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27 January 2015

The triumph of the hive mind: why is gentrified London so sterile and dull?

It isn’t just the insane house prices that is killing the city. Look through the windows of the houses you can’t afford and it’s the same whitewashed walls and built-in bookcases. The homogeneity is disturbing, and new.

By Rhiannon Cosslett

If you are ever walking down Dartmouth Park Hill in north London on the left hand side, and if you are paying particular attention to your surroundings, rather than squinting down at your screen in order to discern what other people have had for breakfast (sorry, #brunch), you might just glimpse a fading piece of local history. It won’t be there for much longer, but as of this last weekend you could still just about make it out, on the corner of Hargrave Park, smiling down at you, as it has done on the past residents of this corner of London for more than thirty years. The grinning yellow sun painted on the end of a Victorian terrace just up from where I was born is framed by the words: “Atomic Power/No Thank You”. In an area where I am finding less and less to be fond of in recent years, I love it.

It is often said that London is a collection of villages, as a way of explaining that, within this sprawling and diverse metropolis, you can still find a sense of community, of place, of home. But in Tufnell Park and its surrounds, the word “village” has taken on what is, for me, a slightly worrying tone. A recent article in the Guardian discussed the bemusing attempts of urban developers and estate agents to “rebrand” various areas of the city to create new fashionable quarters in the hope that wealthy metropolitans will flock there – something it referred to as “corporate cartography”. The Londonist helpfully provided a map of these new areas. Bafflingly, Holborn has been dubbed “Midtown”, a coinage the Evening Standard has been trying to make happen for some time now, without, it must be admitted, much success. Many of these rebranded neighbourhoods are “Villages”: there’s “Amwell Village”, near the Pentonville Road, “Marylebone Village” and, soon, I suspect, “Tufnell Park Village”, with all the horror (or glee, if you own property in the area) that that entails.

In the past few years, my local area, which houses two Labour leaders (one current and one former) and, if you’re being vague, stretches from Kentish Town up to Archway, with the Heath loosely to the west and the Holloway Road to the east, has undergone such a “rebranding”. Quickly but subtly, the chicken shops and junk shops have given way to a handful of businesses, including a trendy butcher-cum-deli, a children’s café that charges £1.50 for a slice of sourdough toast, a hipster ice cream parlour, a minimalist gift shop that only seems to sell about four or five items, and what I can only describe as a boutique fishmonger. The Soho House Group opened two restaurants. Most of the pubs, with the exception of the mysteriously tenacious Boston Arms – one of the last proper working class boozers in this part of town – have gone gastro and are moonlighting as crèches. At the same time, the Victorian terraced houses regularly sell for over £2m, many of them bought by French families fleeing Hollande’s taxes who were attracted by the local lycée that opened in 2011. The sight of a Leclerc van unloading at the pavement is not uncommon. And, from a personal point of view; the rent on my flat has gone up by £400.

Despite the insane property price rises, there are still large parts of the area given over to social housing, though I am beginning to wonder where anyone on a low income is going to be able to go to eat and drink should this rebranding continue. The unusual volume of social housing was one of the reasons cited in a bizarre Economist article last year about the stubborn refusal of the Kentish Town Road to escape its “humdrum” existence (read: there’s a Poundstretcher and a pawn shop) and gentrify the fuck out of itself like everywhere else. “Kentish Town’s shops and cafés are almost invariably untrendy and in some cases mouldering”, the author wrote, snottily. He or she must not have stuck around long enough to witness the opening of “Ladies and Gents”, a new subterranean cocktail bar in a renovated public toilet, or the hoo-ha over the proposed opening of a branch Wahaca in the space above Kentish Town tube, which, locals worried, would displace the longstanding greengrocers (they have now sorted out their differences). Nor did the writer ever live in an attic above the wonderfully shitty Lion & Unicorn pub, as I did in 2010, before I had to move so they could roll out the ramekins and paint the place duck egg blue.

Despite the doggedly resistant presence of some typical high street shops, the area is now one my parents and their contemporaries would struggle to recognise. There are still hints of the old London, fading into the brickwork, but it’s hard to tell how long that will last. There are still old Londoners, too, just about, but when Ed Miliband traipsed the area in search of case studies for his Labour Party conference speech, it was no surprise to me that those people he ran into in the park were revealed to be not so ordinary after all. He should have talked to Natasha Boon.

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The Kentishtowner, a local freesheet that reports on the ongoing march of new pop-ups and businesses, also runs a feature in which it interviews a local person each week. In March 2013, it profiled Natasha, the young woman who runs the flower stall in Kentish Town. She was brought up in Queen’s Crescent but no longer lives in the area. In answer to the question about her hopes and dreams, she wrote: “I wish I could afford the rent in Kentish Town!” Next to her answer is an optimistic-looking doodled smiley face, not unlike that of the painted sun.  

My generation is not the first to have faced a housing crisis. It was a housing crisis that brought my parents, and many others, to this part of the city when they were young. In the Seventies and Eighties, many of the crumbling houses around the area were squatted. The council had bought lots of housing stock and couldn’t afford to do them up, so if you broke in and set up house they weren’t really all that bothered. In fact, you could call them up and they’d refer you to a housing association that would come along and make the place just about habitable. I was born into such a house. Our housing association was called “Patchwork”, because they’d patch up the damp for you. Even then, prices were rising and estate agents were calling the street and its surroundings “Highgate borders”. In 1990, my parents were told that they could buy the whole house for £100,000, though it would require a further £100,000 of renovation work. They couldn’t afford it, of course, so like many others, they moved away.

This is why, I think, I love the painted anti-nuclear sun. It was borne out of the same alternative squatting movement that gave birth to me, and though it is a good decade older, it is something to hold on to. A last gasp of an alternative London, a sign of resistance that lingers on. It was painted in 1976, by a man called Kelvin, after he’d “experienced the most hideous mushroom-induced vision of my life”. I discovered this thanks to a book called Curious Kentish Town that I picked up in a local bookshop. The authors, Martin Plaut and Andrew Whitehead, had succeeded in tracking Kelvin down to an old chapel in Cornwall. “Having come across a few tins of old paint while on another blindingly enlightening anti-nuclear trip,” he told them, “I was suddenly seized with the absolute necessity to do something about it then and there.”

Now, of course, you’d be hard pushed to find anyone engaging in such a “senseless act of beauty”. Statements now have a different purpose, that of “virality”. The supposedly witty sandwich boards outside pubs are scrawled in the hope that they’ll be instagrammed and hashtagged and uploaded and “shared” – an odd choice of word, I’ve always found, for an action so non-reciprocal. The same marketing slogans – which give the illusion, much like the packaging on a smoothie bottle, of emerging unmediated from the lips of a single, quirky human being – repeated over and over on sandwich boards across the country. “Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free kitten”; “Soup of the day: the tears of our enemies”.

It’s not just the boards; it’s everywhere. Not just in Kentish Town or even just in London, but all over: Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Cardiff. The same, white-tiled, bare-lightbulbed aesthetics. The same concise, adjectiveless menu. Look through the windows of the houses you can’t afford and it’s the same whitewashed walls and built-in bookcases. The homogeneity is disturbing, and new. While I quite like the fishmonger’s and have nothing against those opening new businesses, it is this failure to deviate from the norm that frustrates me. It is the triumph of hive mind aesthetics to the expense of spirit and of soul. It’s a papering over of the damp patches.

In Time Out London, Giles Coren, a man who insists on continuing to review restaurants in our area thereby further skewing the demographic away from people like Kelvin and Natasha and in the direction of “braying tosser”, last week railed against those who have objected to the transformation of the long-closed public toilets into a cocktail bar. These people, he wrote, are “determined to keep London shitty”, being “ladies and gents of a certain age… just so jealous about the great things their children’s generation are doing to this city that they want to nip progress in the bud by objecting to damn near everything.” But I am young, and don’t see “great things” either. Instead, I see something being lost, something than Coren perhaps does not care about because, as he explained to me on Twitter when I mentioned the demise of the chicken shops, poor people shouldn’t eat fast food anyway. Perhaps I sound like a hippy and Kelvin should come and take me away to a commune, but that thing, I think, is the patchwork.

The new public toilet cocktail bar has also cottoned onto the need for a viral marketing statement. “Be Classy Kentish Town” its sign squawked, just after Christmas. “Isn’t it supposed to be ‘Stay Classy’?” I wondered, but perhaps “Be Classy” is more appropriate. I admire the polite but firm “No Thank you” of my treasured, beatific, trip-induced sun, but this? This reads like a plea.