4 May 2015

Things don't stay the same

I had an idea to go out and take some photographs of Walthamstow to show that it’s still far from gentrified, still has unacceptable dereliction, neglected mess that should have been sorted out long ago, front gardens abandoned to weeds and soggy mattresses. I have to say the results were frankly pathetic. Perhaps spring had something to do with it, but I kept seeing trees in blossom, freshly painted house fronts and nice clean cars. Some fly tipping, yes, and all those front garden recycling bins are unsightly (if unavoidable), but not nearly enough that was truly awful. So perhaps it’s true, Walthamstow really has gone up in the world. The only surprise, of course, is that it’s taken so long.

We’ve heard a lot of talk lately about how Walthamstow is a) starting to become a nice place to live, or b) not what it was, and in danger of being completely ruined. It all depends on your point of view, obviously. I moved here from Dalston Junction nearly 20 years ago, and spent at least a week feeling it was a move in the wrong direction. After a week I began to appreciate all the open spaces and some decent food shops, being able to park outside my front door and living a few minutes walk from the Tube. The local Sainsburys was no more dumbed-down that the Kingsland High Street branch. I certainly didn't miss the loud music and regular violence that used to be a feature of weekends in Hackney. Getting an actual garden with soil and trees was an especial thrill, because up to then I only had containers on a flat roof that didn't really belong to me. So yes, the place was quite run down but it soon grew on me.

 After a bit we lost our local post office which sold nothing much except stamps and openly-displayed porn. The bakery closed down, thrived for a while as a video shop until the technology changed, and then the owner changed it into a typical corner shop / off licence. Eventually, the scary but historic pub across the way got knocked down to build the new Tesco store on Forest Road. At one point we even had an art gallery, although that must have been premature because it has closed down now. Cafe Rodi has been there for a lot more than 20 years and it continues to thrive.

The street I live in has barely changed in that time. Some of the pink cherry blossom trees died or got knocked over by careless parking, and the council replaced most of them with white ones which don't match, but do make for a double blossom season. Abandoned cars used to be common until the council started making it free to take them to the scrapyard. I remember noticing how many dented cars there were, and there were some really terrible old junk cars still being driven. In fact my own car started off old but reasonably ok, until it got backed-into by more than one lorry outside my house, so it ended up crumpled at both ends. You don't see that any more. The houses in our street changed ownership mainly when the older residents moved out or died but, not being in the village, there's a few loft conversions but nothing much in the way of yuppification.

 Walthamstow didn't really change much until the Town Square squalor was designed out, the Art Trail opened up a previously private world of creativity, and the Olympics kick-started a round of street improvements - doing up the bedraggled rows of shops that the owners were too tight to tackle. Suddenly, though, we're seeing a growth spurt in the rate of change. New flats built everywhere and more in the pipeline, the William Morris Gallery and the Scene and all that. The High Street has been transformed by the European cafe culture, reflecting the changing population, so the windswept empty street is transformed into a busy promenade whenever the market isn’t there. The so-called hipster places keep springing up to reflect a different demographic change.

Most of the change is positive unless you think diversity is a dirty word. Inevitably, I'm going to get criticised for not being aware of serious downsides that don't affect me personally. But even if you think some of the new places are pretentious, it can’t be that difficult to ignore the arty stuff and still enjoy cleaned-up streets, having a local cinema and places to eat out. Mini Holland gets a lot of stick for what is basically some sensible traffic-calming measures, which would have been barely noticed (like the introduction of 20MPH zones across the borough) if it hadn't been promoted as a benefit for those popular demons, cyclists. But there is of course the major downside, the way property is becoming steadily more and more unaffordable. That is bad for Walthamstow, as it is bad for London as a whole, and there is no answer to that one in sight - not even a Labour government.