With Soho fast becoming a corporate shopping plaza and East End pubs smashed to the bone and re-branded as microbreweries. I find myself conflicted by the changing shape of London. Like Google’s Pac-Man eating its way through the city, the shabby old London is being swept away.
Pretty quickly you’ll have nothing left but glass apartments and rich men with tattoos. It feels decadent and precious to complain about this. Like everyone else, the world you leave behind will be virtually unrecognisable to the one you were brought up in.
Generation Z won’t notice the difference and individually you’re powerless to resist change on this scale. But I feel immensely sad walking through Norton Folgate and Shoreditch seeing rows of Victorian warehouses earmarked for demolition. For me they are as beautiful and relevant to London’s cultural heritage as anything in Chelsea or Kensington.
With luxury developers blinding future generations of their cultural inheritance, it feels cruel and unnecessary to see London’s rough edges destroyed. When I first moved to East London in early 2008, I remember arriving at Aldgate East tube station feeling edgy and insecure. Not ‘edgy’ the marketing term for a Netflix crime drama, but a raw, dirty sensation. I liked it immediately. I felt incredibly naive and very much alive.
Exploring my local area at the weekends, I spotted ivy clad philanthropist mansions, rows of broken factories and scary old man pubs serving only Fosters. After dark the Gerkin would sparkle in the distance and Jack the Ripper walking tours were growing in popularity.
Ironically there is nothing to see on these Ripper tours, almost all the original sites have been knocked down or rebuilt to such an extent they are virtually unrecognisable. It’s pretty hard to ‘feel the atmosphere’ standing outside a Pret a’ manger.
Living in Whitechapel and Bow for eighteen months, my favourite Victorian free house was the White Hart, a corner pub frequented by Cockney geezers and ragtag students. Always a bear pit on Champions League nights, everyone would pack into the pub like a seventies football terrace, creating a better atmosphere than the games themselves.
The food was terrible and you wouldn’t dream of making eye contact with the West Ham fans, but it captured the ramshackle atmosphere of E2. Like many East London boozers it’s been converted into a gourmet restaurant now. Walking past the upgraded venue in 2015, the microbrewery is busier than ever before serving pan roasted sea-bass, pesto mash and tender-stem broccoli.
There is nothing inherently wrong with gourmet restaurants and demographics will inevitably shift and evolve over time. Only entering the refurbished White Hart Brew Pub™ you could literally be in any UK chain bar ordering locally sourced fish for £16.50. It’s safe, predictable and meticulously branded just like their Facebook page.
Alas, when you compare the White Hart Brew Pub to the slow destruction of East London by property developers it’s worthy of the National Trust. As its not only working-class pubs that are being gutted of their cultural heritage. Silk weavers homes, Georgian townhouses, children’s hospitals and historic trading markets have all been replaced by luxury flats over the past ten years.
Across London the grubby underbelly of alternative counter-culture is being slowly dismantled to the point there will be nothing left. Gone already are the dirty jazz clubs and bohemian squats in Soho. They are even demolishing an arthouse cinema for the financial benefit of a tiny global minority.
Destroying what made the area so attractive to visitors in the first place, global capitalism is paradoxically eating itself. Does anyone want to arrive in Spitalfields on a Sunday afternoon and discover nothing but ghastly office blocks and chain coffee shops?
Most people assume all change is growth and movement must go forward, but I am not sure this is necessarily true. Perhaps I am lucky to live here while the residue of past centuries are still visible.
London will inevitably change as buildings are not supposed to last forever. Like any other city in the Western world; fashions evolve, communities die and modernist epochs will be grafted onto any available space. But do you want to live in a smart city where everything looks the same? An urban fire forest that sparkles at night and morphs into dullness at day. Rough edges still have a role to play in my book. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.