Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Discover London – before it's too late

Leadenhall Market
Some years ago, just as I was getting interested in photography, I took to going on Sunday morning photo safaris around London.

Some were to the more salubrious areas, some to where visitors mass and others still to streets and alleys that will not be likely to find themselves on the tourist trail.

Quite a few of these came as a result of an informal online photographic project: each week, the person organising it would set a place as a subject and those who wanted to participate would go, snap away and then share their efforts.

It was interesting to see how different people saw and approached the same subject, and it also provided an opportunity to discover parts of the city one might not otherwise ever come across.

I hadn’t thought about this for some time, but was reminded of it this morning by seeing #DiscoverLondon trending on Twitter.

‘Yes,’ I thought: ‘discover London before it’s too late.’

Falkirk Street, Hackney
There’s not been a time since I moved to London in 1988 that there hasn’t been construction work going on somewhere. But in recent years, in almost every direction, the skyline has become a forest of cranes as development and redevelopment have surged ahead.

Now I want to be clear that I have no aversion to modern architecture per se – I’ve enjoyed quite a few rambles with the camera amid the steel and glass, but what’s happening now is not the stuff of good or interesting new building.

Crypt window, Christ Church Spitalfields
This blog has previously touched on the boom in high-rise towers that are soaring above us. Some of them are interesting buildings. Some – and I am thinking particularly about the ‘Walkie Talkie’ – are simply hideous.

But even that is not the point. The gentrification of London – and it’s happening elsewhere too – is getting dangerously out of hand.

There’s a human cost to this: it’s a form of social ‘cleansing’ that has been discussed far and wide. The cost of housing long since became ridiculous – it’s now a question of
St George's Garden
needing to find over £400k for a home in the capital.

In September last year, it was reported that the average cost of a home in London was £515k. It’s £272k in the rest of Britain, which is hardly cheap.

Wages have not risen to the extent that most people can get a mortgage for three times their annual income that will buy them such a home. How mortgage lenders are, therefore, getting around this, I do not know, but it can hardly be sensible and sustainable.

Off Middlesex Street
There’s another aspect to the gentrification, though: it’s producing a city where character is disappearing as fast as the developers move in.

Denmark Street – our Tin Pan Alley – is earmarked for replacement with the anodyne. Norton Folgate, in the City, is under serious threat too. Soho is having its soul stripped out.

Many other areas are going the same way.

In Brixton just this last weekend, there was a demonstration against whats happening there, with communities feeling that theyre being forced out by redevelopment and rising prices.

Change Alley
The situation is, however, complicated by
certain factors.

Broadway Market, just around the corner from me, has undergone a revolution in the last 12 years or so.

Moving into the area two decades ago, it was three quarters derelict, usually with hardly a soul around and not enough shops to buy the ingredients for a meaningful meal.

As illustrated previously, in a lengthy interview with one of the very few traders who had survived those desolate years, the growth of supermarkets had been a factor in that decay.

Pearly king at Covent Garden
A piece of local graffiti was memorable because it was accurate: “Broadway Market,” it declared: “not so much a sinking ship as a submarine.”

As the street started to revive, some locals complained. Yet apart from some dastardly dealings by local developer Roger Wratten by name rat by nature, it’s not been a case of losing much.

The street is always busy now – which also means it’s a bigger employer – is a darned sight more pleasant (even with the hipsters and more wheelie toys than Hamleys on a Saturday), and has enough of a range of independent shops that you can actually do most of your shopping there.

No, they’re not the same sort of shops, but since the majority of those who had abandoned the street for Tesco all those years ago had shown no sign of coming back, the shops are catering to a different, more middle-class market because that’s how they’ll survive as businesses.

Princelet Street
Those who complained that there shouldnt have been any market on Saturdays, on the grounds of gentrification, never had any alternative plans to revitalise the street.

Similarly, you see something similar when dozens of people suddenly turn up to protest against a local pub shutting, having not bothered to give it any custom for years, if ever.

In other words, the issue is neither entirely straightforward nor bad per se.

But the problems don’t stop with regeneration. As has been seen across London, rising rents then further push the small independents out, to be replaced by franchises and chains.

Coronet Street
Think Leadenhall Market – a glorious building, tragically sanitised as hiked rents drove out the
likes of a fabulous fishmonger, a poulterer and a butcher.

Think Borough Market – revived to foodie heaven, but now becoming ever more a vastly over-priced stop on the tourist trail.

London is in danger of becoming simply a sort of theme park for those passing through.

So do #DiscoverLondon: look up above street level when you’re on foot: even Oxford Street is interesting when you gaze above the shop fronts. Look at the street art too – some of it can be fascinating and adds to some otherwise dour areas.

Postman's Park
Find out about some of the places where the photographs here were taken. Maybe even go and have a look at some of places they were taken in.

We have a fascinating city. So take a little time to discover beyond the bland and the corporate and the soulless.

And take any opportunity to look a little deeper, if you discover that an area is being scheduled for redevelopment.

Let’s all attempt to ensure that London – and all our cities and towns – are not rendered devoid
of any character by those who have no interest in them other than as money machines.

Look before it's all gone
And don’t forget that local businesses will only survive if we use them. Don’t go crying outside that pub or that butcher or that library when its shutters go up for the last time if you’ve never crossed the threshold in the past decade.

All photographs copyright.

• You can follow @londonerwalking, @SpitalfieldsT and @createstreets on Twitter to find out more about the city, its history, regeneration and development.

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