This post was originally written for Post Grad Survival Guide.
People joke about the party we’ll have the night before this building gets bulldozered. I overhear the little comments my housemates make about it, the way people leave and it’s not because they want to be somewhere else, it’s because here isn’t here any more.
It’s changed, people say. If you ask what they mean, no one ever gives the same answer as the last person or even the last time you asked. People say it’s more expensive. Then they baulk at the cheapness of that answer because it doesn’t really cover anything. They say the raves have stopped. The little cafes have turned into chain stores. The artists are leaving. The council is becoming less and less permissive.
Mostly though, they leave it at that; It’s changed. Quite what it is happens to be another matter. Is it London, this borough, this slice of this borough, this building?
There is something comforting when the place you live stays the same as you change. When you can return to a hometown and see the same people drifting around, the same bars serving the same drinks, the same desolate parks and corners.
It’s disconcerting when places change as fast, or faster, than you do. When you return and there are no touchstones left for who you were. When your old life has been wiped away in the interim. That’s what happens in cities.
It seems a given, as you grow up in your teens and twenties, that you gain more freedom with each passing year. Except, it’s the opposite in these kinds of liminal city spaces. As each year goes by, they become more restrictive. The councils crack down on the street art, the squats, the parties, the griminess and messiness.
It’s like going home and finding your parents have burnt all your childhood pictures and thrown away the surviving teddy bears and peeled the old posters from your bedroom wall. And that they’re suddenly stricter than they ever were when you were a kid.
It’s an odd way to live. I rent a room with one metal wall, one bare brick, two wood. The floor is concrete and there is a literal manhole in my room. There’s no window. Waking up without daylight is hard. My rent is probably double whatever you would guess, but it’s not 50% of my paycheck and that’s a rarity in London.
I have 25 housemates. Some have lived here years, some — like me — are sort of passing through for however long. We’re here because it won’t be here forever.
People come and go. Sometimes I bump into someone who lives here who I haven’t met before. Sometimes I discover someone I thought lived here doesn’t actually.
The building is old and shabby, in a comforting way. It wasn’t built to be lived in. We don’t think twice about painting abstract designs on the walls or nailing things up or letting dogs wander around. The rooms all face onto a big, tent-like communal space. There’s no real privacy. As in Foucault's Panopticon, you expect someone to be watching at all times.
We won’t be here long. That is a given. We are surrounded by building sites on every side. The clatter of them starting up work in the early hours wakes me up most mornings.
I walk home past a forest of cranes and billboards advertising luxury apartments with concierge service. One has a beautifully ironic slogan: Homes Matter. But only the homes they’re building. Only the homes belonging to the people society says matter.
I wonder if the people who lay down, what, half a million, for an apartment think of the remaining patches of how it used to be. I wonder if they think they’re really part of this space. I wonder if they know what they and their money are trampling. I wonder if they gloat about how much cheaper and realer it is than the South Bank. I wonder if anyone even lives in those silent, gleaming tower blocks.
Although everyone assumes otherwise, it’s peaceful in this house. There are things I’m not happy about, some significant, but it works out. It feels like an actual community. I also wonder how much the sense of impermanence contributes to that.
Sooner or later, they’ll bulldoze this building and cram a block of flats onto the same land. Those of us who live here will probably drift further and further out from the city. We’ll probably end up leaving, hopping down to Bristol or Brighton or somewhere similar, or escaping England.
They’ll shut down the craggy little cafes and wipe the colourful graffiti from the walls. The lawyers and bankers and consultants will take our place. The building is leased for another three years. Then the party is over. Or so we assume. Maybe it will be sooner.
Again: it’s an odd way to live. It’s partly why I live here. This area is a relic. It’s one of the holdouts from the time when this city was open to all of us. I want to absorb it all before it’s gone.
We always have more options than we think. I’d never considered a place like this. And then I went on a date with someone who lived in a community of 10 and from my first glance at the building, I knew it was the kind of place I needed. I never saw her again, but a few weeks later I found a room in a similar building elsewhere in London.
It was rough at first. I spent my first night trying not to cry, regretting the whole decision and contemplating how soon I could give notice. Having spent months mostly alone, the onslaught of people wore me out. Now it’s home. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I don’t really belong here and that’s probably why I do belong here.
I’m always wary of those who complain about how much London has changed.
In part because a decent number of people who strike up that plaintive lament are complaining about imaginary immigrants and let’s not even go there.
In part because, duh. Cities change. Of course they do. It seems as ludicrous as moaning that your life has changed as you’ve gotten older. What else did you expect?
People have complained about London changing for centuries. And the same for everywhere, everything. Change is part of the deal we have to accept, the price for being alive. Things never stay the same. Living here, living with the constant reminders of impermanence and fragility could be oppressive.
But when I come home at night and stand looking at this paint splattered old building, framed by silent cranes, with a housemate’s car outside that’s older than me and she’s driven right around the world and plans to keep driving until it dies for good, when I walk in to the smell of a dozen dishes cooking at once, the smoky air in the living room reverberating with someone’s hip-hop, I love the reminder that life as it is now is never permanent. That these good times won’t last forever and neither will whatever bad ones happen to come after.