A London that pushes its character and people to the outskirts looks bleak, but some people refuse to give up the fight
I love London, but there’s something about it that frightens and saddens me, that evokes a vague feeling of nostalgia for ages and Londons I have never even lived in. When I’m wandering around central areas – Bloomsbury, Marylebone, Cheapside – I find myself wondering, does anyone actually live here anymore?
The centre of twenty-first century London, it seems, is not for living in but for working in; there are retail outlets, offices and, I would estimate, three million Pret A Mangers. There are the homes of London’s rich, there are building sites erecting more and more skyscrapers that will grow up to loom on the misty horizon like ghost ships. There are old buildings too: galleries, museums and monuments, buildings of historical importance that recall a different age, a time when central London was a bustling and grimy land of the living.
Is it any wonder that I would not believe it when someone told me the King’s Road was the heart of the London punk movement in the 70’s and 80’s; that homeless people once gathered nightly in Lincoln’s Inn Fields; that squatters on Freston Road, Notting Hill, once attempted to form an independent city state of their own? Endless streets of chain shops, the huge, bright foyers of offices, their functions impossible to discern. London’s radical past is being erased and London’s poor are being forced into invisibility.
Is it, then, the centre’s outskirts that are for living in: Dalston, Holloway, Brixton. If the city’s centre is increasingly hollow, is London’s heart to be found, rather, in its sprawl? Yes and no. Unfortunately, it seems areas that were once affordable are increasingly too expensive for even London’s middle class, let alone the city’s poor. The average cost of a home in Hackney is now half a million pounds, and landlords in these areas are turning houses into multiple bed-sits to increase profits, at times charging over two hundred pounds a week for apartments as small as three by three metres.
Gentrification is a force that first attracts the young and creative with cheap rents, but then expels them along with the low earners and ethnic minorities that lived there originally. This, the spread of gentrification, is forcing many who would once have lived in zone two, to move to zones three and four.
In an interview with the Guardian last month, the head of Transport for London Sir Peter Hendy picked up on this trend, arguing the need for increased transport to outer boroughs: “if the poor are not living in Tower Hamlets, Stockwell, Hackney and Southwark any more”, said Hendy “[…] they are living a long way away and a future mayor is going to have to make sure they can afford to get to work.” Hendy’s argument initially seems reasonable; of course, the spread of people into places like Enfield and Tolworth necessitates more transport to and from those areas.
But Hendy’s vision of London portrays an unsettling truth – London’s poor are increasingly being transported into the centre to work, but in all other ways have no access to the centre. Naturally, TfL seem to have no interest in providing low earners better transport for simply benevolent purposes, rather, it is only their productivity that is valued. Hendy’s words conjure a vision of a future London; a huge, stark and soulless centre, a business district, a tourist attraction and nothing else, surrounded by sprawling suburbs, vibrant, perhaps, but neglected and impoverished. An underlining of an already harsh divide, and a move away from the city as a place where people of all walks of life live, work and mingle.
The modern city has always been a place of two contradicting forces: a place where the well-oiled machine of global capitalism is at its most intensely productive, but also a place where opposition and creativity thrive and improvised, ram-shackle communities are formed. At times, whilst walking around London, it seems that the former is winning.
However, there are flickers of hope. The single mothers of E15, who have successfully avoided eviction from a Newham housing estate by simply refusing to leave, the victory of the Long Live Southbank campaign which has prevented the redevelopment of the decades-old skate park in the under-croft of the Southbank centre; these are victories to be celebrated and capitalised upon. They tell the rich and powerful that London’s history will not be erased and its residents will not be removed, at least not without a fight.