In the early 90’s I lived in what an estate agent would call a homely bijou residence, i.e. a cramped, ill-proportioned flat. It was situated in a development called ‘Elm Village’ which was clearly thought up by a very imaginative developer. Rather than being situated, as the name suggests, amid verdant woods in a quiet rural setting, it was surrounded by railway lines and semi-redundant warehouses, littered with old beer cans and condoms.
The creative naming was understandable given that Elm Village was situated just behind the undesirable London transport hub of Kings Cross Station. Then, the area was synonymous with befuddled alcoholics, roaming gangs of feral teenagers, drugs and more.
Despite the efforts to create an up-market oasis in Elm Village, it couldn’t escape its location – to the point where we were forced to put up barriers in our car park to prevent local prostitutes from conducting business there. On one occasion female colleagues from work on their way home from dinner at my place, were stopped by the police who quizzed them as to whether they were ‘out working’. My friends weren’t amused and never came back again.
I bring up Elm Village, as I happened to pass it last week for the first time in over fifteen years, while in London. We were in the UK for a family trip, staying not far away in Tufnell Park. On the first full day, I went for a jog, and found myself drawn in the direction of Kentish town and the Camden Road. These areas now appear fully gentrified. Out have gone the tobacco stained boozers dispensing cheap beer and – at most – crisps to eat, and in have come faux-distressed looking gastro pubs offering mojitos and Mediterranean-style mezze.
Elm Village once a speck of yuppiedom in a wider expanse of urban decay has been joined in the area by a multitude of loft flats in place of the decrepit warehouses. The back of Kings Cross Station which once housed dodgy locks-ups (one of which was fittingly the location of a serial killer’s lair in a TV drama) has been transformed into a new trendy mecca, with arts college, restaurants and fountain-filled square. Kings Cross Station itself has also been made over having had its shockingly ugly 1960’s extension torn down, to be replaced by a sympathetically designed public-friendly ‘urban space’.
The regeneration of this part of central London is old news for most in the city. Huge construction and revitalization projects are underway throughout the urban area from Paddington in the West to Stratford in the East. But to someone who once knew London so well, it’s disorientating. Arriving at Tottenham Court Road, I was completely confused by the absence of the old Astoria Theater and nightclub. It’s been demolished to accommodate – what is at this stage – a large hole in the middle of road, that will ultimately become a link in a new cross-London railway line.
Strolling past freshly scrubbed older buildings, and gleaming newer ones, I crossed the Thames to the Tate Modern Art Gallery, which not satisfied with already being huge in size and reputation is now in the midst of a building project to further increase its size and offerings. From there I fought my way through the throngs to the Borough food market. Once a forgotten corner of the city hurriedly passed en-route to Waterloo Station, this area has now become a destination for the culture-vultures and gastro-tourists. Towering over the area (and the whole of London) is the sleek and beautiful Shard skyscraper, the latest addition in a clutch of imaginative (and sometime strange-looking) buildings that have sprung up in or close to the financial heart of the City.
All this is – in theory – a wonderful phenomenon. The damage wrought by the Blitz and post-war redevelopment seems to be finally being put right. London is flourishing with ever better transport, housing, culture and food. But having recently spent considerable time in New York I can also see the flip side of the change in its fortunes. London is at risk of becoming ‘Manhattanized’ – which can be defined as, ‘habitable only for those of considerable means – thus stripping the urban fabric of its diversity, future potential and human riches (as opposed to just riches)’.
I once had a flat in an area called Kilburn which appears as it if it is being gentrified out of existence. The actual road where my flat was situated now sits in the ‘Brondesbury Conservation Area’ and posher West Hampstead has spread like an affluent stain to encompass what was once most decidedly Kilburn. The prices have also increased putting the area out of reach to those trying to buy an affordable home. A cramped one bedroom flat like mine now goes for over £300,000. As a result, long gone are most of the working class Irish who used to make up the area, and in are moving only those who earn a six figure salary.
Inner London has traditionally been a diverse and exciting place, with a mixture of people from differing economic and ethnic backgrounds rubbing shoulders. Cites are not just the mass of their physical environment, but also the sum of their human capital, and London has historically been living proof of that.
The danger for the city now is that its economic rise could also mark a fall for its social fabric. Unless those differing types including the teacher as well as the tycoon, the old timer as well as the new comer can have their place in the city then it may brim with money but it will be empty of spirit.
If you’re a Londoner (or not) let me know what you think of the changes in the city, for the good and for the not so good.