While Londoners whine about gentrification, other cities long for it

The as-yet-ungentrified Little Maltings. Image: Niall Crowley.

A canal cuts through an urban landscape. It’s overlooked by angular facade of a Grade II listed Victorian brewery. It’s been sympathetically converted into loft apartments, live-work spaces and artist studios.

The canal bustles with life. Boats, barges, a floating bookshop, even a floating cocktail bar. Strollers, joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers and meanderers all negotiate their way along the narrow towpath. A strip of independent shops, cafes, bars and a theatre look out onto the park from the west. It’s a short 10 minute walk from the railway station; there’s even a canalside pub – The Bridge – with its own microbrewery.

It’s an urban success story. Or at least it would be, if it was London. The place I describe is Langley Green, a small village-like corner of the Black Country, a few miles north of Birmingham where I grew up. The theatre, the pub with the craft beers, the canal, the Grade II Victorian brewery are all there.

Or at least they were. 

Langley Maltings, was never transformed into loft apartments, as developers once promised. It’s now a burnt-out ruin, having twice been attacked by arsonists. The once-popular pub with the micro brewery closed its doors a couple of years ago, and has since been demolished. Only a part of the front elevation remains.

The only life the canal sees is the occasional dog-walker, and the high street, like many around the country, is in steady decline. The theatre and the cobblers (run by a father and son since the 50s or 60s) are thankfully, still there. 

It’s a world away from my adopted home of East London, where much-maligned hipsters and creatives have helped transform rundown areas where, not so long ago, few people wanted to live. The Regents Canal, on the edge of my estate, does bustle with life. Here, you can browse second-hand books and buy cocktails on canal barges. And the canal-side cafe does sell porridge for around £4 a bowl, though don’t tell that to Class War. 

Nearby Shoreditch Park, which borders “gentrified” Hoxton and Old Street, is well used and loved by locals, who come to meet up, read, hang out, picnic and play. Overlooking the park is not a Victorian brewery but the old Gainsborough film studios, now a gated apartment complex (which also overlooks the canal), where a one-bedroom flat will cost upwards of £500,000 and one of the newly-built townhouses on the other corner of the park start at £3m.

Many years ago I spent a weekend on the estate where I now live, visiting friends who were squatting in a tower-block. It was, and still is, a sprawling, ugly 1970s estate in a then unfashionable area.

Back then many of the flats lay empty, which is why the local authority eventually allowed squatters, including my friends, to take up legal residency. Now it seems everybody wants to live here. In gentrified east London, even this dreary old estate is now de rigueur.

Only there would you  find, say, a young Japanese fashion student living next door to a born-and-bred London postman; hear the sound of  a violin rehearsal waft in through an open window, while your neighbour’s hip hop tunes vibrate through the walls.

Here, the kid spraying graffiti all over the lift works for the props department of the production company filming on the estate, and the stage play showing at the local ‘community centre’ is sponsored by the Royal Court and stars two Oscar-winning actors. Here, there’s always somewhere new to go, something new to do. You can eat, drink or dance most times of the day or night, any day of the week. 

Still, some people complain about hipsters, “greedy” developers, social cleansing and about gentrification. When I returned to live in Dalston a few years ago, after a period away from London, I was stunned by how much the place had changed and by how vastly improved it was. “Wow! Hasn’t Dalston changed?” I said, in wonder to a member of staff at the trendy new Curve Garden.

I was equally stunned by his negative take. “It’s not all that bad.” he groaned. Maybe people have short memories? Or maybe those doing the complaining were in fact the previous generation of gentrifiers who now want to lift the drawbridge on the rest of us?

In Langley Green, where I happened to be when anti-gentrification protesters attacked the Cereal Killer cafe in Shoreditch, people don’t complain about hipsters, gentrification or rising house prices. And they definitely don’t complain about overpriced cereal bars.

But I wish they did. If moustachioed  hipsters and creatives were opening oddball coffee shops and floating cocktail bars; if developers were breathing new life into old Victorian breweries, then I suspect people in Langley, and other rundown parts of the country would welcome them as a sign of some much-needed economic dynamism.

For what underpins the revival of former undesirable areas of London is the city’s relative economic success over recent years. Now the rest of the country needs an economic revival. And that won’t happen without massive investment in new industrial sectors and large-scale infrastructure projects.

When that happens, maybe people in the rest of the country will have the luxury of complaining about their high streets being filled with art galleries, brasseries and overpriced cereal cafes. 

Niall Crowley is a writer, designer and former bar-owner based in London. He is speaking at “Gentrify this! The pros and cons of urban development” at the Battle of Ideas festival on 18 October at the Barbican.

CityMetric is a media partner for the festival.


What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.

Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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