Tag Archives: American in London

What price gentrification?

Starbucks

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.

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Filed under British life

Happy July 4th

American flag

The Chatterbox’s impression of the Stars and Stripes

Happy 4th of July! Here are some little facts to ponder on the day America declared its independence from the British.

According to the Pew Research Center, over half of Americans are proud of their nationality (56%) but only 44% still think the country’s best years are to come, with the younger generations being the most optimistic.

The percentage of Americans who think the U.S. is the #1 country in the world has dropped by 10% since 2011. Only 28% now believe it holds top status, perhaps a reflection of China’s rising influence.

But 58% of Americans still believe the USA is one of the greatest countries in the world.

In my hometown of London, obviously no one makes much of Independence Day apart from a passing curiosity.

People might occasionally ask what’s traditional, which leaves me kind of stumped. I usually end up muttering something about barbecues, beer and fireworks. Not exactly the most inspiring answer, but it’s what I remember doing.

I’m out of touch with what it means to be American these days. I feel like it’s an integral part of my identity and yet I now find it harder and harder to pinpoint precisely what makes me American apart from my accent.

The weirdest thing is watching your kids grow up to have a national identity totally distinct from yours. I know it’s what my Mexican parents went through, but I never appreciated how strange it is to let go of traditions you grew up with.

If I mention July 4th to my kids, they wouldn’t have a clue what it means. Theirs is a world inhabited by kings and queens, not presidents and pioneers.

But after nearly half my life spent somewhere other than where I was born, I’ve started to question whether I’m now nothing more than a mix of clashing cultures.

Here’s why I might not be as American as apple pie:

  • I hate driving. At some point in the last 18 years, I Iost my love for cars. Driving a car, in fact, fills me with fear not a feeling of freedom.
  • I like walking places. Despite my southern California upbringing, one in which I never even walked to the local shop, I now find myself relying on my two legs to get me around.
  • I’m not a great fan of the great outdoors. I don’t know if it’s the inhospitable weather in the UK, but you won’t catch me climbing mountains, camping or making smores by a fire.
  • I don’t like baseball. To be fair, I hate cricket too and don’t have a clue how it’s played.
  • I don’t know the words to the Star Spangled Banner. Yes, it pains me to admit this, but I get lost somewhere after ‘twilight’s last gleaming’ and have to fake it. Mind you, I wouldn’t be the first to mime along to it. Beyoncé, anyone?
  • My knowledge of American history is hazy to say the least. Yes, I know the dates of the Civil War but don’t ask me to explain anything about the Boston Tea Party or American politics. Some of the scenes in House of Cards, for instance, are as incomprehensible to me as a foreign language.
  • I have a peculiar English habit of apologizing for stuff that isn’t my fault.

Despite my persistent doubts about my nationality, I still consider myself more or less an American. What is America, anyway, but a confusing mix of different identities thrown together?

A little related news from the other side of the pond: one of the 12 surviving copies of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence will be on display at the British Library from next year as part of an exhibition about the Magna Carta.

Since I have never in my life seen these important documents in America’s history, I will be visiting. I suspect this still won’t help me decipher the plot of House of Cards.

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Filed under American life