Sunday, 12 May 2013

City observation 2 - All Saints Road

From Colville Square you can walk 100m past All Saints Church, do a short dog-leg on Westbourne Park Road, to reach All Saints Road. About 300m long, All Saints Road is intersected by three roads and one cobbled mews, so that it forms one side of a series of residential blocks. It was built as part of the same speculative building process, and at roughly the same time, as Colville Square, as one of the commercial streets servicing the larger development. “Behind the mansion”, according to a quote in ‘London: a Social History’, “there is generally a stable, and near the stable there is generally a maze of close streets, containing a small greengrocer’s, a small dairy’s, a quiet coachman’s public house, and a number of houses let out in tenements. These houses shelter a large number of painters, bricklayers, carpenters, and similar labourers, with their families, and many laundresses and charwomen.” [p.237]

The buildings were therefore not built to the same high-quality standard as the terraces in Colville Square, and were designed to accommodate a shop on the ground floor, with a basement for storage, and living quarters in the two or three stories above for the shopkeeper, family and maybe other tenants. Looking up the street from the Westbourne Park Road end, the left hand side of the street is four-story, reducing to three-story about two-thirds of the way along; the right-hand side is three-story for its entire length, with the exception of a modern (1970s) block which maintains the same height as the rest of the street but fits in four floors with lower ceiling heights.

The buildings therefore present a uniform and coherent face to the street: a consistent height, maintained by a uniform stucco parapet on the front of the roof; building widths are similarly set at a consistent five meters; the houses are all built to the pavement line with no setback and front doors opening directly on to the pavement; and windows are at uniform heights with minor differences in decoration and with stucco sills and surrounds. The shops similarly are virtually identical in design: high ceilings; wood or stucco framed large shop windows; the entrance is on the opposite side of the house from the front door to the stairwell leading to the accommodation on the upper floors.

In common with any terraced housing therefore, you might think that it is a recipe for monotony. As with Colville Square however, even though it is far less grand, the overall effect is one of interest and variety for the pedestrian and those who live on the street. At street level the shops all maintain their distinctiveness via different colour schemes on the façade (one successful owner who has expanded his business to four shops maintains a consistent rich purple across all his shops). At some stage the local council also provided subsidised “traditional” wrought iron brackets for shop signs over the front doors, each one individually designed but giving additional consistency and quality. Several of the house owners have taken the opportunity to rebuild the basements of the buildings as small apartments, with stairs/light-wells at the front, enclosed by iron railings which also occasionally break the consistency of the street-level façade. The buildings and shops on the street corners are, by virtue of having a façade/windows on two sides, somewhat more imposing than the other buildings.

A LITTLE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: typical of much of Notting Hill, All Saints Road and the surrounding area has gone through huge social and cultural changes since World War II. Starting in the early 1950s the area was one of the main parts of London settled by African-Caribbean immigrants, and became the scene of some of the worst inter-racial rioting in London, between the indigenous white English and Irish working class residents and the new immigrants:

By the 1960s-70s the street was largely ethnically African-Caribbean, along with many of the businesses on the street. Notting Hill has been for decades the venues for one of the largest West Indian Carnivals in the world, held each year in August, and of course All Saints Road is pretty much at the epicentre. By the 1980s-90s it was one of the major “wholesale” drug dealing streets in London, and to a large degree the police would not go there except in significant numbers, having adopted a somewhat “live-and-let-live” attitude to drug dealing. When I first lived on the street in the mid-1990s drug dealers had divided it into sections according to the length of each individual block, and although the street was quite popular in terms of night-life many taxi drivers would refuse to drive down it, insisting on dropping their customers at one end. However, in an interesting perspective on Jane Jacobs’ concerns about urban crime and perception of security – in my experience the street was quite safe if you weren’t involved in the drug trade either as a dealer or customer. The dealers were making so much money that they were very concerned to keep “trouble” to a minimum, and therefore not attract unwarranted police attention. In a strange way therefore they acted as Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” and concerned local businessmen, making sure that drug consumers/addicts didn’t hang around any longer than necessary to transact business!

Like much of the rest of Notting Hill, the street has become substantially gentrified in the last 20 years, the drug dealing has been “moved on” by concerted police action and placing video cameras at intervals down the street. Residentially the street remains quite mixed in terms of income levels because the local housing trusts still maintain significant holdings of property which are rented out at subsidised rates.

LOCAL BUSINESSES: although All Saints Road is only about 300m from Portobello Road and the market, the striking thing about the businesses on the street is how little they benefit from the tourist trade on Portobello. The tourist trade is fairly fixated on Portobello Market itself, and very few people walk far off the path of Portobello Road. There structure of daily shopping for the local residents has also changed: whereas a few decades ago there were many local shops selling West Indian produce and groceries, most of the day-to-day shopping is now done either at the small local supermarket on Portobello Road (Tesco), on the market, or by car at larger supermarkets for convenience and lower price.

The street has over several decades developed its own niche – as a destination site for the building and interior decorating trade. This started with electrical and plumbing shops. In recent years other shops selling wood flooring, curtains, upholstery and furniture have also arrived, benefitting from the long London property boom and providing something of a one-stop-shop for (expensive) west London home improvements. The various West Indian produce stores, bakeries, small restaurants/diners, and semi-illicit drinking clubs have pretty much disappeared as the area has become more expensive and less African-Caribbean. There are two main restaurants and one larger bar-club-restaurant that both serve the local community and are major attractors from further afield. In addition there are the ubiquitous London pizza delivery and Indian takeaway, as well as a dry cleaner and radio cab office that are definitely local in character.

The last remaining “institutions” in the street are People’s Sound, selling one of the best and probably largest reggae selections in London, Portobello Music selling guitars, and the Bicycle Workshop, the best bike repair in west London. In the last decade or so the “fashionistas” have arrived – a couple of fashion shops that seem to act as shop windows for successful internet-based fashion chains, “The Jacksons” and “Jade Jagger”.

One of Jane Jacobs’ conclusions with respect to maintaining variety of businesses in New York was the importance of a range of building ages – her argument being that older buildings, whose construction costs were fully amortised and whose owners were presumably debt-free, would offer tenants relatively lower rents. This does not seem to be the case in west London: the buildings were obviously all built at essentially the same time; but in general commercial rents in west London seem to be set more by the attractiveness of the street, the amount of business “footfall”, and what the local market will bear. Therefore shops in elderly buildings in high-value streets such as Westbourne Grove or the earlier stages of Portobello Road will tend to be regularly upgraded and will tend to have very high rents, whereas new buildings in less prestigious streets will have correspondingly lower rents.

As with the terraces of Colville Square, the format of shop on the ground floor/residence above has proved to be very flexible and resilient over time. Originally cramped accommodation for the typically large families of the 19th and early 20th century shopkeepers, the maisonette housing above the shops were almost universally broken up either into a warren of “bed-sits” in the 1950s and more recently into one-room apartments, each of about 40-50 square meters, with one on each floor.

The makeup of the local residents has obviously changed considerably: the housing above the shops is now much too small and much too expensive for anyone with a large family; some smaller families still occupy rent-subsidised flats but in general the local residents are now young singles and couples. Many are young professionals working in IT, design, marketing or music/fashion. As a result, many of the apartments are also used by people working partly or primarily from home, and several have been converted into office space, mainly for businesses in fashion and music.

TRAFFIC: one of the inevitable consequences of the pedestrian-friendly and relatively high-density structure of both the commercial and residential street network and housing of west London is that it is incompatible with high traffic loads. A single terraced building on a five-metre front, with one shop and between two and four one-bedroom apartments, clearly can’t provide parking for more than one or two cars. Most of the residents on the street therefore don’t own cars and access to good public transport is therefore critical. This unfortunately one of the areas that can’t be resolved by definition at the Borough level, but only by comprehensive planning and investment at the London (or even regional) levels. London has significantly underinvested in the tube and bus networks over the past decades. However, I think there are steps that can be taken at the local level, for example: to raise the cost of parking permits specifically for larger cars in order to incentivise residents to switch to small cars; and/or to incentivise car sharing schemes, which offer far higher levels of efficiency in car use, by allocating parking space to car share companies.

No comments:

Post a Comment