Pacifism thrives under the gasometers in King's Cross

"Dizzy is West Side Outlawz." "Cripple Too Right!" "Wanker." The Maiden Lane estate, on a man-made cliff above the back-lands of King's Cross station, is proof that architecture is not enough. Built by Camden council in the early 1970s, in picturesque imitation of early Corbusier, it became a slum within five years. Now, in the middle of a weekday morning, only the graffiti speaks to you.

The alleys and steps which were meant, I suppose, to evoke Portofino (or Hampstead) are empty. Several Alsatians are on the loose. Behind a big ground-floor window - covered, like all of them, by deep net curtains - a man shouts at his small daughter to shut up.

Maiden Lane has all the attributes of current planning fashion: low-rise, high-density, inner-urban living. What goes around comes around. Maiden Lane was a Victorian euphemism for Midden Lane. Cities seem to have memories. The geographical inheritance of slumdom (exclusion?) is a hard burden to shake off.

Behind me, off the main road, is a gaggle of the little firms that flourish in such odd corners. Printers, plastic moulders, document shredders. But I climb up on to the roof of the community centre, and look out over the biggest hole in central London. In the distance, the spire and turret of St Pancras, black against the sun. Down below me are gaunt gasometers, a glint of canal, and the tumble of old railway buildings.

The back-lands of King's Cross are like the arse end of Manchester or Leeds. I love it here. I go down into them, dodging the lorries driving in to collect ready-made cement from hoppers as big as grain silos. I huddle up against the canal wall. An Austrian woman tourist was raped by a gang of schoolchildren and thrown into the water to drown. Magazines like to use the back-lands for fashion shoots. Ealing Films made The Ladykillers here. Mike Leigh set High Hopes just the other side of the canal. The gasometers are always in every view.

This landscape mixes abandonment and re-use. A scaffolding firm advertises its Zig-Zag Towers and Debris Nets. On a long strip of derelict land, a golf practice range. Nothing in a city is ever wholly wasted. At some level of cheapness, everything is some use to someone.

At the far end, three night clubs are padlocked up. One of them has sad conifers cemented into tubs on the forecourt. More romantic at night.

"They used to repair the engines here." The bearded man with a slight stoop runs a takeaway coffee and snacks trailer in the middle of this urban jumble. He is surprisingly well-spoken, like an ex-actor. His Italian helper is stripping a chicken for sandwiches. His trailer has been in this corner for five years. "My father worked here for more than 40 years. He was a checker. Just checking the work." One way of returning to your roots. He bins the morning's thrown-away polystyrene cups and waits for the lunchtime rush.

A young woman comes down from a night club office. She has a long black skirt with white flowers. Her fingernails are yellow and pointed. She has a fake-fur hat on because her hair dye went wrong. "Wella say it isn't their fault. But I've got on to my mum and dad's solicitor. They put peroxide in the wrong bottle. Now I'm ginger at the back and blonde at the front. I'm hiding it for three weeks. I don't want that, do I?" We all nod sympathetically.

I go up on to a raised road. Two yellow lorries are parked here: G Ratcliffe Underlays, of Burnley. I am almost at the same height as the gasometers. A cheerful line of narrow boats is moored on the canal. One of them is the Mr Micawber.

The back-lands have been waiting for something to turn up for at least 20 years. The latest idea was to bring the Channel Tunnel rail link through, under Islington, and into St Pancras. "Nothing'll happen for five, ten years," the coffee man says. At the earliest, I'd say. Arsenal were said to be thinking of moving their stadium here, but the rumours have gone quiet.

Further down the hill, you come to the King's Cross everyone knows. The Babewatch Bleu video store. The Abcat Cine Club, shrouded in drab curtains. A shop front called Tasteful Encounters. I wonder why railway stations are now seen as agents of regeneration. The surroundings of rail terminals are always like this.

Undeterred by its neighbours, Housman's bookshop continues to fly the flag for pacifism: the Peace Diary 1999 in the shop window, the Peace News offices upstairs. I once asked a friend who worked here how a paper run by a collective ever got published. "Oh, all decisions are taken by the man who hasn't got to catch the last Tube home."

Inside the Tube entrance, I read the black slate memorial to the 1987 fire. No one ever looks at it. The names begin with Betty Afua Agyapong and end with An Unidentified Man.

This is the last of Paul Barker's weekly townscape columns