In 1993, I visited Europe for the first and last time. My graduation present from my family was a petit-grande tour of Europe, with an open-jaw ticket and a three-week EurailPass. In that time, I saw the Brussels Airport, Rome, Florence, Venice, the Vienna Train station, Prague, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Strasbourg, Paris, the Calais-Dover Ferry and London. A lot happened on that trip though I could only tell you about it. Film was at a premium then, and I was pretentious enough to think that I could use an SLR to document it. I must say, I did a good job focusing on what I wanted, getting the exposure right for the light, and picking my film ISO 32 shots at a time. But there was nothing of ease and spontaneity. No pictures that you haven’t seen in a hundred movies, photographs, and books.
The thing that interested me here is the last part of this journey: London, specifically Russell Square near University College London and Kings Cross Terminal – the end of Isambard Brunel’s Great Northern Line. 22 years ago, I dragged my frame pack and undergraduated self to the Salvation Army, and asked for a room. This recommendation had come from my mom, who had stayed there 25 years earlier.
I slept through breakfast, mistaking the final breakfast alert for the first, and got out in to the morning, my passport and itinerary from Gatwick clutched to my chest in the secret pouch all tourists carry. Walking around in a widening circle, I came upon the first of many brutalist hulks. A sad large modern piece of mixed-use with stores on the bottom floor and 5 floors of apartments in staggered terraces above. Most of the storefronts were vacant, and the grocery store on the windswept plaza was barely occupied with people or groceries. I thought dryly that this must have been one of the sites that was bombed during the Blitz. Must’ve been some bomb.
Last week, I spoke at a conference on transportation and public health. A lot of sparks between top-down and bottom-up solutions, and between the west and the rest. The great thing was that this conference was at University College of London, near Russell Square. After one day of a dizzying variety of talks, I walked over to the old station to see if the Salvation Army was there, or the brutalist mixed-use hulk.
I was pleased to see that everything had improved. Every storefront was occupied, and there were now two grocery stores on the plaza. The shelves of the Sainsbury’s were full of groceries. There were people out and about and there was business enough for all. The Salvation Army Hostel was long gone, though the building was still there, in approximately the same condition but now charging market rents. I left cheerful, seeing that even the most miserable places can renovate given time.
Of course, the same thing that happened to London happened to New York between 1992 and 2015. The financial sector blossomed and raised the quality of streets with the rents in both the cities for miles around. Dangerous, dreary places like Russell Square became flush with cash from banking, and its follow on services. The question remains where the poor make their homes, but gentrification reads different for the resident, the planner, and the tourist.
Of course, this could have been the difference between Winter and Summer in London, but I doubt it.