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Rebranding London: when monoculture preys on the 'authentic'

The billboards go up. Regeneration is occurring. But don't worry, this development will respect local charm, traditions, the unique "vibe" of the area. So the billboard says, and what alternative is there but the stagnant nostalgia of the Conservation Area?

Tom Jeffreys
23 May 2013

What is happening to London today? Writing on these pages about the fetishisation of the apparently ‘alternative’ by brands such as Byron and BrewDog, Jonathan Moses touched on a process – of hollowing out and peddling on – that is being repeated across the city: a kind of gutting couched as sensitive redevelopment, thick with terms like “regeneration”, “flagship”, and “public realm enhancements”.

Back in 2010, the eastern corner of historic Jermyn Street was evacuated – with small, independent retailers like Bates the hatter and Trumper the barber forced to make way for the £100 million St James Gateway development. This led to an interesting statement made by Alison Nimmo, Chief Executive of the Crown Estate. "St James's and Jermyn Street are unique,” she said. “They are steeped in tradition, history and character. We want to build on this great brand…” This use of the word ‘brand’ is telling, and is the key link between the commodification of local identity and the fetishisation of the non-mainstream identified by Moses. A brand both masks and enables the transformation of local identity (in the form of distinctive architecture or community) from something real and involving flesh-and-blood local residents to something packaged and sellable, built in secret behind lavishly branded billboards.

Similarly, over in Holborn and Bloomsbury, signs have been going up renaming the area as InMidTown, “a destination of choice for everyone”. InMidTown is a designated business improvement district – a public-private partnership in which businesses in a defined area pay an additional tax in order to fund improvements within the district's boundaries. Exactly what those ‘improvements’ entail is unclear, as InMidTown’s PRs wouldn’t answer my questions. They “don't want to seen as rebranding the area,” I was informed. 


Store Street, Bloomsbury

Shaftesbury PLC – the property investors who also own the famous Carnaby Street nearby – are behind another major rebrand: Opera Quarter. This is an area near Covent Garden now being marketed as a “dining destination”. Julia Wilkinson at Shaftesbury PLC denies the risk of creating a kind of urban monoculture: “The tenant mix strategy focuses on providing a wide range of cuisines and food offers, all at affordable prices”, she says, recognising that “diversity is key to the success of an area” (success for whom?). Tellingly, on a press trip around the area at the tail-end of 2012, one of the PRs pointed to a small, family-run newsagent on the corner of Catherine Street and Russell Street. “Of course, they’ll be moving out soon,” she said. Diversity then, within imposed constraints.

Just a short walk away, and the residents of Fitzrovia are up in arms about plans for a vast mixed-use development on the site of the former Middlesex Hospital (sold in order to pay for a disastrous New Labour PFI scheme). The site’s new owners – Exemplar, Aviva Investors and the collapsed Icelandic bank, Kaupthing – are planning three ten-storey buildings in this hitherto defiantly low-rise area. Writing in the Evening Standard, local resident Griff Rhys Jones has led the dissent, arguing that “[the] worst sin is façade-ism: taking a series of old buildings, keeping the frontage and building massive units in the back of it. This way, huge shops can be introduced by stealth.” This façade of sensitivity (to community, locality, and history) is held up like a fig-leaf to conceal an agenda that is purely commercial. This is what allows developers to deny that they are taking a top-down approach.

Fiztroy Place, masterplan

Of course, the issue is not as simple as ‘helpless residents vs evil developers’. There are other, broader questions at stake: what does local identity even mean? How might we define a thriving community? One of the more interesting aspects of what we might call the ‘rebranding’ of London is how, up to a point, local residents and businesses (and especially art galleries) have often been complicit in the whole process, only to realise too late what’s being perpetrated in their name.

In London alone, there are all sorts of local initiatives that seek to highlight the positives in a particular area. The likes of Clerkenwell Design Week, South London Art Map, Peckham Artist Moving Image, Fitzrovia Design Trail, Hackney Wicked, and the recently launched EC1 &WC1 galleries art map: all are local attempts by local people to create or cement a concept of community – both within the locality and in the eyes of others. Some have been of great benefit in establishing a new reputation for a particular area, but there is a flip-side to this kind of positive rebranding. Back in 2012, The Bun House – one of the Peckham’s most consistently innovative arts spaces – was forced to close as the developers moved in. At the time, Craig Dow and Francis Thorburn – the two artists who ran the gallery – suspected that the increased attention and footfall had come their way in part on the back of South London Art Map. “We've kind of shot ourselves in the foot,” said Dow at the time. “But that's London.”

Indeed it is. The recent talk of turning nearby Deptford into the “Shoreditch of south London” further demonstrates that, whilst these kinds of local initiatives attempt to foster local identity as a way to resist the onward march of the developer, they are always open in advance to co-option. They lay the groundwork for a top-down rebranding that focuses on a single characteristic and eliminates that which doesn’t fit.

Of course, progress happens, and attempts to resist it by conserving local ‘character’ at all costs risk the museumification of urban living – the preservation in aspic of an idealised past that probably never really existed. Fournier Street in East London, where Gilbert and George carry out their ossified performance of an existence, is one prominent example. The Fournier Street Conservation Area may have been able to prevent certain developments – as detailed in a local council document, “Consent is required to demolish any building, and a higher standard of detail and information is required for any application” – but the pay-off for residents includes some hilariously specific stipulations. The same document specifies that:

Rainwater pipes should be cast iron to original detailing. Railings should be replaced or restored to original pattern… Many interiors contain 18th century staircases, panelling, fireplaces and plasterwork, and these should be retained where necessary and restored.

Not only is this a limited interpretation of ‘originality’ – one that overlooks the area’s long and complex history, detailed earlier, ironically, in the same document – but it’s also one constituted by the full force of the law. “Unauthorised work to a listed building is a criminal offence,” the document continues, “and could result in a fine and/or imprisonment.” And then: “The Council has powers of compulsory purchase, if necessary to protect Listed Buildings.”

Brick lane_0.png

Brick Lane and Fournier Street Conservation Area

Herein then lies the problem: the imposition of a singular vision, and the rejection of difference. On both sides of the debate around local identity, there is a lack of attention paid to heterogeneity, to the genuine polyphony of voices that characterise a community. Or perhaps it’s not so much a lack of attention, as a lack of understanding or desire in dealing with that heterogeneity; a lack of sensitivity; of listening to the needs of others.

And yet, in cities especially, there is always a narrative that runs counter to the dominant discourse. Parties, protests, planting; holding a door open, lending a hand, saying hello: interactions between people are acts that cannot be either collected or sold, priced or fixed. As localities oscillate between the perma-future of the developer and the romanticised past of the conservator, the present opens up as a series of temporary spaces in which the existence of the individual can (and does) take place – every single day.

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