While out and about over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about how we see cities. Not so much how we actually see them – though the fact that spring has finally come to London has made it extra-beautiful to behold (see image). I’ve been thinking about how we see them in our minds.
To explain, here in London, house prices are rising fast. And rapidly rising house prices mean rapid gentrification, which in London, were you to map it out, takes the rough form of an ever-expanding circle.
As living in central districts becomes too expensive, outlying areas become colonised – those on low incomes lead the way, followed by artists and other creatives, then hipsters, then young professionals, then young families, then older people looking for somewhere with “an edge” (which is actually by then long gone), then the established wealthy bring up the rear, with those on low incomes who once lived in the neighbourhood having long, long since been pushed far further out.
Of course, the above is an extremely oversimplified version of a very complex phenomenon. But I think it’s a good summary of what is happening in London, particularly in east London, my part of the city. I’ve gradually moved further away from the centre of the city over the past ten years in terms of where I work, where I live and where I hang out, which I guess you might see as as good a very rough indicator of the progress of gentrification as any.
This process, found in other cities, including New Orleans, but I think particularly acute in east London, means that everywhere is always the new somewhere or perhaps the old somewhere else. Dalston used to be the new Shoreditch. Clapton and Hackney Wick used to be the new Dalston but isn’t that now Peckham? And is Walthamstowe the new Clapton? People in east London have these discussions all the time.
To be honest, I’m not really a fan of this conversation. Dalston, where I live, is the old just about everywhere now, but I still like it. I like Hackney Wick and Clapton too, and would like to spend more time in Walthamstowe and Peckham. I think this “new” and “old” business is a slightly destructive cultural process that, instead of valuing areas and accepting urban change as inevitable, races through neighbourhoods, jacking up living costs in the process, only to deem them terminally uncool a year or two later.
Here is a manifesto for city dwellers. Live somewhere. Like it and enjoy it. Visit other places. Try to like them and enjoy them too. Whatever neighbourhood you’re in, as an inhabitant or a visitor, accept its good and bad points. Accept it will change. You’re somewhere special – it’s not the old or new anywhere. It’s itself, and there’s nowhere quite like it.