Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Increasingly, I find fashionable inner city neighborhoods as banal as any suburb, just more expensive.
Two years ago, sick of paying high rent for a poky little dump of an apartment, I moved out of inner London to a quiet, nondescript South Eastern suburb. Instead of the low rumble of traffic, a tiny, ugly kitchen and a teenage neighbor forever honking through the Black Eyed Peas’ greatest hits on her clarinet, I got high ceilings, space and a rent so reasonable I worry my landlord will sober up and double it. The move brought some disadvantages, of course. With nothing but trees outside the windows, the only colourful street life comes from the escaped parakeets that infest this part of London, while no impromptu visitors turn up except Jehovah’s witnesses, who come all the time.
Still, I don’t regret moving on from my old hip, up-and-coming inner London neighborhood one bit. I’m not glad to have moved on because I need space for my kids (I don’t have any) or because I need to save money (though I do). I’m pleased to be gone because, despite all the hype about their supposed edginess and creative ferment, I find fashionable inner city neighborhoods increasingly as banal, antisocial and plain dull as any suburb. For all their reputation as hives of individuality, neighborhoods like my own city’s Broadway Market offer almost identical businesses to those you’d find in currently hip city neighborhoods anywhere. While the base materials (streets and houses) may be different in, say, NYC’s Greenpoint, Berlin’s Neukölln, or Madrid’s Malasaña, the trappings of gentrification – expensive coffee and bike shops, junk sold at a premium as “vintage” and, soon after, bitterly resented chain outlets – make these places seem increasingly homogenous.
The crowds these areas attract also look pretty samey, and while sometimes pretty and cheerful-looking, can also seem just as aspirational and judgemental of others as the primmest suburbanites. It’s no wonder they’re attracted to these inner city honey pots. No longer the offbeat choice for hard-up people who couldn’t fit in elsewhere, inner city living is now a ubiquitously promoted urban fantasy, recreated ad nauseam in real estate brochures, newspaper trend pieces and ads for instant coffee. In Britain, even far-flung suburbs are feeding on this yen for urban core living. High rise, open plan apartments reminiscent of the city centre increasingly cluster round the railway stations of London’s outer commuter belt, so residents can enjoy downtown-style living a mere hour away from the city’s actual downtown. But for all the allure of “live/work spaces” (i.e. apartments with space for a desk) and “urban villages” (anxiously wealthy inner city bubbles surrounded by deprivation) people are being asked to buy into an urban myth whose claims don’t always stand up to scrutiny.
Let’s look a little closer at some of this myth’s central tenets. One is the assumption that interesting, creative people will always live near a city’s heart. This simply isn’t true, at least not anymore. If you look closely at an inner city loft development or street of refurbished Victorian row houses in a London neighborhood like (expensive) Shoreditch or (slightly cheaper) Dalston, you’ll find it generally isn’t packed with starving artists, wannabe writers, thinkers, eccentrics, aesthetes and all the other people our society has decided are hot, if not worth paying for. It’s more likely to be full of people who work in finance, marketing and in corporate middle management. I’m not suggesting there’s anything inherently wrong with jobs like these – I’m happy these people get to live near their workplaces – but I can’t see they make for a markedly more exciting bunch of neighbours than those you’ll find in the average suburb.
Living nearby will be poorer residents in public housing who share almost no services or public spaces with them, and quickly find their shops and pubs replaced with ones they can’t afford. If any of the inner city’s fabled artists and oddballs remain, they, like their poorer neighbors, will be slowly moving on somewhere cheaper. I’m not here to bemoan a process that has been so widely bemoaned elsewhere, but I still feel that even welcome regeneration success stories like London’s Silicon Roundabout (where tech businesses colonised a formerly rundown area) don’t really have complementary relationships to their host area’s original vibrancy, they actually grow on its bones.
While this can be miserable for long-term residents, I’m not sure exactly how sad it is from the (admittedly narrow) creative point of view I’ve chosen to explore here. I can’t, after all, see any inherent link between creativity and the inner cities. Hard-up artistic types didn’t move to city core neighborhoods because they had pavement cafés, independent designer stores and cute hipsters breezing past their windows on fixed gear bikes. They moved there because they were cheap, emptying areas that few people wanted to live in. Back in the 1970s and 80s, it was taken as a sign of their utter eccentricity that artist duo Gilbert and George chose to live in Spitalfields, now one of East London’s most expensive areas. In places like this, even long-term residents witnessing the surrounding decay were themselves packing for the suburbs the first chance they got – if they ever got a chance, that is. Now that prices are rising and once empty post-industrial space has filled up in these areas, it’s no surprise that the people who first created media buzz around these areas have moved on. If I were a real nonconformist, I’d be heading elsewhere too.
Still, thanks to some residual public housing, London’s hip inner neighborhoods do still have some social and ethnic variety. Because of this proximity, people mix together in ways they never would in some suburb where everybody looks and thinks the same. Or do they? Drawing on my personal experience alone, this is yet another component of the urban myth. In my old neighborhood, my contact with people other than my friends consisted solely of buying takeaway food and getting an occasional beard trim at a nearby Turkish barbers. Admittedly, I’m a deeply antisocial person, but with each community maintaining separate cafés, pubs and even grocery stores, I didn’t see much inter-class mixing among my neighbors either, publicly or privately. This could be why London’s widespread riots (which happened across the city, not just in enclaves with big income disparities) came as such a shock to many wealthier inner Londoners, like the various (I thought) left-leaning acquaintances of mine that started shouting “bring in the troops!” across their Facebook walls.
So is my current suburban neighborhood better? I should point out here that London’s outer districts are quite different from the average American suburb. For a start, they’re often pretty old – areas built no later than the 1930s still abut fields along some stretches of the city’s limits. They also tend to have medium rather than low population density, with decent transport links and broad, walkable sidewalks that mean car ownership is desirable but not essential. What they share with the U.S. however is their sprawl and their reputation for conformity – it’s often said that it was the dullness of suburbs a few miles beyond mine that helped spawn Britain’s Punk movement.
Personally, I find my neighborhood isn’t dreary or homogenous either in appearance or social mix. With a few grand Victorian houses, cheaper Edwardian and interwar infill and many small, well-maintained 1960s public housing projects, it has, by London’s poor standards, a broad range of housing. It’s ethnically quite diverse and still has some less wealthy people living in decent private housing rather than in projects, an increasingly rare situation in inner London. And while its no great hub for cafés, it has some impressive views that remind you the city centre isn’t far if you need it.
As for regimented suburban neatness, if you had a constitutional objection to trimmed box hedges, carefully trained tea roses and the occasional garden gnome not (oh the horror) displayed ironically, you might feel stifled here. But as the home at various points to an anti-Nazi martyr, Hollywood’s original Frankenstein, one of Britain’s best actors and the first Jamaican musician ever to have a British hit, it’s hardly the sort of creative or intellectual wasteland that teenagers dream of escaping from. And if you insist on seeking outliers for the creative class, arguably its poorest sector – classical musicians – are common here, drawn by the good transport connections to London’s South Bank concert halls. Certainly it gets old always having to preface my neighborhood’s name to outsiders with the words “somewhere called…”. Likewise, travelling far across town to my Dad’s now distant North London home makes me feel like a latter-day Leif Ericson. But with remote working freeing me from a commute, and the concept of urban chic now primarily a tool for selling people small apartments, I feel happy – relieved, even – to call myself a suburbanite.
All photographs by Feargus O'Sullivan.