Culture: Akala Debates ‘Is London Too Rich To Be Interesting?
It used to be so easy. You left university, came to London and got yourself a flatshare in one of the cheaper areas: Notting Hill, Maida Vale or Highgate. Living was cheap and if it took you a while to find out what you really wanted to do with your life you could drift about a bit and get by. Many of the slackers of the 1980s and 90s went on to become the capital’s most successful creatives and entrepreneurs, making London a city unrivalled for fashion, music and design. But now thanks to vast City bonuses and the influx of foreign billionaires, London house prices have soared beyond the reach of all but the seriously rich. And London is the worse for it. Parts of Notting Hill and Kensington have become ‘buy to leave’ ghost towns, the houses boarded up and showing no signs of life. Shoreditch and Hackney, not long ago the hip new outposts for musicians and artists, are now home to well-paid professionals. The squats, cheap cafés and markets have given way to Farrow and Ball interiors and coffee shop chains. All the paraphernalia that gave east London its edge a few years ago is starting to feel a bit stale. Spare us yet another pop up restaurant serving chorizo hash with pomegranate labneh run by a former banker with a beard in Dalston, or a ‘secret’ speakeasy selling prohibition cocktails somewhere near Euston station. Meanwhile the true bohemians are being squeezed further out to the margins, barely able to afford the tube fare from Zone 4 to get into town. Money is sucking the life out of London.
That’s the argument of those who worry that London is becoming too rich to be interesting. But is there any evidence that the city is growing bland? Quite the reverse. On any evening almost wherever you go London’s streets are abuzz with life. People here crave a communal experience and the city provides it with its 600 parks, thousands of pubs and dynamic cultural scene. Theatres have been enjoying a massive boom – not just in the West End but on the fringe too. The fact is, London is a magnet. Talented people from elsewhere in the UK and all over the world want to live here, and that’s what’s pushing up house prices, not the small number of multimillionaires who in fact pump £2.3 billion every year into London’s economy. Yes, London is expensive but creative types will always find a way. They may not be able to afford to live in Hackney and they may be having to move further from the centre, but they are making unfashionable areas fashionable just by virtue of being there. They never want to be too far from where the money is because they need patronage. Where would the YBAs ever have got without Charles Saatchi? There’s a dynamic between wealth and creativity that keeps London exciting. If you prefer greater egalitarianism and more cycle lanes, there’s always Stockholm.
Is London too rich to be interesting?