Cardiff is home to nearly half of Wales’ BAME population, the gentrification of City Road is the frontline for the country’s discussion on race writes Yasmin Begum

City Road runs north-south from Death Junction to Newport Road in Cardiff, one of the UK’s fastest growing cities. Its a food hub sporting a dazzling selection of over fifty predominantly black and brown owned shops, restaurants and shisha bars. Located in one of the Welsh capital’s most densely populated areas, it’s home to significant working class communities of colour. However, in a familiar story, gentrification may soon change the face and faces of City Road.

Situated in the Roath district of Cardiff, a mile and a half north-east from Cardiff central and bordering Cathays, Adamsdown, Cyncoed, Heath and Penylan. Historically, Roath is an incredibly racially diverse part of Cardiff, with around 30% of the population self-identifying as BAME. This diversity is reflected in the menu, the range of cuisines is huge and includes: Indonesian, Pakistani, Turkish, Lebanese, Italian, Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Kurdish, Omani, Mexican and more. There’s a lively food and street culture which makes the area distinct, for example, during Ramadan many places stay open all night so that Muslims can eat their pre-dawn meal when fasting. Fashion of all kinds is also represented with people travelling from across the city to buy fabrics and traditional dress.

Cardiff is one of ‘dispersal zones’ in Wales meaning that the city houses asylum seekers and refugees. These changing patterns of migration can be seen in the addition of new businesses to City Road. Initiated in the 1970s by the Commonwealth immigration period, until the mid-2000s the area was mostly populated with South Asian shops and restaurants. Since then Kurdish restaurants have also joined the mix. 

The street has been plagued by a series of fires branded ‘mysterious’ in recent years. A furniture shop caught fire, a few houses went up in flames, a handful of shops and shisha bars went up and then, a former bowling alley and cinema that had laid derelict for years. Thankfully, the fire didn’t spread to the front facade of the building that’s heritage listed as any refurbishment on the building would have required a substantial amount of money to bring that facade to its former glory. It hasn’t taken long for local residents to discuss allegations of foul play during the rapid re-development of the street which has seen rents skyrocket.

Simultaneously, pubs such as the Cardiff institution the Poet’s Corner were knocked down, and its place a student housing complex is being erected to match the one that popped up a couple of years ago on City Road. Now an influx of student housing in the area means these owners of these flats are “struggling to rent their rooms” as local residents can’t afford the rent price rise.

A third of Cardiff lives in poverty and recent figures show that in some parts of Roath and Cathays this rate rises dramatically, with over half of residents earning less than 60% of the average wage. While shocking, it’s not surprising, there’s a notable relationship between poverty and ethnicity in Wales which is then compounded by the Welsh BAME unemployment rate, racial pay disparity, the poverty rate of Cardiff and the Welsh pay gap overall.

I spoke to Muhammad, a chef who works on City Road who said “I grew up in Cathays. Worked on City Road all my life. Gentrification wouldn’t be happening if there hadn’t have been an influx of drugs like heroin and crack cocaine into this area. People thought it was a sh*thole before because us lot lived here, everyone was in prison….now look at it, now you’ve got Africans and Asians moving out of places they’ve always been in. Where else are we gonna go?” 

Owing to substantial price rise of houses in and around the Roath and City Road area, Dr Stephen Jivraj of the University of Manchester comments that there’s a “marked dispersal” of BAME groups in Cardiff from areas within which they were historically settled. This means that people of colour are leaving areas like Roath and Cathays and new people are moving in. Trendier pubs, an art studio and an arts festival have emerged with little connection to the area’s existing populations.

In 2015, a group of self-described foodies asked “Should City Road be re-branded and turned into the city’s very own Brick Lane?” They explained that a re-brand of the area would potentially bring more money to the city, and that “gentrification shouldn’t be avoided”. Yet City Road isn’t a product there to be ‘re-branded’ but a home and a community. There is a sense that the area needs improvement, yet no parallel desire to improve the life chances of the people settled there.

Faruk Yavuzel (Image: Rob Browne)

In 2016, charcoal grill restaurant Oz Urfa won the Best World Cuisine Restaurant Award at the Taste Wales award. Just months later, chef and owner Faruk Yavuzel was giving deportation orders from UKBA. In a sign of solidarity, local residents organised a solidarity dinner, packed out the restaurant and helped to organise a campaign to raise awareness of Faruk’s case. Faruk was given leave to remain that year, but the restaurant still closed and has re-opened on Whitchurch Road, around a mile and a half away from the original site.

As so often happens, the processes that are expelling communities of colour from City Road are creeping rather than explicit, making them hard to detect unless you’re at the blunt end.  As this continues it’s likely that the gentrification of City Road will be the frontline for Wales’ discussions on race and inequality.

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Yasmin Begum is a 20-something graduate from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She enjoys reading and writing.


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