Monthly Archives: September 2014

What price gentrification?


The new Starbucks at Finsbury Park

When I arrived in London almost 18 years ago this October I really didn’t know what I had coming in that first year. Had I known, I probably wouldn’t have boarded the plane. Some of what I discovered shocked me. I do have this memory of walking around either in open-mouthed wonder or bafflement.

By accident more than design, I eventually crash landed in a place called Finsbury Park. How do I explain this place about 10 minutes to central London by train? To an American, it might have a lovely ring. Expansive green spaces, surrounded by independent shops, perhaps? Or an Agatha Christie English village relocated to north London? Hardly.

The only thing Finsbury Park had going for it when I moved in was the fact that you could very quickly leave and get somewhere else, thanks to its excellent transport links. Rent was pretty cheap, too, by London standards at least.

My early memories are dominated by snarling, traffic-clogged streets, pollution and dirt. To get to my flat I used to have to walk by a rotisserie chicken place, where the meat turned on a stick in the window, giving off an unusual sickly smell.

There was also the man who lived in the phone box – remember those? – with some leg condition that made walking nearly impossible. He also smelled, worse than the chicken I’m afraid to say.

Then there were the prostitutes on the corner near our flat. They used to hang out at the bus stop. One of them even showed up wearing a bandage on her head one morning. That didn’t stop her from trying to drum up a bit of business.

The only shops were depressing-looking places, badly lit, selling a variety of basic food staples: bread, tinned food, milk and of course alcohol. Almost every shop sold cheap beer.

Finsbury Park Theatre

The new local theatre

You could get coffee, but only if you were willing to walk into a place guarded by chain-smoking North African men who lingered in doorways. Women weren’t exactly welcomed into these establishments.

Once, someone tried to steal my wallet at the bus stop, only to scream obscenities at me when I caught him going through my bag. Yes, the thieves were brazen, but I always felt pretty safe because the streets were rarely empty.

The bright spots were the bagel place, with its smell of fresh bread wafting out the door, and a cavernous stationery store. It wasn’t exactly like Staples in the US, but I could find many things in there and it was run by a very cheerful Indian family.

‘It will improve one day,’ the English Husband used to say about our down-at-heel neighborhood. And we would both nod and talk about how it’s so close to zone 1 and so convenient for trains. As predicted, Finsbury Park has undergone quite a transformation.

The latest and most absolute sign that it’s totally gentrified is the opening of a brand-new Starbucks right across the street from the tube station. It has replaced a tatty old pub frequented by hardened Irish drinkers and the colourful locals.

They are gone, swept away by the new cream walls, tasteful furniture and the smell of fresh paint. Also gone are most of the coffee shops filled by idle men who called to you sometimes as you walked down the street.

You can now find a thriving local theatre, occupying what was once the mouth of a back alley; new restaurants, including a busy Korean; and an arts building with a café on the ground floor selling food and artisan bread. It’s probably organic bread too.

There are plenty of delis, some of them even offering wine-tasting evenings. There are still Afro Caribbean shops selling row upon row of wigs, but I suspect these will soon be gone, taking their smell of chemicals with them.

The old pubs have been tarted up and the shops that previously sold cheap beer have mostly been replaced by supermarket chains, all of them well lit and welcoming.

Arts Building

The ground floor of this building has a cafe and bakery

We own a small flat in Finsbury Park and undoubtedly we have benefited from this gentrification. The irony is that we can no longer afford to bring up our family here because the gulf between the price of our flat and a house might as well be as big as an ocean.

Where once I would have happily packed up and left, now I can’t afford 1,200 square feet.

According to the latest Land Registry figures, the value of property in London has increased by 21.6% since last year; prices have risen five-fold since 1995, the year before I got here. Needless to say, my salary has hardly kept pace.

So we continue to rent a slightly bigger flat than the one we own, and I can console myself with the knowledge that now at least I can find a coffee on almost every street corner – and Starbucks coffee at that.

Progress? It’s hard to say.



Filed under British life

On writing and aging

Sharpie permanent marker

Not really a greying writer’s best friend

Writing is a bit like exercise. There might a phase in your life when you’re at the gym three days a week, maybe running up and down hills or swimming lengths in the pool. But then you hit a slump and suddenly you fall out of the habit of doing it. It then becomes a struggle to get going again.

Writing can be like that. If it’s not a habit – a regular fixture in your week – something else will swallow up the time you set aside for it. It’s worse than writer’s block because you don’t even get the metaphorical blank page out to stare at it. You don’t even bother trying.

So that’s partly to explain why my blog has been frozen in July. I fell out of the habit of writing and couldn’t seem to get myself motivated.

In these two months I’ve been silent, not much of great consequence has happened. My life is a bit like Seinfeld. It’s a series of episodes about not very much. The only difference is that I’m not as funny as Jerry.

But I’ll relate this short, cautionary tale from a recent life episode.

It was an ordinary evening after work. The kids were sitting down to dinner. That is to say, one of the kids had practically inhaled her food while the other one was picking at it and claiming she wasn’t hungry.

I’m doing my best to ignore them because I’m smearing on some makeup before a night out with a group of friends. Looking in the mirror surprises me these days; I’m always mildly surprised not to look about 30. On this occasion my gaze zooms in on all the silvery strands of hair. If that gives you the impression they are silky, think again. These hairs are wiry. You could probably use them to scour a pan if you collected enough of them.

Yep, my grey hairs have ramped up some sort of military campaign – and they’ve reached the point of launching an assault on all fronts. It’s another joyous part of aging, a process that has picked up some pace in the last three or four years.

I haven’t quite decided what to do about all these white hairs. So far I’ve been yanking them out, which makes them come out even more wiry. They are now sticking out of my head at weird angles and looking more obvious than if I’d left them alone.

But I stumble upon what I think might be a solution, albeit a very temporary one. What if I used a black marker – my hair is black – to blend them in with the other hair? Yes, this is desperate.

I borrow a marker from the Chatterbox but it’s not really doing anything at all, so I trade up to the permanent marker. The results are marginally better, I note, but I don’t suddenly feel like a new woman with glossy hair.

The other thing I notice is that my head smells like permanent marker. I should have really foreseen this problem. Not that you’d ever be tempted to replicate this at home, but I’m just saying, don’t.


Filed under Uncategorized