Visiting the Occupy London demonstration at St Paul’s Cathedral is so not what the Urban Repairs Club is supposed to be about, that there is a certain wilful contrariness to it becoming the subject of our first ever Expedition Report.
Our vision of the Urban Repairs Club (see our manifesto) is of a club dedicated to the search for liveable, lively, enjoyable urban environments in English towns and cities. It is not supposed to be about politics – or, to be more precise, not about the politics of the day-to-day media circus. And it is absolutely not supposed to be about London: it is supposed to be about exploring the England beyond London.
Its initial activity, this blog, is intended to contain the reports of our expeditions, which we envisage being based on photos as much as on text. They are certainly not meant to be rambling, discursive essays on topics in the current news agenda. So it is with some risk of misinterpretation that this rambling, discursive, political report is offered, with a handful of poor quality photos off my mobile phone because we hadn’t brought the camera.
On the other hand, our vision of our club is also that we will only define who we are, and what it is we do, by discovering it along the way of our expeditions. And so the concept is that as much as we are the cool, focused Urban Repairs Club, we are also the New Corresponding Society of the Pickwick Club: rather ludicrous characters wandering without any great plan through 2010s decade* urban England and stumbling into adventures. It is in this latter spirit that we thought it appropriate to designate our visit to the City of London as the first of our expeditions, and report on it accordingly.
[* what is the name of this decade?]
The objective of the evening was to discuss the club’s draft manifesto and the arrangements for our first planned proper expedition, to South Birmingham and Stourbridge, whilst doubling this up with a visit to check out Occupy London’s tented city, causing great excitement in the media.
City Thameslink station
And so our visit began at City Thameslink station, halfway up Ludgate Hill and in the shadow of St Paul’s, yet less than 25 minutes direct journey from Croydon. It’s a functional space, far from pretty but which works fine because it has a handy location, (just about) enough space and all the basics it needs. For the nostalgist, it offers some marvellously unreconstructed reminders of British Rail or, more precisely, Network South East, as was. The management won’t allow a TfL roundel in the place.
It also has room for a bit of modern private enterprise in the form of licensed street hawking. We met an authentic cockney geezer knocking out “Freedom cigarettes” at £35 a pop, and blowing out pure, odour-free water vapour beneath a stern No Smoking sign. The perfect stocking filler for smokers this Christmas, we were told. And this product could possibly really be a real-life social counter-revolution in the making – were it to reintroduce the sight of people puffing on a strand and (apparently) blowing out smoke in pubs, cafes, and on public transport. Should Freedom cigarettes take off, the short window of the noughties where this sight was not seen will seem in retrospect an aberration, rather than – as we imagine it now – the start of a new and permanent era of the banishing outside of nicotine addicts. Or it may become a quaint one-Christmas wonder to puzzle archaeologists of the future. Either way, it is the function of a metropolis to be the front line where these fashion battles will be decided, and City Thameslink station is delivering on this role.
St Pauls Churchyard
To St Pauls, and another 21st century front line. The story of the Occupy LSX (London Stock Exchange) protest is well-rehearsed elsewhere (eg: here), so no further background provided here, except to say that protesters did not originally intend to occupy the square in front of St Paul’s. The plan was to occupy the outdoor space of the next door Paternoster Square development, home of the London Stock Exchange since 2004. It was thanks to Canon Giles Fraser that the protesters were given sanctuary on Sunday 15th Oct, and it was purely by accident that the main interest of the events became the spectacle of the Church of England examining its conscience and trying to decide whether it exists to minister to the 1% or the 99%.
What to say on impressions of the encampment? It closely resembles Climate Camp, except in a city square in the shadow of a global tourist icon, rather than in a field in the shadow of the chimneys of a coal-fired power station. If you don’t know what that feels like, it resembles a DIY mini-Glastonbury, with “Tent City University” seminars and outdoor General Assemblies in place of bands’ performances. The atmosphere is calm and unconfrontational with a surprising lack of intrusion by either police or media mob. Unlike Glastonbury, it feels like an access unlimited pass is granted to anyone turning up off the street. The welcome tent provides instant orientation and you could grab a free veggie stew and start participating in an Assembly meeting within five minutes of arriving. Or, if you preferred, checking the tents with your heat detection device. The tranquil atmosphere is entirely a product of the good taste of the protesters, who are delightful.
The camp’s impact on St Paul’s Churchyard as an urban space is entirely positive. The steps of a great cathedral should feel like a space that is relevant to the life of its city. Without the protest, with empty steps, the meticulously renovated white-grey Portland stone of Wren’s west front (the iconic dome out of view) could easily feel a little cold, easy to admire, but hard to love. Without the protest, today’s pristine St Pauls could easily feel like the mother church of the undemocratic and unaccountable banking city-state of the City of London. With it, it feels a little more human and connected to its wider metropolis and the rest of the world.
Among the more desperate mud thrown at the protest has been the claim that they may cause innocent, humble, hard working independent traders to go out of business (repeated by trite old hack Simon Jenkins here). An actual visit to the site reveals the charge as absurd. The only area remotely affected was the arcade of the Paternoster Square development containing those humble independents Starbucks and M&S Simply Food, both of whom were doing a roaring trade feeding and watering the protest’s visitors. Paternoster Square itself, owned by Mitsubishi Estates and home to Goldman Sachs’ and Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s City outposts, was the only place in paranoid lock-down mode, with its court injunction against public access pasted on to a crowd barrier thrown across the gateway* to its private square, and defended by hired security guards in hi-vi’s. Friday evening trade in the champagne bars where the bailed-out bankers go to play was roaring away entirely unmolested by protesters or “all in it together” austerity.
[* no less than Wren’s original Temple Bar removed from Fleet Street in 1878, and brought back to the City from Hertfordshire in 2004.]
Urban Repair No.1:
Our manifesto sets us the challenge of coming up with a simple, practical and easily implementable urban repair for each of the places we visit. For St Pauls Churchyard our suggestion is to remove the outdated and mean-spirited railings around the base of the statue of Queen Anne in the centre of the public space, and to let people sit and enjoy the steps, like Eros at Piccadilly Circus.
Cheapside and One New Change
St Pauls resolved, we ventured further in the new City. The City has changed. Cheapside was once a dead office street – “somewhere where the bus would speed up” on its way to livelier parts of town. The Corporation of London’s planners have worked hard to get retail and street life back into the City. Famously the City’s pubs used to close at 9pm on weekdays, its rail and tube stations shortly after, and neither would open at all at weekends. This has now changed – a lot.
The Corporation’s streetscape enhancements are splendid – they have spent a big budget well, and their mastery of “keeping it simple” in street design is second to none. The pavement widening on Cheapside is neatly and simply done, and it works beautifully. We also picked out the entry treatment of Angel Street at its junction with Newgate Street.
The epitome of what the Corporation’s planners have aimed to achieve on the retail front is the One New Change development, opened on 28 October 2010. Unknown to us, we had stumbled across its first birthday party. In the basement a West End troupe was singing songs from the shows to an enthusiastic crowd, as the free bubbly (courtesy of Searcy’s Champagne Bar) flowed.
One New Change would be a city centre mall to die for in any other English city. It has paved pedestrian streets open to the sky, and seems to have cunningly resolved the problem of weatherproofing from wind and rain without losing the essence of being in a street outdoors, rather than inside in a mall. It’s pleasing, it works, and all the shops were still open at 7pm.
A planning vision with which we entirely sympathise, and – for once in England – fully realised. So why is it so impossible to like?
We think it is the utter boringness of the shops in it. The retail units, one after another, are immaculately branded and differentiated from each other, carefully calibrated to each market demographic. Every aspect of fashion culture is forensically plundered – youth culture, surf culture, city gent, London mod – but then served up in a manner that completely fails to connect with the spirit of any of the originals. The overall sense is of thorough, stifling corporate conformity. The landlord is entirely to blame – it is transparently obvious that the object of the exercise is rents, and rents alone. This is the City, home of the ruthless balance sheet analyst, after all.
Is it a failure in the market? Clearly the Urban Repairs Club is not the target market for One New Change, and so we can’t say. But it does seem like a shame for such a great effort to feel so wasted. The City’s planners laboured for decades to find developments that would revivify the City and architecture that would show respect to its neighbour St Pauls. Largely they have succeeded in creating the physical environment, only to fall at the final hurdle of finding it a soul. It’s a microcosm of today’s City as a whole. No, Mr. Jenkins, it is not the Occupy London protest that is squeezing the independent trader out of today’s City of London.
The picture is not unremittingly bleak. We did find a soul in One New Change – three souls in fact, three young curators from the London Museum, with a trestle table of artefacts, found in the archaeological dig when the mall was being built. These included a really beautiful Roman marble statuette found directly below the mall – 1800 years old? – which they were happy for us to just pick up and handle. Pure magic – kindred spirits in the Urban Repairs quest.
Urban Repair No.2
And so to suggestion no.2 for the City. More trestle tables, more street stalls, more chances for real start-ups of every kind, please. Not just in One New Change, but on the widened pavements of the main streets too.
And more chances too for independent retailers like this, please:
To reflect on what we had seen, and to ponder the future of the Church of England, it seemed appropriate to repair to The Bishop in West Smithfield – Britain’s oldest brewer’s original City of London outlet. Smithfield was great – the best of the City and its older landlords’ ability to let tenants breathe.
The City of London really should be the historic heart and living soul of all metropolitan London, but it is not now, and it cannot be so whilst it remains solely a disconnected banking city state – Airstrip One for the international banking elite.
The Urban Repair that would do the most for the City would be the democratisation of the Corporation of London: the handing over of its assets and the considerable talents of its staff to a properly elected public authority – we would suggest to the elected Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly. If the Occupy London protest left one legacy, shining a light on the Corporation and starting that debate on its reform would be a worthy achievement.