A brief history of London’s Christmas lights

Oxford Street, London, 2011. Image: Getty.

What would Christmas, or even the weeks or months leading up to it, be without lights? They make our trees twinkle, fill our windows with a welcoming glow and set our streets alight with Christmas spirit.

One city that takes its Christmas lights very seriously is London – a bright and eventful destination all year round, of course, but even more so in the build-up to Christmas. One after the other, streets and squares are illuminated by elaborate light installations, which transform urban spaces and alter the atmosphere of the city.

But as well as being a dazzling spectacle, the history of London’s Christmas displays can shed light on the shifting relationships between citizens, local councils and corporations in the city.

The tradition began in 1954, on Regent Street, when local retailers and businesses – through the Regent Street Association – arranged for a display. The aim was to show that post-war London did not have to look “drab” around Christmas. In the 1950s and 1960s, the installations spread to other streets, with the Oxford Street Christmas display premiering in 1959. Quickly, the lights grew to be a key part of London’s festive calendar.

By the early 1970s, however, economic pressures on retailers and local councils – combined with a darkening of public opinion – meant that London went largely without Christmas lights for several years. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the tradition returned once again, an initiative of local traders’ associations.

Celebrity sparkle

Today, in London’s famous West End, every street and square worth its name is lit up and presented as a sparkling centre of entertainment and – as ‘tis the gift giving season – commerce. A “dark” street during Christmas time signals to consumers that there is nothing going on, while lights guide the way, generating excitement and attracting attention.

To add to the glamour, lights are formally switched on each year by celebrities at crowded ceremonies. Big names in the past have included Kylie Minogue (Regent Street 1989 and Oxford Street 2015), the Spice Girls (Oxford Street 1996), and Helen Mirren (Bond Street 1998). Last year’s big names included Jennifer Saunders, Craig David and Holly Willoughby.

These “switch ons” are usually organised to create a buzz, bring people together and kick-start Christmas shopping. But they can also be used for other purposes. For example, in 2016, in central London’s Soho district, the Berwick Street switch on was used to raise public awareness about plans to privatise the Berwick Street Market. Joanna Lumley – who is actively engaged in the Save Soho campaign – did the honours.

Some of the city’s major cultural institutions get involved, too. The Sugar Plum Fairy – from the Royal Opera House’s feature, The Nutcracker – performed and participated in the switch on of the Covent Garden lights in 2016, reflecting the area’s close connection to the performing arts.

Over on Carnaby Street, the lights took inspiration from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition on the musical revolution and rebellion of the late 1960s. This ties in with the street’s past as a hotspot of “swinging London”.

So, these events present a fantastic opportunity to showcase the uniqueness of a particular area to Londoners and tourists alike – not least because images of Christmas lights always do well on social media.

Too tacky?

Yet these festive displays have not escaped criticism. For one thing, Christmas lights are expensive: many regional towns and cities have opted out due to budget constraints. There have also been some doubts as to whether they actually improve business. In 1993, the Oxford Street Traders Association decided not to provide a Christmas lights display: local retailers were reluctant to cover the costs, because they were not convinced that lights attract shoppers.

In the late 1990s, corporate sponsors tried a more direct approach, adding large brands, slogans and logos to the displays. This time, the public complained that the lights had become too commercial, unimaginative, “cheap” and “vulgar”, prompting the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to invite architects to come up with new ways to improve London’s Christmas light displays, the best of which were exhibited at the Museum of London in 1997.

The RIBA campaign did not have an immediate effect: just one year later, Regent Street was given over to the soft drink Tango, which showered the area with bright orange bulbs and banners bearing the message “Tis the season to be Tango’d”. The display met with some considerable public scorn. Yet in 2016, it seems a different kind of branding is emerging: one which emphasises place, rather than product.

The Northbank Business Improvement District (BID) introduced Christmas lights to the Strand for the first time last year, emblazoning its name across the displays. This is part of a strategy to create a sense of place, which appeals to both visitors and investors – similar to what has been achieved on London’s South Bank. Whether or not the campaign will be enough to replace the area’s well-known moniker, “the Strand”, remains to be seen.

The ConversationIt may be that this whirlwind of shopping, tourism, atmosphere, business, branding, art, innovation, celebrities and photo ops has the power to bring us all closer together for a couple of months each year. At the very least, we can be certain that this year, Christmas in London’s West End will be anything but drab.

Henrik Linden, Senior Lecturer in Tourism and Cultural Industries Management, University of East London and Sara Linden, Lecturer in Cultural Policy and Tourism, Goldsmiths, University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.