Gritty, edgy London – the Soho haunts, the East End fixtures – is being taken over and redeveloped. It’s changing the capital, but who’ll be left to call it home?
For someone who really loves London, I’m starting to hate it a lot. The walk from my flat to Soho takes about 40 minutes, and on the way we pass One Commercial Street. It’s made of grey glass, like a big powerless telly. The only clear difference between this residential block and others nearby is that its name (unlike, say, Mettle & Poise, the Hackney Road development built in the ruins of a children’s hospital) doesn’t pretend it’s somewhere else.
This is the site of one of the most glaring examples of a development with a “poor door” in London (the separate entrance for those who live in cheaper flats is in a single-file alley down the side of a Pret a Manger) and this is the site of anarchist group Class War’s most recent success. After they spent five months picketing outside, with a banner promising to “devastate the avenues where the wealthy live”, the building’s developer, Redrow, sold its stake. The new owners have agreed to negotiate with the protestors about ending their use of segregated entrances. Redrow was in the news recently when it pulled an advert ridiculed by an audience who saw, rather than aspirational luxury, a “neo-liberalist capitalist dystopic future-present nightmare”. Oh well.
The walk into town is a tunnel of mirrors. You see flashes of your reflection as if you’re chasing yourself. The back alleys around Oxford Street are suddenly exposed. Where buildings once were are now only façades. On the door of an empty café in Old Compton Street is a handwritten note from the owner, whose lease has not been renewed. Goodbye, she says to her customers in Biro, and sorry for the note, but it was too hard to do it face to face.
While I’m not averse to the odd slosh of capitalism, at this level it’s so explicit it’s almost… gauche. The Astoria has gone. Madame Jojo’s has gone. The New Piccadilly café. Central Saint Martins. And I wonder whether part of their death is due to me and people like me who grew up in the spaces between these now-flattened monuments, forgetting them until it was too late. Should we keep a checklist, maybe, of places we might miss were they to disappear, and frequent one a week to try and keep it alive? The Phoenix cinema. The dim sum place where the waiter always shouts at us.
The thing I find most confusing about this new glass London is the question of who it’s for. The attraction of Soho is its independent shops and broad, homely sleaze. If the businesses that are its backbone are priced out, who will want to visit? Back home, past Old Street, there are “apartment blocks” climbing up the sides of closed-down strip clubs. But who will live in them? Isn’t the appeal of east London today its promise of grit? Of cheap bagels and stubborn subcultures, immigrants from Bangladesh, from eastern Europe, from art schools everywhere. Who are the millionaires who will want to live here if living here means these things will disappear?
Rather than in its status as a home for creativity, diversity, funny haircuts, I wonder if London’s edginess is now located in the tension between the new and the old. Between the people who were treated in Hackney’s children’s hospital and the people who are buying a two-bed flat there for £625,000. And Crossrail, the shark that bit the sides off Soho, will soon usher away those who are struggling to Wokingham, to Slough, biting the edges off London, too.
And yet as I return by tube, the carriage air thick with fried chicken, I still feel deep affection for this horrible city. Outside there is constant smashing and grabbing and cranes and hoardings, the skyline strobing with newness. The place I live is no longer the place I know, and yet I will continue to hang on with my nails, my teeth. I will fight for what remains. Home has been knocked down; only the façade is left. But it still smells like home.
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