In Zadie Smith’s novel NW, identity comes from where you live. The two principal characters grow up in Caldwell, a public housing project in North West London where the sections are named for philosophers. Leah is white, so white she can’t be in direct sunlight, and Keisha is black. But, as children, Caldwell, more than race or culture, defines their relationship. Leah and Keisha, both “Locke people”, are best friends.
From high school into adulthood, moves away from Caldwell – cultural, socioeconomic and geographic – bruise the friendship. Leah goes to Camden Lock to party, her family moves into a maisonette. Keisha becomes Natalie and a barrister, and she marries a wealthy banker. They return to NW as adults, but Natalie’s in a Victorian mansion while Leah lives in a council flat. Although they no longer need what Caldwell formally provided (lower-cost, stable housing), they suffer existentially through the loss of Caldwell’s informal role of channelling identity and community and from societal expectations that university-educated women become urban professionals, mothers, ethical consumers and anecdote-loving wine-bringing guests at bourgeois dinner parties.
Not only public housing, but other public services are important to the characters in NW, as they are to the author. In a 2012 article for the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith said “Some people owe everything they have to the bank accounts of their parents. I owe the state. Put simply, the state educated me, fixed my leg when it was broken, and gave me a grant that enabled me to go to university. It fixed my teeth (a bit) and found housing for my veteran father in his dotage. ”
The working class kids in NW benefit from public schools, free university tuition and community libraries. They don’t have wealthy, educated parents to help them get into university, or to even imagine the breadth of higher education. Keisha’s mum has a plan for her daughter’s post-secondary education: “’Coles Academy’, really just a corridor of office space above the old Woolworths on the Kilburn High Road. A racket, an uncredited institution, taught by some Nairobi acquaintance of Pastor Akinwande, and requiring no move away from home.” But, Keisha who “educated herself on the floor of Kensal Rise Library” knows of other opportunities.
Today, in London, as in Canadian cities, the withdrawal of the state is restricting opportunities for kids growing up in poor and working-class neighbourhoods. Kensal Rise Library, which was opened by American author Mark Twain in 1900, was one of six community libraries closed by the London Borough of Brent in 2011 due to budget cuts. The building is being sold to developers, and will likely become luxury condos, despite an ongoing campaign by citizens to reopen the library.
In NW, one of the neighbourhoods is called “ungentrified, ungentrifiable.” But as the late Marxist geographer Neil Smith argued, gentrification is not merely a cultural change but an economic process based on changing rents and land uses. With private real estate markets subsuming coveted community spaces, libraries will become luxury condos if there are profits to be had, without state intervention or creative resistance. It may appear that a neighbourhood has not gentrified, but only to those who can still afford the rent and don’t use or need public services.
The Winnipeg Public Library has multiple copies of NW, at neighbourhood branches and the Millenium Library.