Flickr/The Integer Club
I walk along Eversholt Street most days. It’s a funny, tatty old road. There’s the chip shop out of which local schoolchildren are always pouring, paper parcels of chips in hand, a few small corner shops, a car rental place, two churches, some pubs and cafes (probably pronounced without the ‘e’ in these instances, with all the cheap plastic furniture and sugary tea that that entails), a Royal Mail delivery office, a strip club and a transvestite clothes shop. It runs from Mornington Crescent down to Euston Road, with Euston Station taking up much of the west side, and Somers Town the east.
I like it. It feels tired and forgotten, a sort of inbetween place, but it’s always lively, and it makes a nice change to the polished gentility of most of the rest of central London, which you’ll rediscover within a ten minute walk in any direction.
There’s a lot of social housing in the area, which is home to a diverse community of Somali, Bengali and white working class residents. At the northern end are a couple of housing estates, including three tower blocks which are very uncharacteristic for Camden.
With the exception of a wonderfully bizarre stepped L-shaped estate in red brick by Peter Tábori, architect of Highgate New Town and one of the big names in Sydney Cook’s Camden borough architect’s office of the 60s and 70s, Somers Town is mostly made up of early twentieth century neo-Georgian deck access mid-rise apartment blocks. It’s some of the earliest, and most lauded, social housing in London.
It’s a really good area, busy and full of people getting on with their lives. So I was a bit surprised to read recently that it is apparently considered a “lost quarter”. Although, given that I read that in the Homes & Property section of the Evening Standard, my surprise was perhaps naive.
Why is it regarded a lost quarter? Homes & Property never spells it out, but it gives some good hints. Somers Town is “now largely council estates”, and, it goes on to lament, when it was “first developed in the late 18th century it was envisaged as a middle-class address but suffered when the London and Birmingham Railway cut through the area in the 1830s.”
I think it is interesting how casually a poor working class or immigrant population has been described as a burden here, the visual representation of the area’s suffering. Not to fear though, because the area is being “targeted for new private housing” and so the end of its sufferings must be nigh as a new wave of middle class inhabitants gets ready to move in.
I find it interesting the way in which this article, which is about a new proposal to redevelop Euston Station and the surrounding area, shines a light on how we presently measure value or worth in the built environment.
The council estates of Somers Town are contrasted with the “village square concept” of a nearby development which houses the offices of Unison, which brings together “an open public atrium, with glazed cafés (and I include the accent as it appeared in the article, which I presume one is meant to pronounce in this instance) and restaurants”.
This clear dichotomy, between continental chic, newness, glass, atria, plazas, and the private on the one hand and the suffering lost quarter of council estates on the other, is what is used to justify the sort of wholesale demolition presently underway at the Heygate Estate at the Elephant and Castle. It is an analysis of the built environment predicated entirely on surface appearances and lazily propagated connotations. It is a discourse which values the needs of a personified ‘city’, judged by its physical appearance, over any of the requirements or desires of those people who inhabit it. It is the reduction of the city to a consumer product to be perused on property comparison websites, and the equation of middle class with good, and working class with bad.
The article goes on to develop this discourse and follow it to its logical conclusion when it equates the proposal for the redevelopment of the Euston area with “the kind of radical makeover that has made King’s Cross a shining example of the power of regeneration.” In doing this it builds a link between tabula rasa redevelopment in a derelict former industrial area with the future of an area in which thousands of people presently live, in which it holds up the former as a model for the latter on the grounds that the council estates, like the unused post-industrial landscape, do not conform to our notion of the clean transparent good city.
Note the use of the words shining and regeneration in the above quote. It’s clear at a glance that Homes & Property is entirely preoccupied with property development and speculation. With this discourse, of the positive connotations of newness, shiny transparency and regeneration, and of the commensurate need, therefore, to sweep away all of the tatty old stock that isn’t ‘period’, capital has a justification for the constant development and redevelopment of the urban fabric as even the newest new development necessarily dulls with age. An ever-thirsty sink for accumulated capital.
So, in the face of the behemoth of global capital hungrily trying to piggyback on London’s ever-rising property prices, and of a pervasive and uncritically accepted discourse which enables and justifies it, what alternative ways of looking at the city are available to us?
A glance at the last time Somers Town was redeveloped might be instructive. Ben Campkin, in his recent book Remaking London, describes how residents of Somers Town in the 1920s and 30s, had “to cope without proper sanitation, in dwellings that suffered from rot, and were severely infested with various kinds of pests, including rats, fleas and cockroaches, as well as the minute but severely disruptive common bedbug, Cimex lectularius.”
Due to this infestation, and the unpleasant living conditions that it entailed, the St. Pancras House Improvement Society demolished all of the slum housing in the area and rehoused the inhabitants in newly built, humane and clean housing stock. This is the built environment being altered in order to make it more congenial for human beings to inhabit.
Vestiges of this discourse still lurk at the back of the contemporary debate about our cities. It’s there in the accusations of arrogance levelled at the architects who designed the streets in the sky of Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar and Park Hill in Sheffield, estates which have been damned as unsuitable for the habits and lifestyles of their intended inhabitants. What is depressing is that the new developments soon to go up in the stead of the condemned Robin Hood Gardens involve cramming a smattering of tower blocks onto the site as densely as possible, for obvious profit-margin related reasons, when exactly this approach has itself been discredited as inhumane since the 1960s, notably by the Camden architect’s office which flatly refused to build high rise towers in the borough.
Still, at least it will look shiny and new for twenty years or so. Then we’ll just have to pull it all down again, I suppose.