To King’s Cross on a sunny winter afternoon, to evaluate at first hand the new public space that has replaced the sorry mess of prefabricated mediocrity that blighted the front of the station from 1972. It achieved a certain notoriety on the night of the King’s Cross fire, when it became a visual metaphor for everything that was wrong with Britain’s dilapidated transport infrastructure as the Thatcher years reached their apogée.
When the new square was unveiled in the autumn of last year the London-based national press gushed with the sort of onanistic hyperbole only the truly parochial can do, lauding it as though the Piazza Navona had mated with the ice rink in front of the Rockefeller Center to produce the very acme of urbanism al fresco.
The truth is somewhat more prosaic. The square is handsome enough but it’s functional rather than decorative; more Ryanair Square than Place de la Concorde. There’s a distinct shortage of baroque fountains, hissing espresso machines and Audrey Hepburn lookalikes. And there’s little that can be done about the British climate.
The real surprise is how fine Lewis Cubitt’s austere station building looks now that it has been so splendidly refurbished. It is the pièce de résistance of the King’s Cross regeneration. The neighbourhood I called home from 1988 to 1991 is looking better than it ever did, and the new development is, for the most part, progressing with tact and sensitivity towards the area’s existing landmarks.
If I have a reservation about it, it’s that regeneration in London so often goes hand in hand with gentrification, which suggests British planners have yet to find a way of successfully reinvigorating existing communities rather than supplanting them with newer, wealthier ones. I can’t help but think that amid the welter of advertising agencies and tapas bars the existing working class King’s Cross is being quietly edged aside. Perhaps it doesn’t pay to be too sentimental about the old King’s Cross: this was an insalubrious part of the capital where the traditional street trader’s cry wasn’t ‘who will buy?’ but ‘fiver with a rubber, dear?’
And yet I wonder where all this is heading. One day, when everywhere in inner London has been regenerated, gentrified or otherwise re-imagined for the affluent, where will the ordinary people live? Will they be told – as inner London residents are already being told by the crasser sort of backbencher – that they must leave their homes because improvement has made them suddenly desirable?
We live in an age in which politicians seem to wish the poor would simply go away. Too often, regeneration seems like the physical manifestation of that uncharitable impulse. And no amount of tasteful new paving can disguise it entirely.