Gentrification of Leith – it’s not just trams and Michelin stars

Both the pub and the building in which it is housed, now called The Red Sandstone, are symbols of Leith’s opposition to City Council and corporate plans – once intended for that purpose and converted into student accommodation replaced, a survivor that the Save Leith Walk campaign fought for, though most of the businesses that once based there have disappeared.

DJ Vic Galloway was standing in the same pub when, in an interview for the Independent published earlier this week, he spoke of a “real renaissance” in Leith, describing Leith Walk as Edinburgh’s Las Ramblas.

Robin McKelvie’s article told the story of the ‘tangible energy’ following the opening of the new tram line from Leith to Edinburgh city center and listed some of the great new cultural happenings in the area, won by the Michelin star from Shore’s Heron Restaurant to to the Port of Leith Distillery and the Mercury nominated album by local band Young Fathers.

Reading it as a local resident (and one who lives on the tram line), I felt this story of Leith’s rebirth was deeply familiar to me. Leith Walk has always been an exciting place to stroll, whether you’re going for a drink in one of the changing bars or stopping by the greengrocer’s. It has always been teeming with culture and bars.

But what troubles me when I hear the word “rebirth” is that it’s only a fraction of what I hear. Rather, what I hear is uncertainty, questions about whether a rebound is imminent, complaints about the new pedestrianized area and its impact on business, and complaints about the rusty-looking planters that adorn the street.

HeraldScotland: Fife Hyland and Cammy Day at the Red Sandstone Building

Fife Hyland and Cammy Day at the opening of the Red Sandstone building

Not everyone gets this rebirth magic already. Not far down the street on my street, for example, is Destined for Home, a gift shop run by Karen Greig, who has doggedly survived the bleak times of the streetcar work.

To her, the street feels dead — and she partly blames the traffic-calmed neighborhood that was introduced shortly after the trams started. “For three and a half years, our street was closed because of tram work,” she says. “But then they closed the streets for the restricted-traffic area, so you can’t get to the coast.” And on top of that, they introduced permit-holder parking. So I think parts of this area have become a ghost town.”

Referring to the area as a “ghost town,” Ms Greig echoes the words of another resident, Marshall Bain, who runs the Queen Charlotte Rooms, a wedding and funeral venue just around the corner. In a recent interview, he used the phrase to describe the impact of recent traffic restrictions. “Every day is like a Sunday morning,” he said.

Of course, not everyone suffers. While Destined for Home is stranded between two tram stops, right down the street buzzes the Rocksalt cafe, which just so happens to have a tram stop right outside.

Over a quick lunch overlooking several outdoor tables, owner Reyhan Gul describes the metamorphosis: “The entire dynamic of the street has changed. There are many more tourists. You see a lot of people with luggage. I love that the road is different now. It feels like we are somewhere else, somewhere in Europe.”

There are many different ways to tell the story of a changing Leith, and most of them are interconnected.

For example, we could. Tell a story through the changing landscape of shops and cafes: how a mobile phone shop became the Logan Malloch gift shop, or how an old Santander branch turned into the community bookshop Argonaut Books.

We could trace Leith’s history in the comings and goings of Michelin stars. Today, Leith has the highest concentration of Michelin Star restaurants per square meter outside of London.

We could see it in property prices too, and they’ve been rising in Leith for some time. The latest ESPC price analysis from July says that in Leith “one bedroom apartments sold for £228,599, up 43.5%” on a year earlier. Compare, for example, with one-bedroom apartments in Edinburgh’s New Town and West End selling for £468,181, a 0.7% annual increase.

HeraldScotland: Vicky Allan boards the tram at the start of the Edinburgh extension to Newhaven

Vicky Allan gets on the first tram going up Leith Walk

Leith also seems to trump in terms of sales speed, as “Two-bedroom apartments in Leith Links and Leith” sold out quickly and “were on sale in nine and eleven days respectively”.

The downside is that many families, some of which are Leith originals, are overpriced. I’ve lost track of the number of kids from my son’s schools whose parents eventually found they had to move out to afford enough space for a growing family or a bit of outdoor space, or who had to move into the whole city for social housing. Last summer, Ukrainian refugee families who were once housed on the Victoria at Leith Docks were relocated to new accommodation, some in Leith and others further afield.

Private rent is high in the area, as in most of Edinburgh – around £1,000 for a one-bedroom flat.

One solution to some of these housing problems is, of course, more housing, and Leith is in yet another phase of construction. 53 “Affordable Homes” have been built by Barratt on Salamander Street, 43 of which are available for social rent. 41 Cala homes built in Ocean Drive. Goodstone Living begins construction of 338 rental homes. But will that do anything to slow the ever-expanding housing bubble?

The story some are telling right now is that the new tram line is adding a new kick to the process of gentrification in Leith and driving it one craft beer at a time, but, as Dominic Hinde, a writer who lived in the area, says 11 Years, emphasizes that the reality is much more complex.

“A myth has formed,” he says, “that it’s the streetcar that drove gentrification, but I contend it’s not that simple.”

In the time he has lived in the area, he has seen the value of apartments “literally doubled”.

Housing supply troubles, the rise of Airbnb, and speculation all combined to create a perfect storm. Young professionals moved to the rentals on Leith Walk because prices were outside of the city center and traditionally beautiful areas of the city. But he noted that they often ended up staying and buying in the area “because they realized the area wasn’t as bad as the reputation.”

“The fact is that the rise in private rents in Scotland has been astronomical and as Edinburgh has become more expensive, Leith has benefited. The funny thing is that there are apartments in Leith that are more expensive than apartments in the city because people want to live there and they have a good reputation.”

Hinde doesn’t say that the trams have had no impact on gentrification at all, but rather that the companies that have benefited from trams have generally been those that “adapted to classic gentrification models.”

There are, of course, other stories to tell about Leith – and one of them involves hardship. The latest map of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation is now three years old but is unlikely to have changed much. When I saw Leith’s SIMD card for the first time, one of the things that struck me was how complex it is. I have not seen any other area where so many different areas are so close together, from the deepest red of the Banana Flats’ privations to the deep blue richness of the coast.

READ MORE: Leithers forever. 100 years after merging with Edinburgh, the port is still a rebel.

READ MORE: Edinburgh Leith Walk: Drum opens red sandstone buildings

Among those keenly aware of the struggle of those in the deeper red areas of the map is Willy Barr, manager of the Citadel Youth Center and a man who has witnessed Leith’s transformations since his first job as a project worker in 1995.

For many people who live in Leith, the trams are not necessarily relevant, he emphasizes. “For a lot of people who live there, especially those we work with, they’re not really life changing.

It’s depressing, he says, that since he started at the Citadel, inequality “hasn’t gotten any better, it’s actually gotten worse”.

“Leith has changed a lot. You’ve seen changes in housing, cafes, restaurants and bars and the variety of options, but there’s still a hard core of families who are actually worse off today than they were when I first went to the Citadel. ”

These days, he says, he even gives out fuel vouchers or meal vouchers, which has never been a necessity in the past, and one of his concerns is the ability of young people to find housing in the area where they grew up.

Evie Murray, executive director of environmental organization Earth in Common, is also aware of some of these issues. She recently opened her new building and cafe on the Links corner, where it serves as a social gathering place for the adjacent thriving community garden called Croft.

Murray is one of the people who connect the different worlds of Leith, having grown up there and originally starting the charity as a pot-growing program. She is particularly concerned that improvements in people’s lives are not denigrated under the guise of gentrification.

“As a kid growing up in Leith in the 80s and 90s, I can assure you that no one in their right mind wanted it to stay that way. Drugs filled the streets, many lives were shattered and violence seemed to be all around me.” .”

“I think,” she adds, “the question is how are we changing, who are we taking with us, and most importantly, who has been left behind?” The truth is that we have left too many people behind; We locked people out and our mission to integrate the different parts of Leith failed.”

In other words, true rebirth is about more than just having another Michelin-star restaurant on your doorstep or a top band recording an album, although I’m not knocking on any of them. Let’s experience this renaissance, but not without bringing everyone with us.

Grace Reader

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