Various documents promoting the Culture Mile Look and Feel Strategy recently appeared on the City of London council website. Typically more is revealed in urban ‘regeneration’ plans via who and what is excluded, than in the alleged public benefits being trumpeted in the propaganda justifying such projects. The Culture Mile is no exception to this, even if it is unusual in that what is being ‘regenerated’ is an area best known for its high quality and notoriously expensive privately owned apartments; but it should not be forgotten that adjacent to the area is a great deal of social housing.
The focus of the Culture Mile is the Barbican Estate, which consists principally of private flats but also contains a very well endowed arts centre. The Cultural Mile Look & Feel Strategy Action Plan identifies nine areas for improvement. Eight of these list the Barbican Estate, sometimes in conjunction with Barbican residents, as a key stakeholder. The Barbican Estate is stated to be a key stakeholder in the upgrading or building of: Aldersgate/Beech Street Junction; Beech Street Tunnel; Golden Lane; Aldersgate Street; Barber-Surgeons’ Garden; Beech Street/Whitecross Street Junction; Silk Street & Moor Lane; Future Centre for Music (site currently occupied by Museum of London). The only part of the action plan in which the Barbican Estate isn’t considered a key stakeholder is Smithfield Rotunda & Long Lane. What is notable about the plan is that it excludes a huge amount of social housing to the north of the Barbican Estate, much of which is in neighbouring borough of Islington, with the major exception to this being the Golden Lane Estate, which is City of London council housing. The plans for upgrading Golden Lane seem to stop at Fann Street, which marks the southernmost boundary of the Golden Lane Estate. That said, because all Golden Lane Estate residents have to do is cross a small side street to enter the area earmarked for ‘improvement’, it will greatly affect them (particularly those living in Bowater House, a block a few seconds walk from the designated regeneration) and yet they aren’t considered key stakeholders.
The recent Culture Mile documents contain ‘user scenarios’ and what is clear from these is that those who visit the Culture Mile are expected to have the kind of disposable income that many of those living in social housing in or adjacent to this area lack. Effectively these people are going to be excluded from the Culture Mile and marginalized by the gentrification effects that will accompany it. With its heavy emphasis on classical music, the Culture Mile is predicated on the kind of bland middle-brow productions that are of no interest to the bulk of those on low-incomes and living in social housing. The basic idea seems to be to replace the autonomous local culture with the dead hand of corporate sponsorship. Taking just one ‘user scenario’ from the recent Culture Mile propaganda pack will illustrate well enough the complete disconnect between the local community and what the City wants to foster:
Name: Tom Jobs: Works for an art publisher 30 y.o, lives in West London Interests: Literature, graphic design, visiting galleries and meeting friends
The day before, 18.45: Booked a ticket on Culture Mile app for an Open Workshop event at Murray House! My favourite artist will give a talk and a tour of his workshop! Fab! I have heard that there is a lot going on at the Culture Mile, so I will just play it by ear and explore the area for the rest of the afternoon.
13.00: Exit the tube at East Farringdon Station, facing the stunning Smithfield Market. I log on to the free wifi and open Culture Mile app to see what’s on today. An Open Workshop, a free performance at the GSDM, the Rotunda food market and… a free ice cream in Beech Street! But first let’s go see what the Rotunda food market has to offer!
13.30: Lunch at Smithfield Rotunda. There is a vibrant food market, cafes and gastro pubs facing Grand Avenue. Musicians are busking and the music can be heard from everywhere around the market. It’s so lively here.
14.30: It is really easy and intuitive to find my way to Beech Street! Oh, wow, there is even a digital sign that tells me where I need to go to grab my free ice cream! Magic!
15.15: Murray House Gallery. After a coffee – and my ice cream! whilst looking at Beech Street’s interactive walls, it is time for the Open Workshop talk. I know there is also a permanent gallery. I’ll follow up with that! So exciting!
17.45: Silk Street. How lovely! I can hear music spilling from the windows of the GSDM. I head toward the entrance to attend the free performance. I love the architecture and the vibrancy of the street.
19.00: I was about to leave the Culture Mile and head home when a Culture Mile app notification popped up on my phone! What?! Two remaining tickets for the LSO at the Barbican Concert Hall starting in 25 minutes?? I’m calling a friend who confirms he’d love to join! Booked!! Let’s go!
This trip appears to be a future fantasy. There is no Murray House Gallery I can locate at present, although there is a building bearing the name Murray House (but also Central Point more prominently) on the corner of Beach Street and Bridgewater Street which houses various financial and service businesses; alongside residential units accessed from a door on Bridgewater Square, rather than the commercial entrance at 45 Beech Street. It is therefore difficult to work out ticket prices for events at this fictional art venue. However, standard tickets at the Barbican Art Gallery are currently £16 and presumably the LSO (London Symphony Orchestra) tickets would be at least as much. Lunch and coffees must have come to at least £10, and further repast was presumably required in the evening although none is mentioned. So our fictional ‘culture lover’ must have dropped coming on for fifty notes and possibly a lot more. Despite buzzwords like ‘interactive’, what’s being described is passive consumerism, and rather than being ‘exciting’, the whole thing is bland and utterly tedious. Not to mention completely unaffordable for many of those who actually live in the Culture Mile or next to it, the boundaries of this ‘construct’ have been left quite fuzzy.
The tone of this new Culture Mile brochure is outrageously dumb: “It is really easy and intuitive to find my way to Beech Street! Oh, wow, there is even a digital sign that tells me where I need to go to grab my free ice cream! Magic!” People simply don’t talk about how “intuitive” it is to find their way around a hood. The prose throughout these documents reminds me of the awful Janet and John books young children used to be forced to look at when learning to read, since the same words and ideas occur again and again: ‘It’s so lively here’; ‘So exciting!’; ‘How lovely!’ etc. Likewise in what I quote above the Guildhall School of Music and Drama is twice wrongly contracted to GSDM (it should be GSMD) but the error also occurs elsewhere in passages I haven’t cited. There are also repetitions any half-trained copy editor would have marked up to be changed: vibrant and vibrancy; musicians alongside music (the latter appears twice in what I quote), love and lovely etc. Descriptions like ‘stunning’ are more appropriate for the effects of a police taser than for Smithfield Market! In short this is closer to prose that aims to bore four year-olds with extremely old-fashioned bourgeois pseudo-values than anything else. It comes across as a hastily composed first draft presumably written after the Fluid consultancy team got drunk together; and which they couldn’t be bothered to copy edit because they viewed it as mere decoration to their inane retro-graphics.
The services associated with the passive consumerism in the various ‘user scenarios’ are very much bound up with gentrification. Artisan coffee concessions and ‘gastro pubs’ force up rents and push the kind of shops and community resources local people need out. There is already an issue in the Culture Mile area with regard to the decade old transformation of Whitecross Street and its market under an EC1 New Deal for Communities Government Regeneration Programme. The old traders who sold useful things cheaply to locals, such as baby clothes and raw vegetables, have been replaced by upmarket ‘street food’ stalls catering to those who work rather than live nearby. Following lobbying from well-off Barbican Estate residents, the lease of the supermarket unit on Cherry Tree Walk (set back from Whitecross Street) was given to the upmarket Waitrose chain, which sells groceries at prices many local social housing tenants find exorbitant. Whether Whitecross Street forms a part of the Culture Mile isn’t entirely clear but at least one image of it has been used in a promotional video and if it isn’t inside the designated area then it is immediately adjacent to it.
The Culture Mile callously ignores those on lower-incomes rather than addressing their needs. For example, one of the suggested upgrades in Golden Lane clearly relates to issues that are of more direct concern to Golden Lane Estate residents than those on the Barbican: “Install street furniture to minimise Whitecross Street Market’s impact on Fortune Street Park.” There is a major problem with the overuse of this park, something that is particularly evident at lunchtime when local workers eat food there that they’ve bought from stalls on Whitecross Street. Because the park is overcrowded some workers have taken to consuming their take-away lunches on the Golden Lane Estate. Encouraging people to eat in Golden Lane is likely to be seen as even more of an invitation for them to treat the council housing estate there as an extension of the park (which it isn’t). Most are likely to continue preferring the areas of Golden Lane Estate walled off from traffic to benches on the street; currently it is rare to see anyone eating food on the street furniture that is already in place in the Islington controlled parts of Golden Lane.
Despite what’s outlined above, Golden Lane Estate and its residents are not listed as key stakeholders as regards the upgrades in their street, while the Barbican Estate and its residents are – and the later have private gated parks and gardens, whereas the former don’t have similar amenities and rely on Fortune Street as a green area. Similarly, while the ‘listed status of the Barbican Estate’ is placed under an ‘Important Considerations’ heading, the listed status of the Golden Lane Estate is ignored.
The framing of other Golden Lane proposals are equally odd given that the City of London have granted planning permission to Taylor Wimpey to build an overscaled development on the site of Bernard Morgan House, casting Fortune Street Park into darkness from lunchtime onwards for much of the year. Viz: “Develop a greening strategy for the street introducing new trees and planting to enhance links towards Fortune Street Park.” It is difficult to see where new trees can be planted; we’ve recently lost trees in this part of Golden Lane after the City gave Taylor Wimpey planning permission to destroy a wildlife garden that previously existed on the east side of Bernard Morgan House, so that they can build a development that goes all the way to the edge of the pavement. Recently new young trees were jammed into the space between where Taylor Wimpey plan to build The Denizen and a Transport for London cycle rack; the saplings look cramped and since they do nothing to enhance links to the park, stuffing in even more won’t help either.
Document phrasing reveals that a make-believe vision of Golden Lane is in operation in Culture Mile plans: “Public space enhancements around the Library to incorporate space for occasional play focused public art interventions” (I assume this means installing a plinth so that flunkies working for the Fluid ‘consultancy’ who helped draw up the Culture Mile plans can stand on it and hand out colouring books). The building being invoked here was once the Cripplegate Library but it is now UBS banking offices. The area in front of it is often crowded with tech workers taking smoking breaks, and one can only wonder where they will go if forced to move? Possibly they’ll cross the road and puff away on their fags in the Richard Cloudesley School entrance. The planned ‘enhancements’ could be interpreted as chopping down the two trees that currently stand in front of the UBS building to create a space more suitable for ‘play focused public art interventions’. Bizarrely, while Prior Weston Primary School is listed as a key stakeholder here, Richard Cloudesley School isn’t, although they both face out onto the same section of Golden Lane. That said, it is the latter that has its entrance opposite the UBS building, while Prior Weston pupils go in and out of their school from both Whitecross Street and inside Fortune Street Park itself. And while both schools clearly are key stakeholders, if only one was to be chosen then the logical choice is obviously the overlooked Richard Cloudesley.
Elsewhere with the Golden Lane ‘upgrades’ we are returned to the issue of gentrification: “Utilise the former loading bay areas behind exhibition halls for further public space. More independent retail or cultural units could face onto this space alongside a cafe or similar use to encourage activity.” It seems safe to assume that by ‘activity’ the authors mean consumer spending rather than autonomous community cultural production. Needless to say, cafés and art galleries are a focus for anger about gentrification; the latter have to date proved a hotter issue in places like Los Angeles (especially the Boyle Heights neighbourhood) and New York (widespread but particularly notable in Manhattan’s Chinatown) than London. Coffee shops are a global focus for fury about gentrification; the chain ink! caused much ire in recent days by displaying a sign outside a Denver café it owns proclaiming ‘happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014’. This generated so much outrage that it became an international news story and has been covered by the media in Britain as well as the USA. Closer to home, and within easy walking distance of Golden Lane, both Brick Lane Coffee and Jonestown Coffee on the west side of Bethnal Green have in recent years acted as a magnet for anti-gentrification anger after they displayed signs reading ‘sorry no poor people’ and ‘please don’t feed the crackies’ (i.e. drug addicts and/or homeless people) respectively. Plans for more cafés and cultural units (I assume this means small commercial galleries) in the Culture Mile plug right into the narratives I’ve just invoked and come across as a finger waved at low-income residents.
Another way of illustrating how the Culture Mile project cynically marginalises and excludes Golden Lane Estate and other social housing residents is to look at section 3.2 in the Look & Feel Part 2 document: “Social isolation – has been identified as a considerable concern, particularly amongst elderly and LGBT residents of the Barbican. Urban gardening projects in and around the Barbican could be expanded and initiatives such as GoodGym, where people complete runs stopping en-route to support isolated older people with social visits and one-off tasks they can’t do on their own, can be facilitated via new digital infrastructure.” While I don’t doubt that social isolation is an issue on the Barbican Estate, it is more of an issue among the generally much less well off elderly and LGBT residents of Golden Lane Estate who are passed over without mention; but then it ought to be clear by now that the whole point of the Culture Mile is to enhance the lives of the haves at the expense of the have nots, and that this mirrors the ways the financial industries in the City do the same thing in other spheres.
Social housing residents living on the fringe of the Culture Mile will suffer as ever rising property prices continue to drive the shops and services they need out of the area. Simultaneously they and their needs will be ignored, and their everyday problems will be compounded in other ways too. Security is a matter raised within Culture Mile literature, and given local drug issues and the anti-social behaviour associated with it, the emphasis on safety will have the effect of concentrating these problems in the areas immediately outside upgrade projects, and specifically the Golden Lane Estate. Issues associated with the drug dealing that goes on in the area, including junkies defecating outside flats, currently impact both the Barbican and Golden Lane Estate; if the Culture Mile resolves this for the former, it will do so at the cost of making it far worse for the latter.
Having said all this, it should also be stressed that both Barbican and Golden Lane Estate residents share a common interest in uniting against the City of London council with its anachronistic and undemocratic political system. Many people from both estates already know this and work together for a common good. While this piece has emphasised the downsides of the Culture Mile project for those in social housing to the north of the Barbican, it is actually residents there who will have to deal most immediately with the excessive number of tourists the City hopes to attract. The noise, not to mention the wear and tear on the fabric of the their estate, will be horrendous. It is in the interest of all local residents to oppose the Culture Mile.
Finally, before I sat down to write this piece, I came across a photograph on social media posted yesterday and captioned: “Back of Liverpool Street Station – the sterile hell of a corporate winter wonderland.” The area shown in this smartphone snap is in the City of London and what was said about it really chimed with my feelings over not just the Culture Mile but also most City Public Realm projects in recent years. The council’s Department of the Built Environment is clearly in need of reform just as much as the political body that controls it. We really do need to take back the city.
The image at the top shows the area in the dead heart of the Culture Mile, just off Beech Street. Other photos depict anti-gentrification protesters in Boyle Heights and Manhattan’s Chinatown; or signs outside coffee shops in gentrified neighbourhoods.
Culture Mile ‘Look and Feel’ documents can be downloaded here: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/services/environment-and-planning/city-public-realm/public-consultations/Pages/culture-mile-look-feel-strategy.aspx