Having lived in Fitzrovia for the past fifteen years, twelve of them on Charlotte Street, the past few years have felt at times as though the ten minutes to Leicester Square is getting shorter each day — and not in a good way.
This is an area which is in a period of rapid change, under the same commercial pressures seen throughout central London and beyond. The urban landscape is being homogenised and hammered into uniformity, in a quest for ever greater financial returns for landowners, developers and investors. On the local streets, this translates into some pretty grim and alarming symptoms.
Each time a small, independent or family-run business, bringing character and an urban-village feel to the area, is forced to close through spiralling rents and other costs, it is replaced by a chain.
Within seconds of my door, in just a year or two, we have seen the arrival of Wahaca (twenty branches), Obica (Dubai, Italy, Japan, USA), Herman Ze German (themed restaurant chain), Bibimbap (chain targetting coach parties of tourists), Draft House (eight branches) and others.
Curry Leaf restaurant, a distinctive, friendly, neighbourhood favourite, was sadly unable to keep up with local costs and was replaced by the painfully trendy and pretentious outpost of a high-end, self-important goldmine of a restaurant nearby.
Profitability is the god before which local colour and community must bow. In the wake of all these new arrivals come the hordes of cash-clutching, thrill-seeking consumers they love. It is like the Pied Piper waving a bottle of champagne in one hand and a hot dog in the other (yes, there even is another new arrival specialising in pairing those two beacons of civilisation!)
The end result of all this is that the feel of these streets is fast becoming indistinguishable from that on Leicester Square or Newcastle’s Bigg Market (human cattle market). It may be that such places have their place in modern society — perhaps — but it is not acceptable that the distinctive character which districts like this spent centuries acquiring, should be swept aside.
On Friday nights now — and Thursdays, and even Wednesdays — local residents are having genuinely to batten the hatches and bolt their windows against the screams, bottle-smashing, chanting, groans, scuffles and vomit which spill on to these roads once the cash registers of those money-grabbing chains have been filled for the night and they are ready to pour their human fuel back on to the street.
The only compensation they can offer local residents is that, if that were our chosen destination, we could save on the airfare for a weekly visit to Magaluf.