How London lost its mojo to Manhattan
I love an Americanism. Only boring people don’t. Next time you’re talking to someone over 45, casually drop in a “trash can” or a “sidewalk” and see what happens. It adds pep to a conversation. London’s property developers seem to agree. Except, not content with alarming my centrist dad, they’re full-on rebranding swaths of the capital. Here’s a quiz: where do you think The Tribeca is? New York, right? Lower Manhattan. Wrong. It’s in East Dulwich, SE22. Stroll down Crystal Palace Road and you’ll see the 22 flats taking shape behind 8ft hoardings with “The Tribeca” etched in an Art Deco script redolent of The Great Gatsby. God knows what Daisy Buchanan would make of Peckham Rye. What about Central Park? That’s in Lewisham. Manhattan Plaza? Poplar. Manhattan Loft Gardens? Stratford.
Others are more insidious. Long and Waterson describes itself as a collection of 119 lofts, apartments and penthouses. It’s in Shoreditch on the corner of Long and Waterson streets (much like how an American might give an address as “45th and Madison”). Meanwhile, The Madison is a 53-storey tower on the Isle of Dogs: residents can join the “Highline” club. I call them NY-Lon homes — part New York, part London, and totally synthetic. The reason developers go for them, of course, is that — much like the rebranding of Britain after Brexit — they think it makes London sound international and cosmopolitan. It doesn’t. It makes it sound insecure. I call them NY-Lon homes — part New York, part London, totally synthetic A 10-minute stroll from the FT office is a fashionable cluster of bars and restaurants under railway arches in Southwark. It’s called Flat Iron Square which, I’m told, takes its name from a nearby 19th-century junction and not the Flatiron building in New York. Still, according to the website, it forms the first stop in a line of eatery-clusters that runs along the South Bank along a railway viaduct. They’re calling it the Low Line. (Cringe.)
Estate agents are taking up this guff and running with it. A particular favourite is the ongoing rebranding of Holborn, Bloomsbury and St Giles as “Midtown”. Ten years ago, when the Candy brothers were involved in buying the Middlesex hospital site in nearby Fitzrovia and rechristening it “Noho Square” — north of Soho — locals reacted with understandable violence. They sent Welsh comedian Griff Rhys Jones on TV to complain. It worked. The brothers bailed out, the plans were scrapped, and the 291 apartments at Fitzroy Place started selling in 2014 — for £1,700 per sq foot. And there’s the rub. Because, while you may question whether getting upset about naming London homes after parts of New York is that big a deal, it points to a bigger problem.
Namely: these homes aren’t for the people who live in these places. No kid from Camberwell or Peckham or Brockley is going to mistake Goose Green for Washington Square Park. Neither are they going to fail to notice the flats in The Tribeca cost about 20 per cent more than what Zoopla says is the going rate for their postcode. The Nylon names are there to appeal to the institutional investors and overseas buyers who might be convinced London is still a global city if bits of it are named after bits of another global city. And the evidence is that — after helping housing unaffordability to rocket to unprecedented levels — a lot of them are refusing to bite. Half the high-end flats launched in London failed to sell last year, according to Molior; and, according to the British Property Federation, the number of homes purpose-built to be rented out has grown more than 139 per cent in the past three years. The fact is, since about Q3 2014, London’s prime market has been in marked decline.
Changes to stamp duty, low oil prices and more stringent anti-money laundering rules for those applying for the UK’s golden visa programme took the gloss off London as a place for the super rich. But it didn’t lose London its cool. It might surrender that to Brexit, of course — it’s perhaps too early to tell — but what really puts London’s cool under threat is when cool people can’t afford to live there. The overwhelming majority of these Nylon homes are not affordable. And, if they’re bought by investors — who, let’s face it, are the ultimate buzzkillers — they’re unlikely to be rented out for affordable rates either. The thing is, once you kill a city’s vibe, it’s difficult to get it back. And London was a cool place once. It was so cool that it used to be the Americans who co-opted our names: Greenwich Village, SoHo, Chelsea. Geez Louise, the city is called New YORK.