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.
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.
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.