I genuinely start to feel a little queasy when I read words like 'regeneration' and phrases like 'fresh urban thinkers' and 'cultural place-making', all of which were read in an Evening Standard article about the 'cultural quarter' planned at Nine Elms and Vauxhall. The piece was essentially an advertorial, naturally, and included phone numbers of estate agents in the body copy. I felt like weeping.
It's all part of the Bilbao effect, where a poor, industrial city was revitalised by plonking a post-modern art gallery in the middle of it; in this case it was Frank Gehry's Guggenheim, an extraordinary building which houses art unable to compete with it.
As I've mentioned previously, this model has been replicated in several dilapidated UK seaside towns including Bexhill-on-Sea, Margate and Eastbourne (with mixed results) and now parts of London too.
Traditionally, though, struggling artists would move into poor, edgy areas and rent cheap studio space. Over time, artisan bakeries and art galleries would pop up, the developers would move in, ruin any character the place had in the first place, and everyone (except the rich, who would move in) would be priced out. This has happened in the east end of London on a large scale in areas like Dalston, Shoreditch and Hoxton. What's also happening now, though, is that this formerly not-exactly-perfect-but-at-least-organic process (which might take years) is forsaken for ready-made 'artists quarters' to provide instant culture kudos and authenticity in order to make a fast buck.
Kings Cross is a recent successful regeneration story which has rebranded itself from a neglected, dodgy no-go area (though I, perversely, prefer the old days of the Scala, the drunks and the skanky prostitutes – now that was character) into an 'extraordinary neighbourhood' with bars, restaurants, apartments, offices (including the Guardian newspaper) and culture. But as a Guardian article points out (whilst failing to mention their new offices being based there), although the area is open to the public, it's all privately owned and a criticism of such projects has been that they favour business over community.
Says Naomi Colvin, Occupy activist: 'You may possibly go to some officially sanctioned kind of entertainment
activity which is sponsored by X but there's no scope for people to do
something of their own – to do something spontaneous.' Indeed, everything's hunky dory as long as you are working, shopping, eating, drinking or indulging in some kind of X-sponsored activity.
The so-called housing crisis (where 72,000 London homes remain empty and God knows how much empty office space there is) has meant large swathes of the capital being ruined, in particular along the Thames the so-called luxury apartments which to me look ugly as sin. These exclusive, elitist, gated communities have all the atmosphere and charm of a morgue (and indeed, largely remain empty; bought as investment). And they're all identical, with their Carluccio's, Waitrose's and water features.
A form of ethnic (or at least social) cleansing is occurring where a borough like Wandsworth admitting to displacing poor residents to Birmingham to make way for shiny new apartments for the shiny new rich. This is apparently legal. Similarly, I've watched the Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle be completely demolished to make way for new flats as part of the regeneration of the whole area with no concern for the local residents who have no way of affording the new housing.
As London becomes a rich man's circus where community is contrived and art is commerce, the character of the city is being annihilated before our eyes. Developers, big business and government expect us to be thrilled about these 'exciting new retail and office opportunities' but they're all bland and boring and don't really benefit us at all.
Previously on Barnflakes:
Modern architecture is rubbish
The Lighthouse at King's Cross