"Each new skyscraper feels like an act of violence." Credit: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty

May 3, 2021   7 mins

On a clear day, from the top of the road in south London where I grew up, you can see one of the broadest views of the British capital. It presents a crenelated horizon of the whole city: from Wembley’s arch in the far north-west, past The Shard and the jumbled towers of the Square Mile, to Canary Wharf, looming over the Thames.

London looks extraordinary from up here, immortal in its way, a proving ground for the capitalist dream of unending growth. In all the time I have lived here, I have never felt so blissfully remote from the economic forces embodied by that view. Since the imposition of the first lockdown last March, I have scarcely crossed the river, let alone loitered in the cultural and commercial districts, which, in times of normality, so often coaxed millions of us into their gleaming centre

In many respects, this has been a tonic. During these months of geographical constraint, our preoccupations have become localised, almost parochial: the vexatious subject of “Low Traffic Neighbourhoods”; the question of which local park cafes serve alcohol.

Only now, as Covid restrictions ease and a mayoral election comes into focus, has that spell started to break. With it comes a need to look back to that horizon, and return to the issues besetting the city at large.

The rogue’s gallery of candidates for the mayoralty betrays a city which, like the wider country, remains ill at ease with itself. To rose-tinted liberals, London is still the ultimate city, a cradle of tolerant coexistence, the place where multiculturalism works. To those on the histrionic Right, London is anarchy, plagued by terror-attacks, no-go zones and spiralling crime.

The truth, inevitably, is somewhere in between. London is not a Powellian ruin. But, for a lifelong resident like me, it is no longer possible to pretend that it is a unified, contented and enviable place either. Indeed, the most disturbing question raised in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire has not gone away: how did London become a place that no longer functions for those who live here?

I suspect the answer, if it could be boiled down into a single word, would be property. In my other life, I do occasional work as a landscape gardener, tending the lawns and flowerbeds of south London’s more affluent inner-suburbs. Recently, a neighbour sidled up to me to complain about the homogenisation of her neighbourhood. I wrote about this very subject last year for UnHerd.

Next door to where I was working, someone with a lot of money had commissioned an overhaul of their semi, and the excavation conveyors were churning all day long, puking up London clay to make space for a new basement. “When we moved here 40 years ago, I was a junior legal researcher, my husband was an assistant lecturer,” the neighbour said, over the din. “This road was all teachers and police officers. Public servants. Now it’s just bankers, bankers, bankers.”

How did this happen? The erosion of London’s social-housing stock, which once inoculated the city against the creation of rich and poor ghettoes, is certainly one reason; the globe-trotting tendencies of the super-rich another. Disproportionate city incomes have furnished a portion of residents with the financial leverage to recast an area overnight if it becomes popular with a certain milieu, while the suburban dream, which only 20 years ago still lured people out of the inner-city, seemed, prior to Covid, to have expired.

Together, these processes have combined to dissolve London’s mixed communities, as well as the post-war history of town-planning which once ensured that no area of affluence could become an island, aloof from the rest of society.

The emptiness of Central London’s commercial quarters over the past year was prefigured long before in the city’s slew of new luxury residential developments, which have been devoid of people ever since they were finished. To walk through places like the Nine Elms Regeneration Area in the early months of 2020 was to enter a grotesque dystopia of late capitalism run amok.

All over town, vast welters of such towers are still in the throes of construction, invariably encircled by hoardings depicting attractive people at rest and play. But residents know that these apartments are less homes to be lived in than bricks-and-mortar commodities; investment opportunities that until recently were seen as safer than any government bond.

The sense of dislocation created by these joyless plazas is in large part architectural. London used to be a low-slung city, but these towers are vertiginous and carbuncular, looming over the besieged remnants of what came before.

Arguably more significant than their aesthetic dissonance was the social upheaval they precipitated. As these towers grew, socio-demographic lines that once felt blurred became abrupt and pronounced, as people moved into economic enclaves and poverty was pushed outwards into peripheries and ghettoes of disadvantage. Traditional places of commonality, where shoulders rubbed, soon disappeared.

Prior to lockdown, I was frequently struck by the way in which once-diverse high streets were evolving to reflect these more stratified times: the poorer areas with their betting and pawn shops, the wealthier ones lined with estate agents, restaurants and prim cafes. Our civic spaces and landmarks were being commodified, as cash-strapped councils looked to make up budget shortfalls by monetising their assets, repurposing public libraries into private gyms. Boundaries, both real and imagined, had started to rise across the inner-city.

As established communities fractured and dissipated, the streets began to feel more febrile. People in their 30s, unable to afford the cost of raising a family here, were starting to leave in droves. And we who remained were left with a curious sense that we were an inconvenient vestige of a city that no longer exists, obdurate stone buildings amidst a forest of steel and glass.

Pre-pandemic London remained successful in many ways: as a summer playground for the super-rich; as a giant laundromat for the global kleptocracy; as an iconographic background for tourist photos and the glossy pages of a Hong Kong realtor’s brochure. But as a constellation of established communities? Not anymore; London’s covenant was coming undone.

The misery this has imposed in the city’s margins is all too easy to ignore. The more obvious victims, such as the council tenants living in mould-infested tower blocks, are rarely heard. Their abasement, like so much which afflicts the London underclass, is hidden away, in foodbanks concealed behind council estates, or displaced out of town.

But to focus exclusively on such misery is to miss a wider, more inchoate malaise — of a city adrift, changing in ways its residents don’t condone. Cities are always prone to endless flux, but when a city changes this fast, and on such an inhuman scale — when it starts to wear its inequality so gaudily — it is impossible to live here without feeling unmoored.

Suddenly, each new skyscraper feels like an act of violence; each house renovation a desecration. Wealthy newcomers appear not as new neighbours but as colonisers; hipster beards and vintage shops become hallmarks of an enemy within. Each international bar or café, an effigy of the melting pot it supplanted, becomes a reminder that London’s hallowed diversity is often merely ornamental — a desirable backdrop so long as it doesn’t press too close.

So much of our yearning for the London we’ve lost seems ostensibly counter-intuitive. The city I grew up in was hardly an urban paradise. Many of my most vivid memories are recalled with a maternal hand at my back, ushering me past scenes of a recessional metropolis, rendered in grey. Cardboard shanties still proliferated beneath the Southbank undercrofts; on Oxford Street, grifters peddled counterfeit perfume from splayed suitcases. Back then the air was tubercular, the Thames flowed an effluent brown, and every road seemed dappled with litter, chewing gum, and dog shit in varying stages of putrefaction.

Yet I still yearn for that time before it was all cleaned-up and prettified. Before the pigeon-feed sellers had been turfed from Trafalgar Square. The other day I saw a car with a bumper-sticker which read: “Make Peckham Shit Again”, and I couldn’t help but smile at the oxymoron it conveyed. We have become a paradox: the progressive city nostalgic for the past.

Meanwhile, apologists for the gentrification of inner-London exonerate its degradations with platitudes about “market forces” — it’s just another reality of late capitalism, up there with sweat-shop labour and the atrophying high-street. It is something we grumble about on social media, but, for the most part, can’t bring ourselves to protest over because it would be like screaming at the tide.

Besides, don’t these market forces come with perks? As a tsunami of foreign property investment increased demand for a stagnating supply, and successive governments tailored housing policy to sustain the boom, those of us who own homes have seen their value rocket. In recent decades, owning a house in London has become the UK’s easiest path to fast cash. This is the city’s guilty secret: that so many of us have suckled on this indemnity that we cannot admit its inherent madness.

The 2016 Brexit vote exposed the intractability of these hypocrisies, as the predominantly Left-leaning city found itself in a Faustian pact, at once lamenting the financial sector’s malignant influence but terrified at the implications of its potential evacuation. Combined with the effects of the pandemic, suddenly an economy predicated on casino banking and rentier capitalism feels frail, one fiscal paroxysm from catastrophe.

Perhaps this is why we were so ready to let it go; so prepared, when Covid provided the pretext, to retreat into our respective streets, leaving the inner city to get on with its fire-sale unscrutinised.

It remains to be seen what long-term impact the Covid year will have on London’s trajectory. It doesn’t seem wholly naïve to hope that its resuscitation of civic engagement might act as a breakwater against the city’s atomisation and its darkening mood. Lockdown has forced its neophiles to engage with their local neighbourhoods, and stalled the speculation that was so ruthlessly reshaping them. In some respects, at least, the last year could prove to be for the city’s benefit.

But, still, London’s reanimation brings with it a sense of foreboding. The fact that the wider city has only really registered over the last year as a backdrop to ill-tempered protest — in images of marching lockdown sceptics and police cordons defending Churchill’s statue — may foreshadow a summer of discontent, as the city’s unleashed energy turns sour and the economic fall-out from Covid starts to pinch.

Amid the excitement of rebirth, the queasy feeling many of us experience upon seeing roads thronged with traffic and parks strewn with revellers’ litter serves as a reminder that one of the intractable problems with London is that there are a lot of people. And people are often unbearable.

Now the giant stirs. The mayor will have a job to do.

Henry Wismayer is a writer and gardener based in London.