Sunday, 7 February 2016

London Wanderings - Saving London

Walking around Central London at the moment is beginning to feel far too similar to walking around the city at the end of the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (admittedly, with less Donald Sutherland). You’re seeing all the areas you used to know stripped of all connection and all meaning.
I’m seeing a lot of this at the moment. Walking around London and seeing voids and building sites where entire blocks were before. Progress clearly has to happen, but it’s feeling like a feeding frenzy at the moment. And a feeding frenzy that’s indiscriminately damaging the city itself.

My point, before I go on, is not specifically about any individual cases. It’s about the overall effect and the scale and speed with which it’s happening. I’m just picking out a couple of specific shops I’m aware of. You will likely be aware of others.

Cinema store
Image source 
Just last week, the Cinema Store in Leicester Square closed down after 22 years. As the name suggests, it was a shop that sold film memorabilia and books with a downstairs section with more obscure movies (which sounds far dodgier than it actually was, especially considering the downstairs sections in other nearby shops – it was more likely to sell Jimmy Cagney’s Yankee Doodle Dandy or Italian Giallo horror movies than [insert your own joke porn title here]).

The first time I came to London on my own would have been within its first years. I remember finding it fairly quickly and found it immediately both appealing and comforting. London was still the big, scary city for me and a shop that seemed made for cinema fans like myself was the first thing that made clear that London can be a city for anyone. Whatever you’re into, there’ll be other people who are into it and who share your love of it.

The owner’s statement on Facebook said that “it has become increasingly difficult for a small business like ours to maintain a physical store in Central London due to the increasingly corporate nature of today's retail environment.”

Food for Thought (original image at The Guardian)
Within the last few months, we’ve also lost Food For Thought, one of London’s oldest (and most loved) vegetarian restaurants after 44 years. One of the staff members said “In the last few years, the landlords have put the rent up so much we couldn’t cope. It’s one of the few places in the area that is still independent, low-profile but very busy. Now the whole area is changing. All the older shops are closing.”

As a vegetarian cinephile, these are two that speak closely to me. But the slow death of Denmark Street is one that’s likely to hit home for a lot more – the spiritual home of a lot of the London music scene, generally know as Tin Pan Alley. It’s being redeveloped into a large, multimedia building complex with shops, cafes and a new performance space to allow people to “interact with the brands we love in exciting new ways,” in the name of “meaningful brand engagement”. 

Denmark Street in days gone by (original source louderthanwar)
Denmark Street plans (original source bdonline)
Meanwhile, gay venues across London are also closing - Manbar and Madame JoJos have both closed recently due to surprisingly mild-sounding legal issues surrounding noise and violence.  Both areas are being redeveloped at the moment in what I can only assume is coincidental timing.

The Yard in Soho, one of the few left, is currently fighting development. They say that “the Yard, not only of architectural and historic significance, has played a key role in the LGBT community. It is one of Soho's oldest surviving LGBT bars providing a safe haven during the dark years of persecution, while offering privacy and a unique Soho atmosphere. The Yard is not safe and the battle continues.” 

The Yard and staff - (Original source WestEndExtra)
A street away, where a number of small independent shops have been closed for redevelopment, there are large advertising boards instead of shops and windows, stating that the work will bring more colour to Soho.

More colour to Soho, apparently (image mine)

Chinatown Market a few weeks ago (image mine)
The Chinatown market is currently boarded up for redevelopment (although it’s not clear whether or not the businesses will return once the work is complete). 
A street away, the Kowloon bakery (the original Cantonese bakery in Chinatown) is feeling the heat of rising rents. As the owner, Danny Yeung, said in this week’s Time Out article on Chinatown, “‘I don’t know how much longer we can go on, though. The rents have got higher and higher until they’re almost killing our profits. We used to deal with individual landlords. Now it’s a consortium: they’re all owned by a hedge fund – a PLC. They don’t care about us. They just say: “It’s market forces. If you don’t pay it, somebody else will.” We’re having to pay £600 a square foot for rent and business rates. Even for a small place, that’s about £36,000 a month. You know how many buns you have to sell before you break even? That’s a lot of dough!”
Kowloon Bakery, Chinatown (original source HomespunLondon)
Over in Shoreditch, the Norton Folgate saga, which has been continuing for decades, nears a close. Norton Folgate is a tiny block surrounded by glass corporate monoliths by Liverpool Street. It’s a beautiful Victorian area, with plenty of local history which has been bought up by “British Land”, a non-private-sounding private business. They’ve allowed parts of it to become neglected in order to bring around the planning permission to destroy it.

Despite a successful local campaign to prevent this, the history-loving Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has the ability to potentially overrule local council decisions on this. He has done this twelve times so far, and each time sided with the developers. He did it again with Norton Folgate, allowing a 14 story office building to replace it, despite an alternative plan being offered that would keep more of the heritage and provide a space for local artists and businesses. The Spitalfields Trust is taking legal action to, if not prevent it, at least see if there will be a ruling and some consequences over what they say is clear misconduct (due to him calling in the plans within an hour of receiving them – nowhere near enough time to begin to absorb the level of information in there). You can read more about this in the wonderful Spitalfields Life blog by The Gentle Author.
Spitalfield residents join hands against development (original SpitalfieldsLife)
British Land plans for Norton Folgate (original Spitalfields Life)
Again and again within a short space of time, we’re seeing small businesses in danger. Not because they aren’t profitable, but because they’re being forced to compete in an artificially raised market. A Nandos, a Starbucks, a Sainsburys or an Apple Store will always be able to offer more money to the people who own the land than small businesses. A small Cantonese cake store will never be able to compete with yet another Jamie Oliver restaurant.

It’s not the fault of the businesses, and it’s not even always the fault of the landlords – with the amount of money they’re being offered, it’s difficult to turn that down. Of course it is. And I don’t know what the answer is, outside of some kind of rent cap for businesses.

The London that I fell in love with was the London that offered something for everyone, no matter what they were into. It’s being replaced with brands aimed at everyone instead.

To quote Warren Ellis talking about the rise of the monoculture, “If we didn’t want to live like this, we could have changed it at any time by not fucking paying for it. So let’s celebrate by all eating the same burger.”

If you want to help preserve some of these, these are the campaigns you can join. If you're aware of others, I'll happily link more.

Save Soho - Twitter @saveSoho

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