Is London becoming dull?

"Is the Winchester effect making London a less interesting place to be? asks Michael Shamash"

There have recently been a slew of articles bemoaning the increasingly sterile nature of London. There is an increasing sense that the more desirable London becomes, the less cutting edge it is. There is a process that I define as Winchesterisation, namely that it prices out diversity and becomes a city that meets the needs of small, white elite much like an affluent provincial centre such as Winchester but amplified many times. We need to examine the question; as a consequence of this is London becoming more boring?

I have been jointly running a website, London-RIP.com that examines our recollections of lost facets of London, creative nostalgia and have written about these losses. My suspicion is that it is more than simple closures that we are witnessing but a market led structural reshaping of London and its image. Parts of London consist mostly of young affluence interspersed by the very poor still clinging on to the vestiges of social housing. You only have to look at the area between Cambridge Heath Road and Broadway Market to see this affect at work. Here in an area that was noted for its lock-up garages, taxi workshops and dodgy geezers, there is a profusion of coffee bars, upmarket burger bars and artisanal shops. This has always been an area with an eclectic population. However, I felt that there was some connection between the different strata of the area maybe some shared political values. Now it seems to be entirely about lifestyle, poverty surrounded by a largely socially disengaged army of hipsters.

The clientele of the coffee bar and the off-licence might just as well inhabit separate planets. The only point of connection is that the haves are getting some vicarious buzz by living cheek by jowl with alcoholics and crack addicts. Yet, that is far as it goes. Hell, when urban life becomes too much you can always return to the folks in Chichester. It is buying into whatever section of the lifestyle market affirms your social cachet without any awareness of the social consequences. Every meal I have is surrounded by the boring din of work talk bereft of any warmth. I don’t care about your new office in Dubai.

From murder mile to hipster chic

Dalston was once famous for being known as the murder mile. It is now super stylish, chic home to trendy bars and clubs. Estate agents advertise it as such. I don’t want to fall into the trap of glorifying guns and gangland but I do feel that a city needs some grit in the oyster to produce its pearls and that grit seems to be of an imagined past. The fascination with the Krays increases the more they recede into the distance and the more that social milieu is reconstructed as some romantic fantasy.

Yet, in terms of its population London has never been more diverse, becoming the most polyglot and multilingual city in the world. Away from the enclaves of the radical beards there are shops and restaurants selling products that no-one would have imagined becoming commonplace; Polish sausages, Colombian empanadas and Korean chilli sauce. Areas have reinvented themselves meeting particular ethnic needs. The interesting cultural activity takes place in unlovely settings such as Tottenham, Harlesden, Stockwell or Edmonton.

Street of ghosts

The problem is not that London becoming dull, it is that London has become much more stratified and disconnected. A high street will have pound shops and Somali supermarkets next to an artisan deli and a specialist coffee shop and ne’er the twain shall meet. A friend of mine once described Kentish Town as being a street of ghosts where the different social classes were oblivious to each others’ existence. This is now the norm. The old style butcher, green grocer and hardware store have mostly gone but when reincarnated it is clear who their customers are. The butcher will wrap their meat in brown paper and string but the pricing will be very 21st Century. The poor can go to Iceland; top products are for the top people. It leads to a self-fulfilling perception that the area is going up in the world reinforcing rising property prices putting both less wealthy resident and shop keeper at a disadvantage. This is further reinforced by the current good school, bad school, school divide creating social dissonance. The meek shall not inherit London any time soon.

Not Paris

London’s charm has always been its fluidity, the way that it is always morphing into something else. It has never been good at protecting the ecology of an area that exists in, say, Paris. Premises that have been in the same ownership for more than 30 years are a rarity. Maybe, though, much of it is now in danger of becoming anywhere with the same shops and restaurants selling the same products. In London you know what you are going to get unless you have sufficient income. Talk about the great variety of London’s food scene is true but have a family or live on a low income and you’re back in the chain gang. The market needs to be tamed.

Looking for answers

The diversity of London persists but not in such a visible or communal manner as formerly. This is apparent when we look at pubs. Changing cultural and social demographics have meant that parts of the city which once had copious numbers of pubs have now seen them close or become gastro pubs, a strange hybrid that seems unclear of its purpose. The less affluent may still have an old boozer within easy reach or more likely a Wetherspoon’s, affordable, certainly, but bereft of any sense of social connection with its locality.

So it is clear that whilst London is still a thriving, diverse city it is one that is becoming more clearly segregated. Market economics are impacting in ways that discourage idiosyncrasy and genuine individuality. Prices affect amenities and amenities affect lifestyles. Much of London is only available to the very rich and the very poor. There have to be some solutions offered.

The modern definition of London is very much a product of the Ken Livingstone GLC era where London was seen as a city of thirty-two massively contrasting boroughs creating a dynamic, interacting whole. Each area had something to contribute and created London as we know it. This ensured not merely focus but also social cohesion. People felt a real affirmation in identifying as Londoners. You also could see radical social policy being enacted on Londoner’s doorsteps, which in turn added to the buzz.

Both the GLC and its successor the GLA were hamstrung by law from participating in a range of policy areas most notably housing but even here they put these issues forward for scrutinising. In areas where they could act such as transport and the ecology their contribution is still being felt despite a toxic mixture of cuts and policy retrenchment under the current incumbent. It is only through having political will that London can become a city for all. We see the current mayor paying lip service to diversity, his most notable contribution being a St. George’s day event. This is simply pandering to a narrow concept of Englishness for political expediency.

Aspects of London such as the fourth plinth in Trafalgar provided Londoners with cultural engagement and participation in its cultural development. Trafalgar Square became a cultural meeting place. These cultural events are largely a thing of the past. London’s cultural industries are under attack. They need revitalising.

We need to have greater control of London’s development; private speculators cannot be relied upon. There has to be a concerted attempt to reinvigorate social housing. This should be more than simply hiving off the grottiest part of some anonymous private development, invariably named something village to a small number of relatively affluent people. Housing needs to be central as a means of creating both thriving city and social balance. There has to be the will attached that permits diversity and architectural worth. We need a new ecology that can meet changing demographics. We also need to reinvigorate the social mix through policies encouraging employment. Londoners can create and produce, and do so much more than serve flat whites and posh meals.

In short, what is needed is the political intervention to address the social drift and its consequences. London is not solely for the young and the hip. It cannot simply be a city of barristers and baristas. There are services that make a city function and people with homes to go to. London has largely become a small town’s vision of itself with the risk, as I stated at the beginning of this piece of becoming one giant Winchester. It should never lose the thrilling alchemy of differing elements mixing to create a bubbling metropolis in a constant state of creative flux. We need both engagement and oversight to make London to a city run by all, for the benefit of all.