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let's make inner cities cool again: a call to arms!

If Alex Proud's article on the Telegraph is right, "cool London is dead and the rich kids are to blame," then we need to assert ourselves differently and Bertie Brandes has found a way...

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Hearing people criticize something that’s precious to you can be surprisingly difficult. While maturity promises perspective and acceptance, listening to somebody pour poison in my ears about Crossroads never seems to get any easier. Still, if you’re talking about something slightly more significant than Britney Spears’ debut feature film (I’m being sarcastic if you can’t tell, because nothing is more significant than that) sometimes getting the bigger picture can be a blessing. It was with some reluctance that I read Alex Proud’s article about the death of “cool” London. The title is, let’s be honest, rather off-putting, and as somebody who feels they know this city rather well (doesn’t every Londoner) I was ready to dismiss it as a glorified trend report dressed up as journalism. Amazingly, I was wrong (it happens). The article is absolutely right, central London is becoming a playground of the super-wealthy, and young people are being priced-out and turned away at the door. Actually playground might be the wrong choice of word, because there’s nothing fun about the T.M Lewin branded tumbleweed blowing across polished granite “squares”. In his piece Proud highlights a void in the heart of London and struck a chord with a lot of us. Living, or even going out in central London is not something I ever really think about anymore. It’s not a welcoming environment for people on a starting salary, and holds little of interest for people who aren’t looking for a row of chain stores and a Byron.

So where are all the residents that want to hang out and get drunk and petition against another Starbucks? Anywhere but the inner city basically. Owning property bang in the middle of London is a luxury reserved for people who aren’t going to make a fuss about yet another hideous development sprouting up because chances are they’re either a landlord or simply M.I.A. Still if everything’s just being bought up to be rented out again, then why is finding an affordable flat in Zone 1 so impossibly difficult? Well because it costs too much, obviously, but I think there’s more to it than just money. In a profit driven society, people without stable incomes find themselves suffering at the hands of paranoid letting agents. In this explosion of buy-to-let that’s eating up property all over London, not only in the center, the idea of a reliable tenant is becoming increasingly important. Shuffled in with the forms that must be signed by multiple guarantors, and declarations of income necessary to even book a viewing is a certain contempt of anyone who dares to live differently. This kind of vetting does not simply hinge on whether you can afford it; it’s about not fitting the bill as well as not footing it. While money is obviously what drives this divide, it’s important to note that there are other elements at play that signify a shift in attitudes towards young, creative people. In fact, simply by arguing that young people are being priced-out, it’s implied that we don’t have enough money. This kind of quietly exclusive rhetoric is misleading; it is not a lack of money on our behalf, but an infinite supply on the other; it’s not that we are too poor, it’s that they are too rich. 

A long way away from Bishopsgate, close to San Francisco in a town called Sonoma there’s a group of people pioneering what’s often referred to as the “small house movement”. Nestled in amongst mansions sit what look like garden sheds, sometimes as small as 65 square feet, providing as much space as is absolutely necessary and not an inch more. Often built by the owner, these tiny houses are a far cry from the endless bedrooms of MTV Cribs that my friends and I still believe our adult homes should somehow resemble; they’re an exercise in restraint and a fascinating response to the economic climate. These people do not simply feel priced-out, but alienated entirely from a culture that measures success in “stuff”. While I’m not suggesting we all move to California and live in miniature wooden houses (though I’m up for it if you are) the small house movement highlights a growing reluctance to engage with excessive and unsustainable ways of living. Towering boxes of glass with Barratt home branded bathrooms and underpaid, over-dressed porters feel stifling however much they may cost, there’s a kind of aesthetic exclusivity to the inner city which is off-putting regardless of price. So much of central London housing refutes the idea of a home, instead existing solely as status symbols, not for living in but for declaring wealth.

But perhaps it’s reductive to spend so much time criticising something so obviously corrupt. There is without question a kind of social cleansing taking place across the capital, stretching all the way from the Heygate estate to the Olympic park, and intent on stripping the city of a whole lot more than simply the “cool kids”. While London, with it’s eternally desirable neighbourhoods punctuated with far more inner city social housing than other capital cities, and hugely diverse communities, was once the coolest place on earth (think Ladbroke Grove in the 80’s) it’s edge has, unfortunately, started to blunt. So what can we do? Well, short of building a tiny house on the grand boulevards of Knightsbridge (dream on if you think you’re getting planning permission for that), there has to be a shift in our relationship with London. The problem is, we don’t really believe it’s ours any more, instead we see those inconceivably affluent areas creeping nearer and nearer to our doorsteps and look on blankly, awaiting a huge broom to appear out of the sky and sweep us away. It’s time to reclaim our city; it’s time to ignore all the things we’re told we can’t afford, and embrace street beers, breaking into private gardens and getting chased out of expensive hotels as your pockets bulge with the contents of a ransacked mini bar. If living in central London means pouring my money into some dodgy developers offshore account then I think it’s high time we found another way to assert ourselves. And I think I’ve found a way, and I think you’re going to like it.

Everybody knows capitalism is an inefficient system, while it’s incredibly productive in certain ways; it always generates a huge amount of waste. Being clued up on how capitalism isn’t working in central London is the only way of standing up to the huge corporate developments keeping us out. In the same way that open and engaged communities of young people are cropping up in deserted factories all over the until-recently highly-dangerous and dilapidated state of Detroit, or how artists began to squat in Soho in NY after the packaging industry relocated, we need to find our own space in the city. The deserted buildings in Docklands, left unused after the shipping container industry moved along the coast, is a great place to start. But I’ve got bigger plans. In March the government announced that somebody wanting to convert a shop into a house would no longer need to apply for planning permission. While that might sound fairly innocuous, think about how the growth of online shopping is affecting the high street, and think about how many high streets there are threaded through central London. As shop prices are driven down by retailers’ reluctance to pay overheads on something you can set up online in minutes, these properties are going to be cheap and totally legally habitable. You want to know the answer to being priced out of expensive, ugly new builds in central London? Have a boutique for a bedroom. See? I knew you’d love it.

@BertieBrandes

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