3. Living for the City
(credits to Ed Cox for the amazing image of London docks pre redevelopment)
One of the most written about shifts supposedly catalysed by the pandemic is the looming urban flight of the professional classes. Mastheads from Politico to The Guardian and The Telegraph have recently run variants on the theme of the escape to nature with a particular focus, as is often the case, on London. There are a number of reasons why this is overly-simplistic and is unlikely to be the case. The partial uncoupling of ‘city–as-economic-unit’ from ‘city-as-physical-social-network’ will make London a more vibrant, more textured and perhaps less unequal place.
For many, London is a necessary evil. The lure of work, particularly ‘middle class’ professional jobs means that many people cram in for the economic opportunity that would rather be in towns or villages. I have known many people, grudging residents of London – not Londoners – who while away unhappy years never taking much advantage of world-class clubbing, or free ballet performances, 10-quid West-End show tickets or just a walk along the Thames. Now this ‘white collar proletariat’ has a chance to unshackle itself from those chains.
Of course, there is more to the city than it’s professional classes. But their departure will accelerate geographical diffusion of the skilled service sectors – the baristas, barmen and brewers that keep London sane. We can already see vegan Deli’s in outer London suburbs; expect some of these London emigres to take their taprooms with them; urban tastes will mix with the de-hipsterfication of ‘nice things’ – no one wants bad coffee – finally ending the perceived urban monopoly on 11 pound pints and beard oil (anyone ever notice how self-consciously male so much of this stuff is?). This is nothing new; this was Brighton in the 90s, and more latterly places like Margate. Don’t be surprised if towns with great train links for 2 days a week in the office, great city centre housing stock and good quality schools such as Bedford or Basingstoke or smaller spots in the stockbroker belt like Oxted start to attract a younger, pre-family demographic in their late 20s, and with them, their cafes and sourdough bakeries, sitting comfortably alongside existing traditional (non-ironic) butchers and hardware ‘levelling up’ the locavore scene in these places. Less genteel (‘edgy’) spots such as Gravesend or other Medway towns could provide alternative options for early-career workers, looking to make the most of first-job wages as they plan their next move.
Don’t however, expect this exodus to be one-way. As pressure is lifted from the city with the departure of the ‘have to be heres’ and their financial muscle, there is more scope for the ‘want to be heres’ to come. With reduction of office space and the pruning of the white collar work, there is a chance, with the right incentives to make the city more diverse. Artists, musicians and all those who benefit from cultural agglomeration effects of the city will have more scope to return; the kind of people that in the past acted as an accidental ‘thin edge of the wedge’ for scavenging property developers and ended up displaced by the cultural capital created by their own success.
As someone raised a Londoner, clutching an old paper travel card, who remembers 50p bus fares and the opening of the Tate, taking myself on the train to school (in South London, real London, there was and is no Tube) I am hopeful. I am looking forward to a more passionate and engaged London, where those who previously priced the willing out, buy themselves an exit instead. What I am hopeful for is a city with fewer residents who resent being here and more space to breath, financially, culturally and socially for those of us who choose to make it home.
Burgers and Lobsters, and the Petit Trianon
Marie-Antoinette had an interesting way of unwinding at the Petit Trianon, the small Palace that was her escape from the ‘pressures’ of Queenship up at the ‘big house’ in Versaille. In the grounds of the Petit Trianon, she ordered the construction of a hameau, a mock French farming village, complete with rabbits, pigs, cows and some fields of wheat and barley which she oversaw. A.U Wertmüller, some-time a resident artist at Versaille depicts, in one of his portraits from the French court, one of Marie-Antoinette’s confidants, Adelaide Auguie, dressed in a mock peasant milk maid’s dress in the Queens Laiterie. Apocryphal or not, the story runs that the Queen herself had elaborate shepherdess and farm-girl costumes made by her royal dressmakers, in which she would play at the peasant-girl, tending to her sheep or milking her cows until, bored, she would retire to the Trianon, most likely for cake.
Why I bother to relay this story is because the same disdain I have for this playing at the peasant is how I am beginning to feel about the current trend for single-dish and short menu restaurants in London. What once started as a desire for simplicity, great ingredients and an unfussy return to ‘real’ food has become a caricature of itself, what the hameau was to a working rural village. Just as the immediate post-recessionary automotive craze for matte-black coating Porsches, BMWs and Range Rover Vogues as well as other high end vehicle, ( low profile, low sheen and therefore permissible luxury ran the simplistic hedge-funder logic) these restaurants the Tramsheds, Bubble Dogs and Burger & Lobsters of the world are now seen as a permissible display of status by way of discernment in this post-recessionary realignment, the after-Lehman L’Atelier Joel Robuchon. Except, the problem is that once they become a covert status game, the food suffers. Once the thing is that it is ‘a thing’ then the food is no longer the thing. The shred of dignity provided by their stripped back approach is becoming stretched to the point of absurdity, with a restaurant specialising in only champagne and hotdog or only burgers and lobsters bearing little resemblance to the honest culinary ethos that may have been the one iota of authentic grit in the oyster when this whole charade began. This rule can be almost uiversally applied to anything with ‘streetfood’ in its subhead.
The ersatz nature of the whole stripped back food vibe becomes apparent when you eat at some of these restaurants- catering to a certain comfortable chattering class background that wants to play at the peasant girl. Meat Liquor’s burgers are over-hyped, over-greasy and made from poor cuts. They remind me of the kind of burger that I would get for a pound from a burger van at the funfairs of my childhood. Yet for those who venerate these establishments, these vans were were verboten, so now in urban 20- and 30- something-hood their sustenance, or a repackaged version of it, becomes fetishised, an exciting sense of what is forbidden, an element of transgression to add to dimensionalise this status.
If you want a burger van burger, go to a windy car-park by a builders merchant in Mitcham. If you want to open one of these restaurant, make the narrative about the food rather than pretending its about the food when actually its about the catchiest menu combination or newest streetfood novelty.
Amongst the shining skyscrapers of Dubai, a city that doesn’t do ersatz modesty, culinarily or otherwise, I visited a place in porta-cabin, the Bu Qtair restaurant with no menu and whose clientele consisted of a pretty even split of expatriates, from both East and West, and South Asian migrant workers. Plastic tables and chairs were strewn outside and there was no menu, just large plastic tubs of masala-seasoned fish bought each morning from the boats ( Dubai actiually has a working fishing fleet… ), fried to order and served out of a side window of the cabin. No show, no fuss, no ‘concept’ other than serving incredible spicy fish and chapatis to anyone who wanted to eat. Happiness should be good food, not a culinary mock-hamlet.
Wrestling with Gentrification
The estate agents have been circling, and a few people sent a link my way, knowing it would ignite a theme that they knew would end up with me writing a piece that would inevitably make no attempt to ground an argument, and instead offered my own externalised version of a discussion that I have been wrestling internally. Thanks to Matt Thompson, and latterly Oliver Cox as catalysts for this
The article they sent me from the evening standard, was about my own neighbourhood, Brixton, and included this passage
Charlotte Ryder, 21, said Brixton Market was one of the main reasons she chose to move to the area after graduating in politics last year.
She said that she was instantly attracted by the “multi-cultural and friendly” atmosphere, as well as the vibrant nightlife and transport links.
Miss Ryder, an associate campaign executive for Diffusion PR, said: “I’ve just got back from Thailand and Brixton Market really reminds me of it.
Apparently the neighbourhood is now the go-to place for those who want to pretend their gap-yah never ended. The area is becoming an attractive inner London dormitory for London’s young professionals.The problem I have with that is that I am both one of them and they are also everything I hate. The case for- I moved to Brixton 2 years ago with 2.1 from a Russell group university, a job in an ad agency, a vintage trenchcoat, and ray-bans reading glasses. The case against- I grew up down the road in a one-bed flat in Streatham with no central heating and my single mother surviving on benefits. I am also mixed-race, (white/afro carribean) though this is less important to the story here in Brixton or in London as it is in neighbourhoods in the US where this has been happening– though not irrelevant.
I wrote a piece last year, berating many of the more long standing members of the community for not using these new facilities- my own response to the three young men, two black and one white who walked through Granville laughing and shouting ‘this is Brixton, where the fuck have all the black people gone?’. But for many long-standing residents what they seek when they have an unstable life is stability. The constant novelty and change, and the pace and way in which it has taken place in the neighbourhood has not brought the community along with them. The constant novelty and change panders to a new influx who seek it as a counterpoise to their stable white collar world- it is not being done in a way that feels expansive, inclusive or ambitious for all.Charlotte Ryder is my current bete noire. But the pull quote above reflects my same desire to move here. Maybe that’s why in my head I have vilified a 21 year old who I don’t even know. I grew up in South London, and to me, that always was the real London. And coming in with my middle class job and wage and predisposition towards interesting music nights, eclectic restaurants and locally sourced food, I knew that these things would be there already in the community here, not in a sanitised, pre-packaged form, neatened up with the kind of shabby-chic, easily digestible pastiche of ‘realness’ that characterises so many other ‘edgy’ places.
I used to shop in the market for mangoes as a child, I used to convince bouncers to let me into Drum and Bass nights when I was 16 at Mass and Fridge and BugBar. Grandparents and Great-grandparents of mine had lived here when they first came over and got off the boat. I felt (still feel) very attached to the community. I didn’t want to move here for farmers markets and pop-up dining experiences. I wanted somewhere on the tube where there was a market and some vibrancy and most importantly there weren’t people like me. The traditional
professional dormitories such as Clapham and Balham or Finsbury Park in the north, or even 9in fact, especially) the Bow-Soho adland fixed-gear commuter corridor had little attraction. How can I ever possibly improve at a job that demands that I understand how to sell trainers to 16 year old kids on estates one day and the emotional connection between housewives in the midlands and their condiments the next if I spend my whole time surrounded by a liberal mono-culture. On a personal level, it may be what I look like, or what I do, but it isn’t who I am or where I have come from, or for that matter even, where I want to be. I want to go into the local pub and talk to retired builders, ex-cons, bankers and shop clerks and everyone inbetween. I don’t just want to talk to PR girls, graphic designers and corporate lawyers that dress like them.
So how do I feel? Conflicted. Excited to see a new area on the rise, especially one that I have always felt so close to, but apprehensive about how unevenly that rise is happening, with quality of life rocketing for some, and others feeling shut out of the party. The ‘Charlotte Ryder’* idea of a multicultural neighbourhood is a restaurant filled with clones but just enough colour beyond the plate glass to make it seem ‘real’.
Not much more than a decade or two ago, those on middle class wages were fleeing to the suburbs and beyond as fast as they could, leaving behind those who could not afford to flee. So many of these communities did what they could do get through as best as they could, studiously ignored by councils and governments. Open a couple restaurants and suddenly the flow reverses, and in run all the kind of people who would have turned their back on a neighbourhood like this even three years ago. And in they come, pricing out locals, alienating rather than integrating, as if to say, ‘Thanks for holding the fort, but you poor people can all fuck off now.’
*apologies to Charlotte Ryder for becoming my own Milquetoast or Mitty for the purposes of this piece…
Regeneration and disconnection
Apologies for a very UK-centric post, international readers, please get me on @alouneou to clarify any too-obscure UK references.
I live in Brixton. Prior to this, I lived in Norbury, and before that, from the age of 6 months, (the age I moved over from West Palm Beach FLA – yes I am technically American) I grew up in Streatham. Barring an intervening three years in a second string British city for university, I have spent my entire life in London, a city which completely skews ones view of the British Isles (here), but also one of the most multicultural, amorphous, evolving places in the world. Urban renewal has done London well- the city arguably could have become a donut by the end of the 80s- save for the City of London itself, but investment in the 90s gave London another chance. Inner city areas that were once no-go areas have become desirable places to live. But this economic narrative isn’t what this post is concerned with.
I suppose this is the point where I set out my stall, and possibly make what could be seen as an incredibly awkward conversation. For the record I am of mixed descent (or for our American audience Anglo-Jamaico-scottish-Irish-Puerto-Costa-Arawak-Londonish) so in some ways, and probably wrongly so, it partially absolves me of the the misconstruction that some may build of this.
I was going for lunch one afternoon in Brixton Market, where a previously derelict section has turned into a vibrant, multi-use commercial space, thanks to London’s largest renewal project, initially kickstarted by Spacemakers. Craft shops, artists and photographers and designers studios and a lot of very cheap, very very good restaurants have sprung up, and in the last year, you can see the Saturday afternoon North London ‘tourists’ down to check the place out.
This is undoubtedly a good thing. But a group of three guys, two black and one white came walking through while I was having lunch, and one of them turned round and shouted, part to his friends, part to himself, and part to those of us around ‘Where have all the black people gone- I thought this was Brixton. What the fuck?’ And in fairness, he had a point of sorts…
Brixton was, along with Notting Hill (!) one of the areas in the 50s and 60s that the Black community settled in. In 1981, it was the first place on mainland Britain to have petrolbombs thrown during the riots against police oppression of the community, and it has always been an important touchstone for black Britain. Yet almost all of those dining and milling around were white middle class. My first reply would be that the businesses were run by the local community, of all colours, and in a proportion far more reflective of the community. But why wasn’t this regeneration of the market being used by all the residents, rather than the new influx of those from Mosaic’s ‘Urban Intelligence’ section of the population. It wasn’t cost- It isn’t expensive. To eat at most of these places costs the same as a chicken based meal from a reputable ( or disreputable) outlet. Even if you prefer takeaway, surely you want to try something new?
Apparently not is the answer. And I think of our exasperated individual in the market’s question should have been ‘where are all the less socio-economically well off people?’ There is a serious fallacy in the idea of social mobility if we have a culture where, though the museums are free, it is primarily the middle classes who benefit. Or where you can get a 5 poundtheatre ticket to see world-class actors at the NT, but still, every time I go, the audience is the same combination of 50-somethings and drama-school kids. This is a theatre that sits in Lambeth, one of London’s most deprived boroughs. What are we doing to make sure we don’t just make sure doors are open, but that people want to, and feel they can, walk through? If we don’t, we are going to have an uneasy detente with areas like Brixton, or Hackney, or Shepherds Bush or any other place where we are seeing a migration by young professionals back to these lively, gritty, vibrant urban centres, and one that could flare up as we face a long hard grind out of this recession. We are being told that London is a world-leading cultural hub, I just hope it can be that way for everyone.