When I moved to London 20 years ago, I had trouble finding somewhere to live. I am a bourgeois bohemian New Yorker – a bobo, as we are called – and bobos want space. Estate agents showed me bijou flats in terraced houses whose cramped rooms stifled me. In despair, one estate agent-shark mentioned a loft in Saffron Hill, off Clerkenwell Road, one huge room that once housed a printing press, and I perked up. Being a literary sort of bobo, I knew that this street was the fictional home, in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, of Fagin and his gang of juvenile criminals. The pedigree was attractive.
Once I had settled in, Oliver Twist led me to Clerkenwell Green; here, Fagin’s band had plied their trade as pickpockets. It would have been a suitable site, for in 1837, when the first instalment of Oliver Twist appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany, this was a notorious patch of public space. Shady deals occurred under leafy lime trees; illicit goods were stored in surrounding houses, one of which was also home to a gay brothel. In the 18th century, the grand Middlesex Sessions House, fronting the west side of the green, was built (1782) to dispense justice for the county of Middlesex; in short order, the Sessions House had to deal with life outside its front door. Originally, most of the green was owned by the Elizabethan courtier Thomas Seckford. In a move to rescue the place from the likes of Fagin, the inheritors of Seckford’s estate began in the late 1820s to lay out streets to the northeast of the green and build houses fit for proper Victorians. (Present day Sekforde and Woodbridge streets.)
A goodish church on the hilly rise above the green, St James’s, built in 1792, succumbed to the dealing denizens of the green in the first part of the 19th century during inclement weather (but this was not the whole story: shouldn’t a boy prostitute have a place to worship?), then was upgraded by rebuilding in 1881 and 1899. Beside it, the reformers made an iron-fenced garden, now mostly laid to lawn. (My seven-year-old grandson, an expert on romps in small urban parks, rates this one A*.)
If all the elements for “improvement” were there, it has taken a long time. Unlike Baron Haussmann’s sudden blows of the planner’s fist in remaking Paris in the 1850s, the regeneration of this bit of London unfolded slowly over 150 years. In the 19th century, homegrown criminals were succeeded by respectable Irish servants, who were succeeded by Italian labourers; in the 20th, nearby Jewish diamond dealers and printers and other craftsmen supporting Fleet Street swelled the queue socialising here, capped eventually by the Guardian’s offices a block away, with its legions of thirsty journalists in need of pubs.
This is one reason why Clerkenwell Green is bobo heaven. It is diverse. Usually gentrification erases the life that existed before, replacing an authentic fish and chip shop with an “authentic” fish and chip shop. Not here. When the green turned the gentrifying corner in the early 1990s – that is, when graphic designers and advertising agencies moved in, needing trendy restaurants rather than pubs – the green kept its integrity. Each wave of transformation has marked the urban fabric, particularly the street-level frontages of old buildings, leaving unlikely juxtapositions.
What is the Karl Marx Memorial Library doing here, or rather, why is it housed in the grandest house on the green (no 37a, on the north side)? Built as the Welsh Charity School in 1738, and restored to its original glory in 1968, here was the seat of London’s first socialist press, supported by William Morris, as the city began to develop a political working class. Lenin worked here in 1902–03, and in 1935 – you couldn’t make it up – the red aristocrat Viscount Hastings painted a mural in the reading room called “Workers of the Future Clearing Away the Chaos of Capitalism”. A must-see.
Which few do: there are few tourists at Clerkenwell Green – another reason bobos consider it heaven. If the place is diverse, it is quietly so. Urbanists are quite self-conscious about mixed uses, mixed architecture, and mixtures of people, but when it works, diversity doesn’t make people uneasy or self-important (Isn’t it great! Everyone mixing! Aren’t we progressive!). At the Crown Tavern, on a Friday afternoon, a crowd gathers outside, rain or shine. Multi-cultural, multi-class, multi-lifestyle, multi-etc but no one seems focused on this fact. They are chatting and drinking beer.
‘Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation’ by Richard Sennett is published by Penguin. For more in our series on London & The World visit www.ft.com/reports/london-world-2013.
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