Tag Archives: Community

There goes the neighbourhood

photo 2[1]Mr Patel closed his newsagents a few months ago. Shortly after that, the 75 year old  hardware business further up the road shut its doors. Its neighbour, once a bathroom and kitchen design shop is now a giant pound store.

Yesterday Impulse Flowers, a local fixture for the past 28 years, lowered the shutters for the last time. The electric lighting show room across the road from the florist had already gone – due to “redevelopment” says the notice stuck on its window.

Next door, the manager of its sister store, selling light bulbs of every shape and size, stands in the doorway and surveys the changes on Holloway Road. “Look at it,” she says, pointing to a building once occupied by a fabric and wool shop. “It’s all restaurants and cafes now.”

And small supermarkets, some of them mini-versions of the big chains. Rumour has it, that’s what’s moving in where the light-bulb lady now stands. Or maybe it’ll be another branch of Costa, the ubiquitous coffee chain that already has at least three outlets on Holloway Road.

It’s not that the owners of the older shops want to go. “I think it’s more to do with landlords, their price increases,” says Frank, owner of Impulse Flowers, who’s finally off after losing a battle against yet another big rent hike. “They feel they need to modernise and they want to get trendy coffee shops and supermarkets in the high street.”

Frank outside Impulse Flowers which closes in March.

Frank outside Impulse Flowers which closes in March.

Frank says the rot set in when a supermarket chain opened a small, local store in the neighbourhood. The chain was happy to pay what he calls, “an enormous amount” in rent. Now, the landlords are telling the little guys they should pay the same, “and we’re just not in a position to do so,” Frank says. “We can’t compete.”

(It turns out, the supermarket chains might not be able to either. According to a recent report, it’s charity shops followed by coffee chains that are filling in the holes in the high street. When the holes are filled that is.)

Of course, one could argue (as former Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy did)  that all this represents progress.  Consumers are buying cheaper goods at places that are more convenient to them.

But the changes have a much wider impact – and not just on the individuals now shutting up shop. An entire community of businesses within five minutes walk from my home is being wiped out.

“It’s a bit quiet,” says Tim at the barbershop he’s run for the past 16 years. Tim’s a refugee from Kosovo who says he was made to feel welcome in the area as soon he arrived. Business was good at the beginning he says. Now though, it’s much harder “because circumstances change on Holloway Road.”

Tim’s referring to closings all around him. “The small businesses here, we used to go to them and buy things,” he says, “and they’d come for a haircut here.”

But don’t workers at supermarkets and coffee shops need haircuts too? Tim shakes his head. It’s different he says. “We don’t know them. They’re very rare customers.”

Mr Patel outside his cafe. His newsagents next door is now closed.

Mr Patel outside his cafe. His newsagents next door is now closed.

“It’s bad for the local community,” says Mr Patel, who’s stopped by Tim’s – not for a haircut but just for a chat, proving the barber’s point about the relationships between the small businesses in the area.

Mr Patel’s newsagents did well when he opened it in 1976. In recent years though, “the time and effort we put in, the returns just weren’t there,” he says.

“It was like a community shop,” Mr Patel goes on, explaining why, at any time of day one could find locals leaning on the counter chatting to the newsagent or his wife. “People were coming in for help and the whole family was there to provide it,” says the former shopkeeper. But with rapidly rising rents and high business rates, it couldn’t last. The newsagents closed – though Mr Patel hung on to the café next door.

That small high street businesses are suffering is well known. In the first half of last year, shops in the UK closed at a staggering 16 per day. Bad for them of course. But what isn’t talked about enough is the impact this has on a sense of community that affects all of us.

I want to live near a road where the Ugandan Asian former newsagent drops in to chat to the Kosovan barber who’s cutting the hair of a young man who works in the DIY store across the road. I like the fact the Dutch-born flower seller with whom I discuss politics and Arsenal, knows exactly what’s going on with the light-bulb lady and the other shops in her parade.photo 4

This is our community but it’s falling apart and there doesn’t seem to be anything anyone can do to stop it. Islington Council has a Core Strategy which sets out its “strategic vision for the borough up to 2025”.

Published in 2011, it says the aim is to “promote a mix of retail opportunities” on the main roads of the area and “to provide a better range of shops.” Nice idea but it’s not happening. (Some of the dying businesses say the council’s own parking enforcements share part of the blame). In fact, it’s the opposite and as with so many other high streets in the UK, our wonderfully diverse, friendly, connected neighbourhood is disappearing before our eyes.

 

The perfect public library

I have seen a future for the public library – in the centre of Stoke-on-Trent.

I’ll admit, until now I’ve taken no interest in the campaigns to save Britain’s libraries from closure. Supporters say hundreds are threatened because of cuts in local council budgets. 115 disappeared in the last financial year alone. But the library-loving rhetoric is too often couched in romantic middle class memories of a long gone past. Even those who haven’t been in a library for years wax lyrical about the joys of children’s storytime or the day they first “discovered” a particular book.

When reminded that ebooks and internet learning are now popular alternatives, their response is (rightly) that not all homes have access to the web. But providing those additional services at a library simply isn’t enough. Especially as you still have to get people through the door. Long before the current round of cuts, a Parliamentary inquiry  said public libraries were a “service in distress” .  The cost of running the drafty Victorian buildings was going up, the number of books being issued was going down. 

Stoke-on-Trent’s Local Service Centre and Library says it’s reversed the trend.  Stoke was once the centre of a thriving pottery industry. With those jobs gone for good, it now comes high on national lists of deprivation and you can feel it on the streets. Charity shops compete for customers alongside endless discount stores and numerous fast food outlets – and we’re not talking about the big chains.  (My favourite, “Aladdyn’s” hedges its bets by serving American fried chicken, curries, baltis – and fish and chips).  

And in the middle of all that is the library, an eco-friendly conversion of the old market building  that opened in 2009.  Library membership has increased by 1,200 since then and it’s not hard to see why. The big, bright space has lots of seating tucked in amongst the books. Computers are arranged in circular hubs to one side, and there’s a separate area with computers for children and a “quick email” point. 

But more importantly, at the back of the library is a door into the offices of the Public Health Information Service and at the front is the one-stop-shop for all council and other official services. For housing benefit, council tax, local enterprise schemes and job training – you go to the library. So while you wrangle over some tedious local government form or talk to someone about a possible job, your kids can look at the books. Or perhaps having come in for a council service, you might be tempted yourself to have a nose around the shelves. Suddenly the often elite world of literature and learning is truly accessible to all.  And for those of us used to books but not benefits offices, we get to see as a matter of course a different side of our community – not just the claimants but the Council workers offering the services for which we pay. 

I have bad news for the romantics: there’s no reverential hush in this library, only the gentle hum of people going about their business in a clean, airy and truly communal space. Now that’s a library worth saving.