Just over seven years ago, I made my first visit to the USA. I landed in Chicago at around 11pm. I’d never travelled further than Europe before, so some elements of the trip had been meticulously planned for some weeks. Being from London, I wasn’t hesitant about using public transportation in a big city, and being a student, I wasn’t going to pay for a taxi anywhere. So I’d printed out a route to get me to my accommodation, with a subway downtown, and then a train to take me to the university where I was staying.
On the subway train, I was struck by the volatile atmosphere: the beggars, the guy drinking what looked like meth (seriously), a woman sitting on a piece of cardboard, crying. It was strange for me, as a Londoner, to see that all those people begging were black. The racial profile of the homeless in the UK is quite different, although we certainly have plenty of homeless on our streets, too.
Somewhere along the way I boarded the wrong train. I was trying to match the names of the stations on the noticeboard with those on the crumpled printout in my hand, when I realized I’d gone off course. The train was quite empty by this stage, it being midnight, but I noticed a fellow passenger a few seats away and asked him for directions. He said I couldn’t get to the university using that train, and that it was too late to head back downtown as I wouldn’t make it in time for the last train. Noticing the university didn’t seem too far away from the next station, I suggested I get out and walk. He looked up at me, clearly troubled, and urged me not to do so. “This is a bad place,” he said, gesturing toward the streets between the next station and the university campus.
Having lived in some of London’s least salubrious areas, I thought to myself: “how bad can it be?” I decided to get off and try my luck at walking. But I didn’t know then what I know now about the Chicago Southside and its murder problem, and I certainly didn’t know that this particular district was one of the Southside’s worst.
When I got to the top of the escalators, I saw the ticket attendant was sitting in what looked like a bulletproof perspex capsule. Of course we read a lot about American gun ownership in the UK, and I began to wonder if I’d made the best decision. Undeterred, I wheeled my suitcase to the station entrance. There was a group of young men standing around, talking. Their heads began to turn and register me, and it was clear they were interested in the sight of my emergence from the underground. This was definitely the sort of attention that won’t end well. With my suitcase in tow, it felt like I had a neon sign on my head saying Tourist! Big wad of dollars! Laptop! Blackberry! (it was 2010, after all).
Were I back on the streets of London at this stage (and boy did I wish I were), I would have scanned the street for the little yellow flashing light that signals a minicab office. But there didn’t seem to be very much around that was open at all. Not even a shop I could duck into to bide some time and work out my next move. The group outside the station seemed to be taking more interest in me, and glancing over my shoulder I saw they were beginning to move in my direction. Re-entering the station was now impossible. I was going to have walk into the darkness of the night, and maybe even break into a run: suitcase, blackberry, and all.
At precisely that moment, a man’s voice came from a doorway beside me. The man to whom it belonged was standing there, on a stone step, leaning against the wall. He was asking me if I wanted a cab. But I couldn’t see any car, just the scruffy looking man, and a sense that the gang were encroaching in the corner of my eye. Seeing my hesitation, he stepped forward, took my suitcase, and wheeled it quickly to a car 20-or-so yards down the street, with me scuttling behind. Before I knew what was going on, the suitcase was in the trunk, and he was saying: “you need a lift man, get in.”
I hesitated. I could either get in, and risk this guy taking me to the docks and killing me, or try my luck with the young group who – thankfully — had stopped moving and were now watching from down the street. I looked through the window of the man’s car, checking for telltale signs like duct tape, or a machete. All I could see was a Magic Tree air-freshener dangling from the rearview mirror. This clinched it for me. Machete wielding maniacs who take tourists to the docks to kill them don’t have Magic Tree air fresheners. I said a firm ‘yes’, I got in the car, and I shut the door.
In a moment of intensity like that, you lose self-awareness. I wasn’t interested in his opinion of me, or how I looked, or whether I would be seen as making a wise choice. Danger does that to you. It strips things bare, it reveals the essence of things. All that mattered in that ‘yes’, was what we were communicating about, the fact that I’d get in the man’s car. There was no nuance, no strategy, no spin.
Now I can’t pretend that the less salubrious areas of London in which I’ve lived really compare with that ‘bad place’ the guy on the train warned me about. But, where I live now is certainly very different from when I first lived there in the early 90s. Back then it was genuinely deprived, and yes, there were occasions when people demanded money from me in the street on threat of violence. I hesitate to use the word ‘mugging’, as it really was just a feature of life for teenagers round there back then. If you were alone, and looked like you might have a bit of cash, or cigarettes, or best of all some weed, then you’d get ‘jacked.’ Especially after dark.
Leaving friends’ houses in the small hours of the night, and often only walking distance from home, I’d have to wait up to an hour for a nightbus to avoid certain streets or junctions where it was unlikely I’d make it through without a confrontation. When my mother first moved to this area, I naively walked past the local boys school one day during the lunchbreak, not realising that a teenage boy with an unfamiliar face was not a welcome sight for the local youths. I was treated to hail of projectiles. Some were relatively harmless (like plastic rulers), but others more painful on contact (like rocks, stones, a pair of compasses). The physical projectiles were accompanied by a shower of abuse, of the sort that only indigenous Londoners can achieve; twisting and combining the grammar and cadence of different profanities in a remarkably creative fashion.
But now, living on this very same network of streets that were once so unsafe, is like living on a different planet. I’m not sure when I first noticed the change. I remember when different sounding names starting appeared on the letters coming into our apartment block; Clem, Jemima, Tristan, that sort of thing. The next street had a few shops; a bookie, a kebab shop, a late-night off-licence and a newsagent with a huge array of pornographic magazines who’d sell single cigarettes to schoolkids for a few pennies if you asked nicely. One day, suddenly, a nice little coffee shop appeared on this street, and it sold really good coffee. If you wanted coffee before this, the little kebab shop would do you an instant in a plastic cup. In desperation I’d bought one once. It was pretty foul, and the guy behind the counter always said the same thing whenever I went in there. Every single time, he’d ask me why we didn’t kill pedophiles in England. Sometimes he’d be sharpening his gigantic knife while he asked, as if proferring his services to my people as our court executioner. I was never quite sure how to respond, however. I usually tried to bring the conversation round to things like the weather.
But this new coffee shop brought a very different clientele. Some sported ridiculously ornate facial hair. Most were squeezed into unfathomably tight trousers. But they also had that faux-self-absorbed air that can only be the fruit of the most acute narcissism. That is, in what had once been a gloriously unassuming place, the most acutely self-aware people imaginable had arrived in town.
But it wasn’t the nice new coffee shop that made me realize how deeply the place was changing. The real turning point didn’t even come after a few more cafes had appeared on the same stretch of road (one gluten free, of course). Nor did happen when the kebab shop had been turned into an expensive restaurant serving woodpigeon salad and pear sorbet. Nor even when the pornographer-meets-tobacconist-for-the-under-16s was turned into a hairdresser charging more than I would spend on a week’s food. No, things really hit home when I suddenly felt safe walking down the road late at night while listening to music on my headphones. Twenty-five years ago this would have been impossible. Then, one needed full sensory aptitudes, to be alert to the tell-tale footsteps of an assailant coming a little-too-close behind one’s back, or the hushed voices of potential attackers taking an interest in you from the other side of the street.
Now as a parent myself, it is of course wonderful that there is less mortal danger on the streets where my family live. Then there’s the improved public transportation. It’s also rather nice having an endless supply of really good coffee, and cafes where one can sit and drink it, while pretending not to be conceitedly self-aware.
But, as might be guessed, I have very mixed feelings about all this change. I can’t help but wonder if we’ve lost far more than we have gained. For every advantage outlined above I could recount a tale about the way things used to be. There was the village-like community and the unreflective camaraderie of a diverse urban population, once made-up of afro-caribbeans, particularly Jamaicans, and also Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, with some Turkish and Kurdish too, and still plenty of the old white working-class cockneys. There was the Rastafarian guy next door who took me in when I was locked out of my mum’s apartment, fed me, and let me watch his telly until she came home some hours later. The houseproud cockneys downstairs who, when my mother became ill and immobile, used to take out her garbage every Monday night. There was a real ‘rag-and-bone’ man, who’d draw a horsedrawn trolley down the street collecting scrap metal and shouting ‘any old iron.’ There were long, hot Saturday afternoons in the park at the end of the road during the summer, when the whole neighborhood would be occupying the precious green space, chatting, sunbathing, and drinking.
I remember being a kid and playing by the canal near the gasworks at the back-end of the park. It had a strange little derelict tunnel which went off an angle to main concourse of the waterway. Of course, this fascinated us kids. I assume it was once a little covered boat yard or something. Not only was it gloriously spooky to look into the dark black hole, but if you spoke or shouted, it could give the fullest and eeriest echo I’ve ever heard to this day. We would shout into it, and our shouting would degenerate into just making noises: no words, no meanings, no artful grammar, just sounds for their own sake, sounds made just to hear the echo. We’d compete with who could make the most bizarre and ornate sounds, who could contort the voice in the most florid fashion. Sometimes you’d produce some strange sound, and it’d take so long to come back out you’d have half-forgotten what you were doing, and would be asking whether to go and buy an ice-cream or something. Just as you started normal communication again, a disembodied echo of a voice would suddenly cry out from the hole, and off we’d start again. These echos from the old derelict tunnel in London’s East End were the opposite of that ‘yes’ I spoke in the Chicago Southside. That ‘yes’ referred directly, and only, to what was happening. It was never untethered from reality, it had no sense of competition, no performance, no awareness of how it might be received. But these echoes we used to make were empty, made for the benefit of being heard. They were – like the incomers to this area — acutely self-aware, all performance, nothing but display.
Underneath all my complaining about this change, isn’t just the tedious nostalgia of a conservatively-minded guy approaching his 40s. For in that run-down and forgotten area, people remembered each other. There was mutual help, belonging, and a strong sense of identity. Because it was poor, the area had a history of left-wing activism. This went much deeper than just having a socialist MP, but included a Council which had been vilified by the Thatcherite press during the 80s as ‘loony left’, and what were grandly called the “head offices” of all manner of ‘People’s Front of Judea’-type perpetually splintering revolutionary groups in tatty rooms with typewriters over high-street shops. Because the area was essentially forgotten, buildings were neglected, and the Council didn’t seem to know what belonged to them and what didn’t. This meant it was squatter’s paradise, had ample cheap studios for aspiring artists, and was a hive of musical creativity. This place was forgotten, yes, but it was fecund.
Sometimes a sound-system would turn-up at those Saturday afternoons in the park, or other times a medley of musical instruments. A disused train line down the road was a vast elongated traveller site. There were travellers in a local empty school building, too, with caravans, trucks, and a routemaster bus in the playground, and squatters sleeping in what were once the science labs, classrooms, and the library. The younger locals would gather in the school hall on Saturday evenings, and the travellers sold beer and played music. There seemed to be an endless stream of little carnivals, street festivals and outdoor parties in local parks, or out on the nearby marshes throughout the summer. There was also a derelict outdoor swimming pool in our park at the end of the road. One summer the squatters broke in, and the whole neighborhood partied long into the night on the beautiful old Victorian tile work.
Now the community spirit is much harder to find. The original population have been pushed out of the streets with the nice big houses, where the cost of a property has gone-up by an average of 400 percent. Small flats are now comparable in price to the traditionally affluent Western side of the city, which is itself increasingly empty as the houses and flats are used as investments for the Arabian super-rich or Russian oligarchs. The Rasta next door has gone, as has the couple downstairs, who have been replaced by a professional couple paying an absurd rent (and who are far too busy for neighborly concern). The park down the road is overrun with visitors to the food-connoisseurs market down the road, which – tragically – is now in London Guidebooks and thus has visitors from all over Europe and beyond, munching their foodstuffs on the same green turf which once felt like it belonged to the community that lived here. The outdoor swimming pool has been refurbished, and attracts visitors from all over, who pay a considerable sum for the privilege of swimming in it.
But worst of all, in my view, is the loss of that fecund creativity which a down-at-heel district brings with it. With property prices spiraling out of control, there can’t be as much squatting (the government have changed the law now, anyway). The artists have gone, and the musicians have followed suit. Many of the newcomers are obviously at home with the artificiality of the hipster crowd, who tend – ironically – to identify as “creatives.” But the creative heart of the area was torn apart, and those who lived here simply did create, unthinkingly, and didn’t prattle on endlessly about being creatives on social media. Such an acutely self-aware arrogation to oneself of the title “creative”, surely signals the most deadening lack of imagination. Then there are the quick transport links to the financial district. Many of the incomers are highly transient. The endless march of 30-something young professionals from the EU or the English Shires don’t tend the flower boxes and front gardens like the old guard did when I was young.
This is all why I don’t speak of ‘gentrification’. For the word stems from the word ‘gentry’, meaning those of ‘gentle birth’, and what has happened to this area is not gentle, but brutal; tearing the heart out of the original community. There is nothing genteel, no gentility – no delicacy – just the inexorable march of faceless forces carving-up what was once a far more organic existence. There is also a loss of that social order which the word ‘gentry’ should suggest. A gentleman should be one with a sense of noblesse oblige, a sense of stewardship for a whole community. But this so-called gentrification has been a leveling down of the complex old social order into the swarming, one-size-fits-all-30-something professionals from the UK and EU. The thing about having cultures from around the globe in the old days, was their social mores. This was no third-wave left-wing paradise. The communities that lived here weren’t going to take lessons in gender roles from the degenerate West. Even the militant feminists (and there were many), gloried and reveled in their female identities and the mystery of childbirth and weaning which belonged to them, and only them, without question. The travellers too, a subculture with no media or sophisticated intellectual vanguard, were deeply gender specific in their appearance and lifestyles. Like the ‘yes’ I spoke in the Chicago Southside, there was no strategy, back then, no spin.
All these members of the old guard lived here when the area had forgotten spaces within it. Now, no stone is left unturned. The price of land has reached unimaginable proportions, so every little scrap of wasteland has been built on, every run down house razed to the ground and rebuilt, every barely noticed strip of weeds, grass, and shrubs is territorialized and put to some self-conscious use. But these little places are like the gaps between words in a sentence, like the pauses for breath in an intense conversation, like the really important things which can be left unsaid between two old friends. Without them, everything is constantly under scrutiny, like an inquisitor shining a bright light in your eyes, day after day. There’s no sleep, no self-forgetting, just the unforgiving light of the garish day. I can’t help but wonder if this is connected to the social mores of my new neighbors. What is it to question gender but to bring the most pervasively unexamined and universally applicable aspect of human nature under the microscope? What is engaging in a lengthy taxonomy of all the different permutations of human sexual identities and self-identities other than a messing around with things, a conscious classifying of our complexly human mythos with the unforgiving light of logos? Yes, it’s nice to be safer from crime. But I just wish we’d been left alone. I wish we’d stayed forgotten.
Of course, many of the old guard are still in town. They haven’t left the space itself, they’ve been pushed out of sight by the incessant march of economic development. They still live on the estates where the (white, UK and EU) professionals don’t want to live. You see them in the dole office, or some of them drinking on a couple of corners where they can still hang out. Because many of the newcomers use private healthcare and education, you see more of the old guard at the local doctors, and more of their kids in the local schools. I often see old characters from back in the day, and it takes a while for them to recognize me. I could easily not engage them in conversation, and just dissolve into the crowd of professional 30-somethings going about their business. The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that the inheritors and guardians of the old ways of this place won’t be from the left. The new social elites, aglow with the logos that carves this place up and divides the spoils, those that think it’s edgy to read The Guardian or wear a pro-EU t-shirt, neither can nor will be the defenders of that old tradition.
London undoubtedly feels more divided than it did a while ago. None of this has been helped by the fact that digital technology and social media exploded around the same time as all this massive social change. So an area which has become more fragmented and divided along economic, political, and racial lines, feels all the more so when the people concerned are lost in their echo chambers. If you communicate by writing, by status update or tweet, linguistic difference is more pronounced, and educational disparities become wincingly obvious. People retreat, suddenly being made aware of things best left unsaid, things that don’t need to be said; things that a gentleman, by definition, never would say or draw attention to. Things that could once be forgotten.
Like when we used to shout into that pitch-black, old tunnel, just making meaningless sounds, the lack of genuine encounters today means people are no longer communicating properly, just regurgitating sounds which are disconnected from any real voice, any truth. And one can half-forget this for a split second, and glimpse some sincerity, something authentic, but then, before you know it, a disembodied voice emerges from the nothingness and drags you back to the endless production of the echoes.
Predictably enough, the old canal tunnel by the gasworks has been bricked-up, and has a little patio in front of it, accessible from some luxury apartments in the warehouse above it. On Saturday mornings residents in the building sit down there, and visitors to the food market sit on the benches on the towpath, with everyone consciously pretending not to register each other, not to be scrutinizing and carefully cultivating their every gesture. I wonder what’s in that old tunnel now, if it was actually filled in or just bricked up. Maybe the same old canal water is in there, stagnant and putrid after all these years. Maybe our old echoes from when we were kids are still in there, and having no outlet, maybe they ricochet from wall to wall, occasionally escaping into the dreams of those people sleeping in their luxury apartments. But maybe even those escapee sounds are not forgotten on awakening, but find themselves trapped and dragged downstream by the endless echoes of the elite which now characterize that once forgotten and fecund place.
Jacob Phillips is an academic living in London. He tweets at @Counteredlogos