How Much Do You Gentrify?
London has always been a scruffy place, a fat county lady who’s come to the big city in the wrong clothes. Even the nice parts often look a mess. We’re not Paris, with our spun-sugar cake shops and glittering handbagerias (mind you, we’re not Clignancourt, either, which makes Camden look like Monte Carlo). We’re not the world’s largest city, Tokyo, either, where life is regimented for maximum efficiency. If Tokyo can be likened to a businessman’s sleek office, London is a teenager’s bedroom. We like our betting shops next to posh cafes and our churches built on brothels, thank you very much.
Gentrification may change the character of an area but it also brings safety and a more pleasant environment. And so we come to King’s Cross, which for decades had the word ‘sleazy’ affixed to it. The termini bred boarding houses and they turned into brothels, so the sex trade made their camp here, bringing in drugs and crime.
But in the last five years there’s been a fundamental shift in thinking about what the area should offer visitors stepping off the Eurostar. Most of the strip clubs, porn cinemas and brothels were closed.This year whole new streets are opening to reveal the usual bright shiny chain stores. However, the football fans still pile into the area’s most notorious pub, a low-rent strip joint called ‘The Flying Scotsman’ – and its licence is up for renewal.
There are two schools of thought here; 1/ We don’t need this 70s throwback sleaze on the streets. 2/ It’s concentrating the sex trade in one place (there’s a porn shop opposite) so leave it alone.
Complicating this is the fact that the pub stands at the entrance to a parade of once run-down shops that are trying to set up as small independents – some have already done so with success. If families have to go past the sex stuff to get to the flower shop they may not bother.
The Flying Scotsman is a dump in every sense of the word. Its toilets were the inspiration for the disgusting toilet sequence in ‘Trainspotting’. Personally I’d like to see the Luftwaffe come back for one more site-specific visit, but, coming from someone who preferred Times Square in the 70s, this might be hypocritical.
This is a test case, too – the area is about to unveil over twenty new streets and town squares. What will fill them?
I’ve been to some SoCal towns where the shops filled with stained glass humpback whales and wind chimes have made me feel suicidal. Nobody wants an area consisting solely of upmarket craft-retail.
One of the successes of the Eurostar terminal is its conscious refusal to fill the station with rubbish takeouts, and even the ubiquitous WH Souk has been kept well away from proper travellers. Instead, a mixture of small-chain food stores and useful shops took the place of ‘Chicken Hut’-type outlets, and has turned the station into a meeting point for locals as well as a step-off for Europe.
In recessive times, small independents need to be encouraged. Unfortunately, our present government is notable largely by its absence, and as the neighbourhoods fend for themselves it seems London’s problem is the same as everyone else’s – where do you draw the line?