Expat Chronicles: Working Class London

One of the many and varied charms of London is the fact that you can still find gritty, grimy, semi-industrial neighborhoods scattered here and there even as the city itself becomes more gentrified and expensive. I often pass by and through these places on my weekday bike rides, and it’s always kind of a thrill.

Mostly I’ll see weathered old buildings that house machine shops, auto repair businesses, industrial warehouses or light manufacturers. Outside you might see metal scraps lying among the weeds, dirt, rusty trash cans and steel drums. The front doors are always open and some kind of grinding, clacking noise always emanates from inside. Metal signs are simple and to the point: Repairs. Machine Work. Industrial Parts.

These buildings are usually tucked into small, working-class pockets of the city populated with cheap takeout food joints, small grocery stores, barber shops, pubs, hardware stores and more pubs. Many of the apartment buildings are generic “flats” that resemble five- or six-story motels, the kind where you enter your apartment from a long balcony and each balcony might hold seven or eight units. I’m not sure when they were built. They’re not old enough to be considered historic, at least by local standards. But they’re not new, either. I’m guessing many date to the 1950s or 60s.

It’s comforting to find that these types of neighborhoods still remain even as cranes line the sky and shiny new buildings sprout up like billion-dollar wildflowers. Any city worth its salt should have a mix of old and new, pretty and plain, business suit and lunch pail, vibrant and seedy. Sadly, that’s becoming harder and harder to find.

You could fill a galaxy with all the reports of cities transforming themselves into playgrounds for the rich and near-rich. That’s what it’s like in Manhattan and San Francisco now, to name a couple of the more glaring examples. Working class and middle-income families have been forced out to the far boroughs or suburbs because they can no longer afford to live in the middle of town.

London seems different, though – or at least that’s what it looks like from the perspective of someone who’s only been here a couple of years, and whose view on life in a huge metropolis has mainly been shaped by a few years in New York City and a couple of years in Los Angeles.

London is often compared to New York because they’re both huge, densely populated financial and cultural centers that serve as kind of unofficial capitals of their respective continents. They do have a lot in common in terms of size, ethnic diversity, culture, transit, food, etc. But there are also important differences.

The main difference I see is that middle and low-income earners can still afford to live in London, and that’s just not the case in New York anymore except for certain parts of Queens and the Bronx (sorry Staten Island, but you belong mostly to New Jersey).

I’m sure people living in London will disagree with me about this. I keep hearing how expensive it is here, and it is expensive compared with most of the country and the world. But you can still find affordable places to live. Right here in our own Southeast London neighborhood you’ll find gleaming, Thames-front townhomes that probably cost a few million pounds located just a block or so from modest council flats that go for less than 150,000.

I did a quick check on one of the real estate sites in our area. Home prices ranged from 4 million pounds to 108,000 pounds. The most expensive place listed was located within easy walking distance of the least expensive one. That’s just not the kind of thing you see in a lot of large, international cities.

As weird as it seems, London in some ways reminds me more of Los Angeles than New York. Like L.A., there aren’t a ton of skyscrapers in London, at least compared to New York or Chicago. Geographically, London is massive, just like L.A. It seems to stretch forever and ever and ever and ever. Oddly, you see a lot of palm trees here (maybe because England is an island? I don’t know).  There are a lot of green spaces in London. There are a lot of residential areas within the city limits, filled with low-rise apartment buildings. You still see parking lots here, and shopping centers, and malls, and athletic fields.

Like L.A., London is often misunderstood in terms of its people and its vibe. Ask someone who’s never been here and they might think London is filled with overeducated snobs who go to high tea every day and bandy about the polo grounds when they’re not dashing off to the south of France. Similarly, many outsiders look at L.A. as a place where rich, wine-sipping movie stars hobnob along sunny Rodeo Drive before hopping in their $200,000 sports cars and racing off to their beachfront mansions.

In truth, London has a large working class population that favors ale, fish & chips, curry, jerk chicken and meat pies. Just like L.A. has a large working class population that favors beer, tacos, chili burgers, fried rice and waffles.

I used to ride my bike on L.A.’s sunny westside in search of gritty neighborhoods, and I would often find them in Venice (away from the beach) and parts east. I don’t know why that seemed so important to me. Maybe because Los Angeles is such a stunningly beautiful place that I just wanted to see something that wasn’t so stunningly beautiful every now and then.

Same with London. It’s a beautiful city. But sometimes the most beautiful sight is a piece of sheet metal leaning against a battered brick wall with a little trash lining the sidewalk for good measure. I might not want to spend most of my time there. But I’m glad it’s there all the same.

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