renders them places of middle and upper class consumption with working class’ blood on their hands with examples based on primary and secondary data sources from various British towns. Therefore, the book is not only a well-repeated story of shops changing hands from local to global or rather, to more authentic, organic, fair-trade, and slow consumption places, but it is very much about “processes of moralization that are performative of class identities” (Hubbard, 2017, p. 9) via reformed consumption habits. After all, you are what you consume in the current consumer society. This is the point where Hubbard’s book differs from Bourdieu’s masterpiece: the capitalistic bourgeois who used to distinguish itself from the lower socio-economic groups with its taste and general aesthetics in living in the 20th century cannot apparently even stand the sight or existence of others in the neoliberal stage of capitalism. In Hubbard’s words, “the middle classes take back the central city, assisted by ‘neoliberal’ urban policy, and the working class cast asunder” (ibid, p. 8). In brief, capitalism under postmodernity is back to its primitive, aggressive self and we as urban citizens inhale it.

Following the introductory chapter, Hubbard (2017) analyzes the retail policy in austerity Britain that is centred around the rhetoric of regenerating the dying High Street. He underlines that certain businesses which target the poorer members of the society, including betting shops, charity shops, lap-dance clubs or chain-owned pound and 99c stores, are made scapegoats of the so-called death of High Streets. He argues for a more-inclusive High Street as opposed to “the fiction of a High Street ‘for all’ in which certain up-market businesses are approved, but others –typically those frequented by the less affluent– are deemed unhealthy, unwanted or even toxic.” (ibid, p. 25) In the third chapter, he looks at the counter-example of the out-of-town shopping centres as the modern agora (or prisons in reverse) which are designed to keep the non-consuming unwanted outside and interprets the retail gentrification of the High Streets as a similar attempt of the retail capital back in the city. In the fourth chapter, Hubbard studies the example of Margate, once deemed one of the worst High Streets in Britain, through the lens of moral agenda of retail gentrification which creates a kind of hate speech against the failing High Streets, depicted as streets of disgust.

In the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth chapters of the book, the deeply-embedded link among consumption, taste, and morality is deconstructed and disclosed in the public-policy discourses and regulations against night-time businesses, sex retailers, bookmakers or betting shops, and fast food takeaways on High Streets. The gentrifying discourse against such social spaces of the working class in High Streets does not only contain moral undertones, but also makes explicit or implicit references to public hygiene, social security, public health and environmental protection. According to the public policy discourse in Britain, if you prefer to consume fast food for its deliciousness or affordability, you are not only harming yourself and risking obesity, but you are also aggravating climate change by not consuming locally and responsibly.  Simply said, you want to save the ecosystem, buy an extra-priced cappuccino made of coffee-beans, raised with fair-trade practices. These sanitizing practices, cloaked under a neoliberal discourse of responsibilization, on the British High Streets, leave little space for a working class presence in the city, as long as these people are not provided with the socio-economic means of such an agency.  Not only that but filtering out the cheap stores from the High Street also deprives the poor of spaces of socialization, where they can be and meet with similar others without paying much (Hubbard, 2017, p. 193).

Before concluding, Hubbard also discusses the cultural aspect of gentrification by studying culture-led urban regeneration both in the city and the seaside, again through the example of Margate. He incorporates the discussions surrounding the popular concepts of resilience and creativity, also with reference to Richard Florida, whose The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class and What We Can Do About It is what I am reading now in parallel from its Turkish translation –  a book that strikes me as a half-hearted confession about the dark sides of urban regeneration. Hubbard points out the irony of the supposedly non-conforming artists becoming agents of neoliberalism. There is a similar contradiction, but in reverse, in corporate fast food retail shops becoming refuges for the poor. He is critical about “whether creative policies can succeed in broadening the appeal of the High Street, or will merely precipitate the ’boutiqueing’ and gentrification of retail space” (Hubbard, 2017, p. 201). For him, this remains to be seen for the currently well-doing Margate, too because of “the ‘slow violence’ of gentrification” (ibid, p. 212) to borrow Leslie Kern’s words. The Margate case shows that the seaside towns in Britain are not exceptions to a city economy and ethics based on retail gentrification as well.

In the concluding chapter, Hubbard restates his argument – backed up by Henri Lefebvre, Rob Shields, Tom Slater, Loic Wacquant, Sarah Schulman and others – that High Streets are not in “terminal demise”, and they continue to play various socio-cultural roles, especially for the working class residents of the city (Hubbard, 2017, p. 230). On the other hand, he underlines that he is not against regeneration per se or suggesting that empty shops are fine as they are. Yet, his vision of the British High Street into the future is a place for all people, including the poor and the affluent, and not only for the “hip, young, affluent populations who are prepared to pay a premium for city living, and expect the High Street to match their gentrified lifestyles.” (ibid, p. 200)

Hubbard’s book sets gentrification research back on its feet by bringing forth the class dynamics with the valuable contribution of incorporating the aspect of morality into the picture. A consistent line of thought based on articulate arguments is traceable in all chapters of the book. The only unconvincing thought for me as a reader was the argument for keeping retail chains such as fast food takeaways on High Streets as eating and socializing places for the poor. Even though I agree that these places might be offering cheaper prices than many independent cafes and restaurants, I find it hard to accept the logic of supporting poverty through corporate capital which then, is not something very different from the reformist argument of resilience.

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