18 June 2009

The places regeneration leaves behind

Just an ordinary North London road, scruffy and shabby with newsagents and kebab shops. When I moved to the City I didn't like these places, so different to the pristine market town where I grew up. But it's home now.

Even before 2008 many shopfronts were battened down or whitewashed over: longer-term shifts in economic geography than recession drove businesses out. Flats on this road are starting to be visibly gentrified - I live in one such block and there's a decent (clearly architect-driven) refurb just round the corner. But there is little demand for business here any more, only corner shop chicken shop pizza place. The odd laundrette; still internet cafes, a reminder that the internet is not exactly the great leveller; many are still economically or culturally excluded. Little more. These are some of the shops shuttered and left behind:

Blackalls Fruiterers and Greengrocers, established over 100 years. Closed now, closed at least fifteen years if its phone number began not 0207 or 0171 but 071. And the tenant just pulled the shutters down and left - the landlord has not re-let the space, has not converted into a fried chicken emporium or poundstore or fought the council for reclassification as in-demand residential. Just left.

W. Plumb the butcher has a beautiful old-fashioned sign with even a little stained glass. Where did he go? How did he feel about closing the business, about giving up hope of becoming W. Plumb & Sons, or perhaps Daughters? I cannot imagine this road with a proper old-fashioned independent butcher on it - what was it like, did it have community that extended beyond council estate dwellers? (Do they still have community, or do I romanticise? I know we middle classes have lost it.) This has always been a working class area, my block of flats one of the few visible signs of gentrification - but for it now to have a proper family butchers like this would be such a posh thing: how Highgate, how Crouch End.

Perhaps a more recent casualty - or not: Sega's Dreamcast (2001) was a failure, and the Saturn (1995) not much better, so would this branding date back to Megadrive days (1991)? I spoke to the chap in North London Models - not a brothel, a model aircraft & toy car shop, a relic still going on no visible sales at all - who dated the loss of these shops to the early Nineties and, presumably, the recession then. Further down the road there was even a bank, the Natwest form now sitting above somebody's kitchen still visible under layers of paint. Was this area once a highstreet, a community, a functioning economy? A destination? Now it is just a road for transit through to other places.

17 June 2009

On yer bike: adventures in new urban space

So I'm finally getting a bike. Finally listened to my road-bike warrior friends on the poetry of motion; finally accepted that it has to be the best way of getting around this tangled City. (Pretty good, too, to save some cash: life in this town eats money.) And suddenly I find myself moving in a whole new environment, find a whole new City opens up to me - a new city built from the same streets I've walked for years. What a tool the bicycle can be for urban perception! Let me explain:

You go fast on a bicyle. Having not cycled since I was 10, I had forgotten this. The same familiar journey becomes a completely different journey at four times the speed (say 4mph walking, 16mph cycling) - instead of taking an opportunity to think, one must be constantly aware of traffic, road conditions, your balance - and all these thiings change, every second. Architecture no longer matters, the dress sense of pedestrians (such an urban pleasure!) becomes inconsequential; the landscape becomes one of road signs, traffic lights, moving cars and parked cars and tarmac texture. Now you can see the grooves buses wear into the street surface; painted road markings are no longer signs & symbols but objects, raised up and tactile. This road-space is governed by rules I do not know; I read the Highway Code so I would not be a total liability out bike-testing, but this is such little fraction of the behavioural codes of roadusers. Cycling ignorant of this is cycling illiterate, a foreigner in a strange land.

Yet what is so intriguing is that these new processes and foreign meaning is re/inscribed upon streets I've walked and bussed down for years. As a pedestrian I handle traffic so fluently, jaywalking across roads watching traffic flow as a set of (differential?) equations, each lane to be solved one at a time. I weave in and out of cars without concern, guided more by instinct than concrete thought as to what is safe. Yet up on a bike it feels like a completely different problem. Instead of crossing perpendicular to traffic I must now move parallel with it - become part of it, I suppose, though my thinking has not yet quite understood that concept so far. This layering of spaces, of meanings within the same built architecture - it is the city as palimpsest, the overlayering of trace upon trace upon trace.

Cycling produces a new emotional geography too. I don't want to be ashamed to admit that testing bikes yesterday I was afraid - so easy to wobble into traffic, or, not knowing what to look for in this unfamiliar setting, to fail to notice impending danger. Cars are so much bigger, heavier, armour-plated - when cycling they felt like autonomous machines, their trajectories inevitable and unalterable. I'd forget there were people inside, people who were watching and thinking about how I was moving - people who would make an effort to avoid hitting me. Is this why cyclists talk of the road as warfare? It is hard to see it as teamwork, much as it may be that kind of social space of cooperation and allowance too. So cycling was this state of continual awareness of how I might come to harm - can I call this existential? - very liminal, danger a knife-edge away. Like standing on the edge of a tall building - and, what is more, knowing how easy a moment of madness could be.

I beg to know when cycling might become second nature; how long does it take to learn to read the road? I hate to be a beginner like this, a liability to myself and others. Though it'd be a shame to lose this novel frame of perception - must mine it for ideas while I can! - it is so difficult to inhabit this road-space of fear and trial and threat. Yet until I started thinking of buying a bike I did not know this arena of challenges was even there - hidden in plain sight, the materiality of the road users visible but the process and meaning obscure without practical experience. And now these streets become a place for me to test myself, to face my fears, and to develop this new competency and embodiment.

If, that is, I can find the right bike!

10 June 2009

Hoxton stencillist wisdom, Jan 2009

DON'T WRITE ON WALLS, WRITE EVERYWHERE - now there's a message for a cities blogger. The first part of that instruction is to be ignored, of course, if your glyph has the graphic purity of the tag below.

9 June 2009

Geographic Information... Postcards?

The Met Police's latest resident engagement exercise: "tell us your concerns about crime and antisocial behaviour in this area", and mark where it's happening on the map.

Quite touching, really. It's the police reaching out rather than being merely reactive, and in allowing written and spatial feedback it's open to different styles of communication and thinking. The tagline is "Listening to you" - god, you think they're going to give you a hug rather than (a) catch criminals and (b) beat up/imprison/murder lawful protestors.

But it's not going to work very well, is it? First, the map's half-unreadable because the boundaries of the local ward cutting off several key street names. Second, do respondents have the sophistication to put their X in the place they want to be describing? Sounds patronising, but the first rule of survey design is always Keep It Simple, Stupid: if it can be misunderstood it will. Third is the problem of processing all these smudged Freeposted postcards: that's a lot of data entry, and half of it won't be legible.

You can see what they're intending, and it's good: mapping crime, Geographic Information Systems, very closely related to work at UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. (Linked, even, c.f. former policeman Paul Richards' PhD on Realtime geodemographics for reassurance policing and crime prevention [ppt]. But if you want a GIS, don't hand out bloody postcards... E-democracy or e-governance has never quite taken off in this country, has it - why not? This should be web-based, it should connect to stuff, not least the Met's overall Crime Mapping site - yet there is nothing, no parallel site, no mention of it on www.met.police.uk/islington at all. Is this so hard? It wouldn't require groundbreaking innovation: internet use is widespread enough for e-governance; Google Maps is robust enough; and people can type more legibly than they handwrite on half-a-dozen narrow lines. And we've got an ex-copper doing a doctorate on this exact topic.

So why'd I get a damn postcard?

Capital markets - the economic realities of office space

Enough cultural whiff-whaff (as our Dear Leader Mr Johnson might say): the city's made of money. Made of capital, if you will. And I love money: I find it fascinating.

The Rat and Mouse is a key real estate economics blog, but its focus is largely residential property - as indeed is most newspaper coverage. Subprime residential mortgages in the US may have kickstarted the whole credit crunch - this was something I watched kick off from a ringside seat in real estate research; fascinating - but it is in fact commercial real estate that has seen the biggest falls. You thought 22% peak-to-current fall in house prices was bad? Try a 50% crash in office values.

Furthermore, whereas subprime mortgage securities may have been the catalyst of the crunch, it is commercial property that yet remains to kick the banks in the teeth. They lent too much against this sector, and have not yet written down these loans and deleveraged these securities. Savills say almost all property investment loans made between 2004 and 2007 are now in negative equity, yet banks are extending loans rather than crystallise their losses. The last couple of weeks have seen green shoots emerging in the economy much earlier than anyone really expected - Darling may have been mocked for his Budget, but now Q3 growth looks a real likelihood. Yet with these lending problems ahead, do you really want to bet against a W-shaped double dip coming up after Christmas?

What I haven't seen is much discussion of what this implies for the urban fabric. With companies cutting back on staff and the near-cessation of merger & acquisition activity, demand for office rentals is down as companies aren't needing to trade up to larger spaces. (The falling rents drive part of this 50% collapse in values discussed above: commercial property is an investment class so its value is based on its yield.) Increases in availability and affordability combined with the current mood of caution may mean that demand will hold up best in traditional centres: City, West End and a bit of Holborn. Your Victoria, Paddington and Kings Cross developments? Aren't going to get the big tenants they'd counted on, and new developments are visibly being put on hold as they fail to be pre-let before completion. Additionally with prime office space more accessible, demand for shabbier secondary offices will surely decrease. If summer is as hot as forecast, how much tolerance will there be for poor or no air conditioning? There's a lot of 1960s and 70s space that, at least superficially, looks to be beyond refurb. Yet demolition costs money, and there's little pressure for new development sites yet.

City Project says it'll be a prime summer for exploring abandoned buildings...

Holloway, May 2009

Who knows what the story is here?

Sinclair (1997) 'Lights Out For The Territory': A review, or perhaps a mauling

So Iain Sinclair's Lights Out For The Territory is "Quite simply one of the finest books about London ever written", says the Spectator; "A book about London, in other words, a book about everything" (Peter Ackroyd in The Times).


There are no people there, not in his writing. The city is empty, inhabited only by poets and booksellers: educated, broke but certainly not poor; white or maybe a bit Jewish, and monolithically middle aged and male. What ghost town is this? I wouldn't want to go there. Sinclair walks, he says, but his words are so terribly disembodied for such a project; there he goes, the anti-phenomenologist mimbling off into history, always the past, as though he hasn't found any there there at all. In seeing a palimpsest beneath the city, he loses sight of what's in front of his eyes; oh, Sinclair obsesses over graffito scrawls as though they are authorless, solipsistically taking them all as signs for him to read, to interpret. Hermetic fucking arcana - what about the unknown? What about the proposition that the city is chaotic, is vast, is unknowable? No, let's be afraid of that and search for Dan Brown hidden traces, let's go chasing castles in the sky, this airy semiotic fantasy and forget that the real links, the real connections - the real goddamn mystery - is in the people, the messy illiterate gorgeous mass of people from whom Mr Sinclair is running walking away.