The friendly middle-aged woman in the laundromat is polite, if slightly bemused. "Aye, a few of the young ones were telling me that, but I don't know. You're better off talking to folk in the pubs. I don't live around here any way." It's a damp, slow Saturday afternoon in Finnieston, the narrow westerly strip of Glasgow recently topped a list in The Times of the "hippest place in Britain.' The laundromat might seem an odd starting point, but even here there are Sub Club flyers tacked to the artfully exposed concrete. In Finnieston, even a service wash can be cool.
It doesn't matter how hip your area is though, drizzle is a great leveler: it's pissing down with grim persistence. From the second I step blinking off the Megabus at 6:30 AM, through the first of the morning pints and all the way until darkness descends on Argyll Street, the rain falls in consistent, lukewarm sheets.
But let that be the first and last time I'll refer to the great Glasgow cliché handbook for the remainder of this piece. Yes, it rains a lot. Yes, you can buy batter-dipped pizzas as easily a loaf of bread. Yes, people earnestly refer to 'gear,' and Buckfast squats with semi-mythic omnipresence in the city's collective psyche. Glasgow, with its vivid recent history of dramatic urban decay, deeply scarred by de-industrialization, cataclysmically bad town planning, and the predictable, yet precipitate, drop in population occupies, for the average twatty southerner, the same mental space as a Ken Loach film: you're glad it exists, but it's supposed to be bleak. (I spent one of the happiest years of my life living in Dennistoun, an area in the city's east end. Finnieston never really featured on my radar when I lived here. I drank in the south, socialized and worked on Sauchiehall Street in the center of town, and ate almost exclusively at the Blue Lagoon chain fish and chips dotted around the city.)
In Glasgow's press, as well as in the Scottish psyche, the city is a place "on the up," raking in cash from hopelessly naive, hopelessly keen, English and international students at the world class universities, and its iconic—if slightly charred—art school. It's the most important center for contemporary art in the UK outside of London: there's the GFT (Glasgow Film Theatre), The CCA (Centre for Contemporary Arts), and BBC Scotland. With improving prospects, has come an array of trendy bars, restaurants, and cafés, from the Finnieston ground-zero, to the Glad Café in the southside area of Shawlands, and the radical zone of redevelopment down by the Barras in the east. It's comfortably the largest, youngest, and most ethnically diverse city in Scotland. As a mark of its apparently meteoric upswing, the city's population is expected to inch back to the 600,000 mark by 2018, reversing decades of population decline.
Considering all the deserved hue and cry about gentrification in London, Glasgow is also struggling with what its new identity and what it will mean for its old inhabitants. The scale of gentrification isn't so aggressive, so widescreen, so Ballardian in its excess and horror as it is down south. But the same problems squat in the background.
In a city with the newly coined motto "People Make Glasgow," what's going to happen to the people not fortunate enough to be reside in the orbit of these trendy hubs, or be able to find their salvation through avant-garde culture, or expensive restaurants? What is their place in the booming, slightly more sure of itself Glasgow?
The virus of the twee blackboard message has, unfortunately, managed to ooze its way over Hadrian's wall.
One guy I spoke to, himself heavily involved in the local artistic community, recalled going down to the Barras, another up-and-coming district on the east side of Glasgow, and feeling the change in atmosphere.
"It's almost as if there's a push to make it a dead trendy area. I was down there again by St. Lukes [an arts venue that recently opened in the area] and they've got a graphic designer's rendition of a trendy St. Luke [the actual saint] on the front. He looks like fucking Xzibit. Unreal."
The Scottish coverage of the Times' Finnieston announcement has, perhaps inevitably, invoked the big S-word: Shoreditch. An article in the Glasgow Herald picked up on the notion of the "Shoreditch Effect," or the process by which areas ossify from an initial "cool" to "saturated," to an eventual point of gentrified stasis. The article asks whether this is happening in Finnieston too, seemingly hopeful that the answer was yes.
But you only need to spend five minutes here to discern that Finnieston is a fucking galaxy away from the glazed unreality of Shoreditch. Firstly, it isn't what you'd call conveniently situated. Though Argyll Street is a connecting passage between the city center and the old-money West End of Kelvingrove Park and the snobbish, clenched-asscheek atmosphere of Byers Road—it occupies an odd geographical space in one of the oddest, most truncated cities in the country. The hum and rasp of the ubiquitous M8 ("we're the only fucking city in the world that wrapped a motorway right through the fucking middle of it," one local tells me) is never too far from your ears.
Also, no one seems to have any idea where it begins or ends. Roughly speaking, it traces from Anderston Police station, an imposing brutalist structure more reminiscent of The Warriors than Shoreditch House. Ambling westwards down Argyll Street bounded by Kelvingrove Park on one side and the River Clyde on the other, it stops as you start to bleed into the Kelvinhall. The tenements at this end of town aren't palatial, one-bedroom mansions, just normal, solid sandstone habitations. You can still snag an apartment that isn't going to suck up 95 percent of your wages. Ordinary folk who aren't web designers for footwear brands still live and drink here. It doesn't feel like a "creative" colony. There's plenty of pubs that aren't suitable for screaming kids and don't serve pulled pork in a detached sink.
So what makes it suitable to be "the hippest in the UK?" It's a term so watery, so meaningless, that's it's tough to say. Yes, there is a preponderance of nice, expensive-looking bars and eateries. You can't swing a bag of puppies on the main drag without hitting a new sushi place, or a sleek minimal-decor cafe. But they sit next to the boozers, tanning parlors, and Greggs, and most people I spoke to are generally quite happy that they're here. If there's a Class War group waiting in the alley next to the Ben Nevis with a tin of red paint and some homemade Molotovs, then they're hiding pretty well.
The virus of the twee blackboard message has, unfortunately, managed to ooze its way over Hadrian's wall.
Piece (above) is one of the sandwich shops namechecked directly in the Times piece as being one of the destinations at the forefront Finnieston's rise, having opened in 2008, an eternity ago, when the area was a distinctly more sparse place populated exclusively by woefully understocked corner shops, a few severe geezer boozers, and damp BBC middle-management hurrying through on their way home to Hyndland.
My lunch budget doesn't extend to the swankier destinations namechecked in the piece (The Ox & Finch, Crabshack, and The Gannet are the names that cropped up both in the piece and through conversations I'd had with people in the area). So I picked up a pastrami special and had a chat with the blokes behind the counter.
The prevailing reaction from most people I talked to was the same. Vague incredulity and benign indifference. "Yeah, it's decent and I like living here, but it doesn't really mean an awful lot, does it?" said one customer. There was no studious affectation or pretension here. The only dissent I caught was a cabbie complaining about the traffic after Adele's dates at the Hydro the previous week ("Shite mate. Absolutely shite mate"). But there wasn't any self-consciousness of belonging to a "cool" hub, or any of the wankery that entails. It was a beast of a sandwich, too.
But a man can't live on a clutch of pricey pubs and a decent sandwich shop alone. It's fine to mince about, stuffing my face and staring moodily into shop windows, but I needed to get a handle on what was going on here aside from consumption. So I headed down to SWG3, an arts center/venue/studios/generally sound space to chat to Billy Mackay and Mark Gorrie, who run their Glasgow based streetwear label The Worst from a ridiculously spacious studio in the Jim Lambie owned complex.
Traveling down the long, unprepossessing half-mile road to the venue, it again becomes apparent how porous the distinction between areas and neighborhoods in the city really are. "Are we still in Finnieston?," I ask local photographer Connor. He just shrugs his shoulders and carries plodding through the rain. We arrived to a billboard proclaiming that "Success Can Be Overcome" running alongside the railway arches that snake up the approach to the complex.
The label's founders both moved here from other areas of Glasgow (Billy being from Penilee and Mark from Paisley) but moved into the studio a few years prior. They're quick to outline the sense of community in the building, noting that they'll frequently share skills and collaborate with others in different studios. I ask whether they see the area as a particularly significant creative hub.
Mark compares it to a recent trip to Williamsburg: "It kind of reminded me of Finnieston and the west end of Glasgow, though obviously on a much larger scale."
Billy concurs. "There's a lot of cool shit going on here, but you do notice a lot of the places are going for that whole 'authentic' look, with stripped back walls and all that obvious stuff."
They say that people have started talking about "west-endy cunts" meaning Finnieston totebag warriors, perpetually clad in beanies.
"I like the whole 'west-endy' term. I catch myself calling people 'heavy west-end,' but then I have to check myself and think 'wait a minute, am I west-end?'" says Mark. "It's ok, I don't worry about it too much because I'm from Paisley. I've maybe got a slightly different take on it, but I still hang about like a wee arty-farty bastard," says Mark.
"I hear people commenting that the 'west end' is spreading out," Mark continues. "I've noticed that you'll get a cafe that's pure no-frills, like bog standard scarn, bog standard tattie scone rolls and all that, then right next to it you'll have an artisanal bakery or whatever."
"It's funny, I'll be walking round with my mate and he'll be saying 'aye, you wouldn't have this here 20 years ago. You wouldn't be allowed to walk through here wearing that shit.' It's obviously said as a joke because he's a total 'west-ender' himself."
As night falls, we hear from locals of the surest harbinger of the gentrified apocalypse: a new craft beer shop. I parted with a tenner and filled up a jug of their own brew. It's odd how the stuff that makes you jaded in London can fill you with a bit of optimism and earnest good-will in a different setting. It felt like something that was good for the community, rather than something for yuppie outsiders.
After drinking my ale on the street, my big day out in the trendiest district in Britain was coming to an end. True gentrification—a Carluccio's on every corner, cocktail bars replacing public services—may be coming to Glasgow, but it feels a long way off, and Finnieston isn't the Shoreditch-on-Clydeside that the Times article might suggest. A few pricey restaurants and art spaces don't feel like they're impinging on anyone else's lifestyle. Life goes on with or around them. Most of the local opinion I gathered expressed either qualified approval or just plain indifference. I didn't get the flavors of animosity that you can encounter in Brixton or Peckham, for example.
As night fell and the cocktail bars began to fill up, you couldn't help but notice they were predominantly filled with glossy professionals in their early 30s. It looked—and I say this without animosity—like a very broadsheet-supplement idea of what the "hippest area" would look like. Just as you catch a sense that the real battles might be going on elsewhere, you get an equal sense that the really intriguing, dynamic grassroots action is going on somewhere else. Sure, you can get a slap-up meal, but the clubbing, art, and music is elsewhere, at least for now.
That being said—would I live here? Yeah, I would because it seems like you could live a decent life, not feeling like you're going to rupture your aorta every time the rent's due. Although when out-of-towners like me can imagine upping sticks and coming here, that usually where the trouble starts.