London is losing its individuality
LONDON is under assault. As the Christmas season opens and country people go up to town for shopping and entertainment, the extent of the change is all too evident. It’s not just the bulk of the new buildings rising to vie with The Shard, the continued street-level intrusion as Crossrail reaches towards its opening or the number of hoardings protecting restoration and refurbishment. Much more important is the inexorable destruction of the fabric of London and the villages that make it up.
Cork Street, once chock-a-block with galleries and humming with art, is now a shadow as so few have managed to hang on in the face of the more lucrative lettings that now take up the space. So far, Westminster City Council has managed to protect much of Savile Row, but the international chains are pressing hard to take it over from the individual bespoke tailors that have created its atmosphere and made its name.
The example of Burlington Arcade is all too ominous. Most of the shops that made it such a quirky Christmas delight have gone, to be replaced by the same representatives of top-end luxury that have already colonised Bond Street— as they have the fashionable areas of every other major city.
The arcade now offers little that’s different, just the same old labels that dominate smart streets from San Francisco to Moscow. Even the individual English elegance of Pickett, long the Christmas destination of the discerning, has gone, to be replaced by Manolo Blahnik as if we didn’t have enough opportunity to buy the company’s shoes in Harvey Nichols, Harrods and its Kensington shop—as well as in every other capital city in Europe. Nothing special here—just the Freeman, Hardy & Willis of the rich. Happily, Trevor Pickett has found new premises just around the corner and left Burlington Arcade to be homogenised.
It’s not only the smart places that are being cloned and homogenised. Transport for London’s (TFL) headquarters in St James’s Park is due for an entire refit in order to turn it into a prestigious block of flats. The small shops in the arcade of its Underground station used to serve the needs of the local community as well as the commuters. There was an individually owned grocery store and a very good newsagent, which stocked a wide range of magazines, cards and confectionery that reflected the personal choice of its owners. Half a dozen other privately owned businesses thrived there until TFL got greedy.
Now, it’s dominated by the chains. Whsmith, Paperchase and Tiger offer here what they offer everywhere. The locality is immaterial. They, like Pret a Manger round the corner— which replaced a popular print shop—can pay higher rents and provide a better covenant, so they drive out individual shopkeepers and replace variety with the conformity that central buyers and corporate beancounters impose. The individual Italian-owned cafes reduce in number as their sites are eyed greedily by the fastfood chains and casual-dining conglomerates determined to extend their empires. As a result, these London villages cease to be destinations with their own individuality and become an indistinguishable part of the Great Corporate Wen.
That’s just what’s happened in the Victoria redevelopment. Not a single proper restaurant, just the chains. Why bother to come here from your own clone village to eat the same food, at the same table, with the same decoration you could get there? Big developers and big bucks don’t make space for the small, individual and different and London is very much poorer as a result. The homogenous and the mediocre are dumbing down our capital and all of us must demand better.
‘The homogenous and the mediocre are dumbing down our capital
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