Is Kentish Town Really Changing?


The ‘up and coming’ status of an area is not without its detractors who, rightly or wrongly, believe their more ‘real’ experience of the area is now being corroded



A road that never changes: lovely Lady Margaret
It’s two years this month since I started Kentishtowner and it’s got me thinking about change. On the surface Kentish Town has seen some quite dramatic developments of late, something embraced not only by us but by national titles like the FT, Metro and Times (NW5 is now a ‘hotspot’). But what will the longterm effects be? Are things really shifting, or is this just a petty cycle? A historical footnote? And does any of it matter?

The other day I stumbled across an Independent article on Kentish Town from nearly 20 years ago. Written by the author Rachel Cusk in 1994, it’s a typically jocular look at the area:

‘Before I came to live in Kentish Town,’ she began, ‘I remember a friend of mine saying that she was thinking of looking for a flat there because it was the one place within spitting distance of Soho where she was unlikely to encounter anyone she knew. My move, needless to say, precluded hers, and I have spat leisurely at Soho many a time since, from the isolation of a top-floor shoe box off Lady Margaret Road with good enough views of all London’s landmarks to ensure that I never have to leave NW5 to visit them.’

Cusk, who had spotted ‘one or two literary luminaries slinking around Iceland and Kwik Save’, otherwise declared Kentish Town Road ‘a maudlin middle child’, deriving much of its character from ‘neglect and unfair comparison’:

‘It’s one of the few high streets in central London where you are in little danger of spending any money, and even the most nihilistic tour of its dubious highlights possessed by the desire pointlessly to dispose of cash will rarely result in more than a modest purchase from a charity shop and the realisation that one could equally well incinerate a few notes in an ashtray at home.’

And, suggested Cusk, it’s this absence of material preoccupation that means ‘the fever of desire is miraculously cooled and one is left free to contemplate higher things.’ Which, she concludes in her comical way, is why ‘so many intellectuals are coming to Kentish Town.’

This raises two ideas: first, the way places are mythologised, with the middle-class obsessions with both the ‘grittiness’ of an area and its artistic roots; second, the insistence by home-owners, particularly in London neighbourhoods, on a place being ‘on the up.’

Yet unlike, say Hackney, Kentish Town seems forever to have been on the ‘cusp’ rather than the ‘up’. It’s been neither here nor there. Neither Camden nor Hampstead. So is change here – that which we think we’re currently witnessing in NW5 – ‘a matter of degree,’ as the great NW5 chronicler Gillian Tindall argues, ‘rather than a striking difference’?

Perhaps. Certainly KT’s threshold status has been long remarked upon: ‘There was a time,’ continues Rachel Cusk, ‘when one could cross-country ski in dog excrement down to the Tube station and the strains of Mozart were not to be heard emanating from the now repointed facades of Georgian terraces, but I returned recently from a long holiday to find that every second house in our road was up for sale and I for one don’t interpret this as a vote of no confidence. No, refurbishment is in the air, and with it will soon come a day when one is in danger of meeting any number of one’s acquaintances, skulking home with an imitation Chinese vase from the high street tucked under their arm and the tell-tale reek of Snoopy’s workers’ cafe emanating from their clothes.’

Twenty years earlier, in the mid Seventies, Tindall discussed the problem of ‘gentrification’ in her seminal work, The Fields Beneath. She argued that it began to be used as a ‘ready-made sneer on the lips of those who were, inevitably, middle-class and articulate themselves but did not want to see themselves that way.’ This uncertainty created a division between those who expressed then contemporary fears that Kentish Town might deteriorate into an urban ‘jungle’ on the American model, ‘dangerous to cross after dark and full of racial tensions’; and those convinced that the area would become as affluent as Chelsea. Neither vision materialized, of course; Kentish Town merely remained ‘on the cusp.’

Rewind a century earlier, and similar fears were preoccupying the Victorians. In the 1860s the cottages of what we now call the Inkerman Conservation Area (the tangle of picturesque streets east of the Map Cafe) had been built to house the ‘industrial proletariat’; concern swelled that Kentish Town’s middle classes would be ‘swamped’ by rowdy workers.

Thus frantic attempts to build a New Kentish Town east of the High Street continued, its roads wide, villas grand, streets with names like Gaisford, Caversham, Patshull. This was, says Tindall, ‘the forward prosperous image of Kentish Town’, about which this reader wrote to the Gazette in 1867:

‘A stranger passing through Camden and Kentish Towns at the present time (1867) and observing the vista of large and magnificent shops, the busy appearance of the principal streets – well paved and lighted – and the miles of superior villas, Crescents, Squares and Avenues, could not fail to be attracted by the appearance of prosperity…The changes have been so swift, the progress so rapid and sudden…Still, a feeling of regret will arise…’

And the regret the writer goes onto describe? Well, it’s for the area’s rural past, ‘the destruction of a field.’ And there we have it: real change. A moment when Kentish Town was not on the cusp.

Return now to 2012, where again, ambivalent fears and hopes occupy equal space in our minds. The ‘up and coming’ status of Kentish Town is not without its detractors who, rightly or wrongly, believe their more ‘real’ experience of the area is now being corroded. And as for those embracing change, what exactly are we embracing? Are we no different from our ancestors, always eager for improvements? Do all generations in fact believe they are at the start of an epoch? Look, for example, at all the excitement about Chicken Shop.

Perhaps we should leave the last word to Gillian Tindall who, in an email correspondance recently, added: ‘Oh, and by the way, I don’t think there is any special current renaissance of Kentish Town. Like several other comparable inner London districts it has actually been renaissing for the last fifty-odd years, ever since the steam trains departed, the whole place got cleaner, and young middle class couples (as my husband and I then were) realised they could buy nice houses here cheaply. Now the nice houses aren’t remotely cheap and I should think the young couples must be much richer, but the basic situation hasn’t changed. A more profound change took place between 1945, when the whole of Kentish Town was threatened with demolition under the Abercrombie plan, and the 1970s.’

Well that’s torn it. Something to ponder as you sip a craft beer on a cobbled mews, or queue in semi-darkness for some on-trend poultry.

This is box title
Sources: The Fields Beneath, by Gillian Tindall (Eland, 2011).
Rachel Cusk’s Independent article on Kentish Town is here.

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  • Tim

    Great article. Depends on how you classify ‘on the up’. Culturally very rich now, although the lack of KT pool and snooker club is a big loss. But I think the commentators who most frequently describe whether an area is ‘hot or not’ are people who have a vested interest, because they’re working in the property markets. Property in KT has definitely got far more expensive, and I don’t think that actually makes it a better area. Just more exclusive for people who want to move in, and more difficult for those who live here but weren’t lucky enough to buy 15+ years ago.

  • alisonchandlerwriter

    Rachel Cusk writes like acid rain. And I mean that as a compliment.

    Whatever else has changed, we’re still ‘…cross country ski (ing) in dog excrement down to the Tube station…’ and pretty well everywhere else.

  • arancinibrothers

    A short stroll from Buttles timber merchant to the high street will confirm the cusp-ness of the current situation.

  • David

    I think the big change in the last few years is what has driven everything – the railway. With HS1 and the redevelopment of Kings Cross the focus of London has moved north. Kentish Town being the closest residential area with good quality housing and schools will be a much sought after place to live. Stand on Holmes or Willes Road at 8.40 in the morning and all you will hear is French! The pull of the French school is huge, all the houses that go on the market are being bought by French families. The steady influx of French people has only just begun and the change it brings will be very interesting to watch.

  • Charlie Beckett (@CharlieBeckett)

    Great article and you are quite right to quote Tindall. In the 15 years we’ve been here KT has increased the number of gastro pubs, boutique shops, delis etc. But so has everywhere else. In that sense it just reflects Londoner’s increasing expectations in terms of food, culture etc and also London’s relative resistance to recession. Kentish Town will never be entirely posh because it is socially mixed and as Tindall points out, it didn’t flog off all its social housing. Immigration is keeping that mix churning over, as it the building of student accomodation. That’s why we love it.