There are a few words as laden with meanings, almost entirely of negative connotation, as gentrification. Say it and your mind will conjure images of invading toffs, an irresistible volkswanderung of genteel professionals with no fear but for white carbs, descending on the last redoubts of affordable real estate prices in a motorcade of Volvo SUVs. Type the cursed word in your search engine of choice and you’ll be spoilt for choice on which article to read, all inevitably telling the story of those pushed out from their neighbourhood in Brixton, Brooklyn or the Bay Area. After a while, the irony that these articles are published by the very papers favoured by the gentry – Guardian, Independent, Washington Post, New York Times – will hit you. As far as absurdities go, it’s up there with the sight of Nantucket harpooners engrossed in academic journals on the effect of mass whale hunting on the marine ecosystem.
My attitude towards gentrification has, to borrow from a former leader of the main Italian Communist party who later in life joined a militant Catholic organisation, “changed slowly”. Had you been stupid enough to ask my opinion a few years ago – on gentrification, not on Commies-turned-Catholics – you’d have been in for a tirade on unscrupulous developers, professionals’ lofts and grad pads. However, these days my view has become a bit more nuanced, along those wishy-washy Centrist lines that go “when done properly, gentrification can be useful”. This turning of coats has happened because of one thing, and one thing only: King’s Cross.
It can be argued that the best boost to the reputation of King’s Cross has been JK Rowling. Had she not chosen it as the departure point of a trainload of little wizards en route to Hogwarts, it’s doubtful whether any visitor would ever have noticed King’s Cross (even the Eurostar just sort of skims it). Instead, in one of the great mysteries of modern-day tourism, this mere fact – and a luggage trolley wedged into a brick wall – has put King’s Cross on the map of thousands who’d be willing to line up to snap a photo of themselves in front of said wall, through which Harry Potter walked on to Platform 9 ¾ and, arguably, the one and only train that has ever left London in time since 1954. Whilst today’s station looks arguably great, only the most strenuous wearer of a pair of rose-tinted-glasses can deny that, had Harry Potter asked around for platform 9 and ¾ a decade ago in the station’s environs, he’d get anything – robbery at knifepoint, a foil of crack cocaine, a quickie in exchange for a tenner – but an answer.
If there’s a conclusion for this rather convoluted introduction, it’s that, 10 years ago, King’s Cross rhymed with decay. Those less merciful than yours truly would define it as an open-air latrine or, in the immortal words of Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcom, “one big pile of shit”. I remember walking around Pentonville road with my dad in 2003 through a parade of boarded-up shops. Prostitutes loitered outside a hostel, waiting for clients, whilst junkies ambled about. A discarded shopping trolley sat atop a mound of rubble that descended into a no man’s land towards the skeleton of the abandoned gasworks.
If you were to do the same walk today, you’d have trouble believing that this is still the same town.
Where the post-industrial wasteland dragged on, a new city sprouted out of nowhere. KX, as it had been dubbed, glittered under a sky that had very little of London and a lot of Mallorca. A street market led, through a terrace where a multitude sunbathed and watched the latest from Wimbledon on a giant screen, to the canal and a set of locks operated by a tattoed punk. New homes had been built within the gasworks’ pantograph structure: cylinders with an obviously eye-watering price per square meter, enclosed within elaborate brise-soleil of honeycomb metal. They looked both futuristic and ancient, the kind of buildings one would expect to gaze at in Ray Bradbury’s New Texas City.
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The tell-tales of gentrification were plain for everyone to see. Waitrose, second best in Britain’s caste system of supermarkets, had installed itself in a former sweatshop next door to a covered market where prints of whales, bikes, owls, bees – an entire hipster iconography – were on sale. The London University of Arts held classes in a warehouse abutting granary square, serving as ground zero for a veritable epidemic of signs typed in Helvetica. Landscape was carefully engineered to be pollinator-friendly.
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Yet, KX wasn’t just a playground for techies darting out of Amazon’s HQ on their fixed-wheel bikes. A community had lived here throughout all this: the crack-dealing years, the demolitions, the reconstruction, and still did. Local youths worked at the Skip café, an establishment that could be defined as an optimist’s take on Budapest’s ruin pubs. And, in the fountains in Granary square, the sons and daughters of KX frolicked together, a colourful mixture of toddlers dressed in expensive gear bought at Trotters or in Primark knock-offs. Their future, dictated by the different avenues made available by their schools, was already running on ever diverging tracks but today, under this strangely warm sun, gentrifiers and gentrified were one and the same.