The march of progress

It’s spring. I can tell because the heating has been turned off where I teach, and I am being greeted by the seasonal but vaguely absurd sight of café tables and chairs fighting for pavement space along polluted thoroughfares.

It’s spring. I can tell because the heating has been turned off where I teach, and I am being greeted by the seasonal but vaguely absurd sight of café tables and chairs fighting for pavement space along polluted thoroughfares. The alfresco lunch season is back, along with the pleasure of being hurled into someone’s rocket salad by a motorcycle courier mounting the kerb. I’m not keen on ingesting carbon monoxide fumes, but the pavement is the place to be during the warmer months in the city.

We may lack the finesse of the Italians and the French when it comes to turning city streets and squares into outdoor dining rooms, but what we lack in privacy is recompensed by way of a vibrant, constantly mutating street cabaret. Despite the short-comings of the weather, the traffic and our phlegmatic councils – Westminster continues to dither over the pedestrianisation of Soho – the streets in cities around the country are surviving, simply because there are people out there walking around them.

By way of a reminder of just how unique this situation is, take a trip to New York. Whatever the fantasy of “the city that never sleeps”, the reality is a place of barren streets and in-your-face contrasts, of cultural and economic ghettos. In New York, you can precisely target your audience in terms of race and wealth by the neighbourhood, as Marlene McCarty, a graphic designer who has produced some of the most effective AIDS and women’s health awareness posters ever to grace a hoarding, reiterates.

That New York has areas which are virtual no-go zones is far from a myth. So dire was the situation in the early Nineties on 42nd Street, the State of New York decided to do something about it, adopting pretty drastic measures.

Take 42nd Street. It was bad, meaning bad. Porn, flesh, junk-food and drugs were the principal commodities for sale, and only dedicated consumers would venture along the blocks between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Winning a pitch (in collaboration with architect Robert Stern) to provide a masterplan for the area, graphic designer Tibor Kalman recognised the “global brand equity” of the place, and that people around the world had a particular affection for what had been a legendary theatrical strip. “We had to cure the street’s sickness and create a contemporary version of ’42nd Street’. It had to be democratic, urban, exciting and diverse – financially, racially and in every other way.”

The state proceeded by slapping compulsory purchase orders on all the buildings and clearing out the low-life. Then, due to the recession, developers with plans to build vast towers on the site stalled, but clauses in their contracts demanded action and the state suggested a patch-up. The developers paid for the compromise and the state employed Kalman and co to formulate a set of atmosphere-inducing standards, stipulating minimum requirements for advertising signs and neon and flashing lights. When Disney moved in and bought one of the grand old theatres, the gloves were off and what had been one of the most desperate streets in Manhattan was now “safe, clean and a tourist spot”, and once again a commercial hot property.

Whatever you think about the Disneyfication of such a legendary location, especially one which had more to do with chorus girls than cartoon characters, the fact that rent is being collected and the lights are on is a plus.

Now Kalman has been given the task of enticing people down to Wall Street after office hours, and to set up home there. That may be more of a task, but who would have believed that city types would pay a quarter of a million to live in a Clerkenwell factory or to have a river view slightly obscured by a power station, Tate or no Tate? While private developers are scouring cities for “undiscovered gems” our councils are allowing the special places either to choke with traffic or bland out under the marching homogenisation of McDonald’s, KFC and countless other franchised mega-brands.

Forget Covent Garden, which has been a victim of its own success. The “working” areas of London – Soho, Oxford Street, Fitzrovia, Kings Cross – need protecting. This time, though, couldn’t we identify what it is that makes them special and then savour the essence of our streets without the aid of aspic?

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