Does Anyone Care That Camden Is Dying?
The grotty alternative capital of London is being Shoreditchified, but it's not like anything good has happened there for decades.
(Photos by the author)
In The Hawley Arms candles are already flickering at lunchtime, throwing shadows over the signed memorabilia, set lists and LP sleeves up on the walls.
This pub is Camden's most iconic, which is largely thanks to the people who were buying its beer a decade ago: Noel Fielding; Johnny Borrell; hundreds of anonymous indie men who will have since buried their winklepickers deep underground. And, of course, Amy Winehouse. Today, a silhouette of the singer stands in a top floor window to welcome fans from around the world, there to live out the full Amy experience.
I take a pint into the cramped walled garden and the bleep of a reversing lorry cuts through the chatter. I look up and an orange crane swings over my head like I'm about to be plucked as an amusement prize. The claw settles over a plot of land next to the pub, a football pitch-sized patch of nothing.
This building site is one chunk of the local area that's been razed to make way for the new Camden, a place where you're more likely to find polished marble floors than plaited leather bracelets and gas mask bongs. For decades Camden Lock has been a place synonymous with subculture – it's the closest thing cyber goths have to a Westfield – but it's slowly being painted beige. Building has already started on 170 new luxury homes – only 14 of which will classify as affordable housing.
The story's nothing new: developers find an area rich with cultural capital and buy up a load of space that strangely always contains a fixture of the local creative scene (in this case the Camden Lock Village Market). They then build very expensive flats on that space, which in turn raises the value of surrounding property, pricing out small businesses and long-term residents. Another pocket of London not purpose-built for millionaires gone forever, confined to old Facebook photos where you have weird hair and only one chin.
What's odd in this case is how smoothly it's gone. When gentrification's threatened other London institutions, grassroots groups have retaliated. Take Dalston's Passing Clouds: campaigners occupied the building and organised a march of hundreds of people before developers finally took control of the site. Or iconic gay pub the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, where London night czar Amy Lame directed a successful campaign to get the building listed status. Here, an e-petition to stop the redevelopment of Camden Lock Village got a matter-of-fact response from the mayor's office and that was that.
Isn't Camden supposed to be an emblem of counterculture? A north London Christiania, only the street dealers' weed isn't actually weed; it's balled-up loo roll wrapped in more loo roll. A place of faintly anarchic-looking crusties and people who live on boats – surely among that lot there'd be types who'd get bang into collective action and set up dedicated workbenches for placard-making? People who'd rally against the man to keep Camden cranky?
Exactly when and where punk began is a contentious topic, but many of the people who like to argue about that stuff would say it started in earnest in July of 1976 at the Camden Roundhouse. Which, believe it or not, was once a nucleus of London counterculture. The Ramones played there one evening, and then the following night at Dingwalls, just down the road. Supposedly Chrissie Hynde and members of The Clash, the Sex Pistols and The Damned were in the audience that second night, getting inspired. The Clash shot the iconic cover of their debut album in an alleyway by their recording studio Rehearsals Rehearsals, now part of Camden Market. The Specials also rehearsed and lived there.
"London punk was very territorial," says Jon Savage, a music journalist who covered the punk scene. "Sex Pistols were Soho, Clash were Camden Town. I started going to Camden a lot in the punk period – 1976, '77, '78, initially. To me, Camden's ideological and spiritual heart as an alternative place was always Compendium Books. It was over two floors – a proper counter-cultural warehouse. You still had the street market between Dingwalls and the canal, and there you could get a quick deal. I found a copy of David Bowie's The Man Who Sold the World, with the dress cover, for a quid there. I was very excited about that."
The appeal was both cerebral and down to a very specific vibe: the place felt almost un-policed. "There were a lot other like-minded people there. It was always a bit druggy, and it seemed like a fairly free zone," says Savage. "That was the important part of it at the time, I think."
Punk was just the beginning. Camden Palace was one of the first London venues to start playing house music in the late-1980s, and by the mid-90s the press viewed Camden as the centre of Brit Pop. In fact, it was after a 1989 gig at the Camden Falcon that the band that would become Blur were signed, and The Good Mixer was where the Oasis and Blur rivalry is said to have started. In the 2000s, Amy Winehouse, The Libertines and others claimed Camden's pubs and bars as their playground, and the area became a semi-mythologised mecca of drink, drugs and indie music to every NME reader in the country.
Camden was an important place for music that was distinctly British – something celebrated by all the artists who wrote lyrics about the area. In "Shadow and Fear", for example, Madness stroll through Camden town one evening. In "Sorted for Es and Whizz" Pulp buy tickets from a "mashed up bloke" in Camden. In "Fame and Fortune" the Libertines sing: "Like tin soldiers responding to the call / To Camden we will crawl."
When Amy Winehouse died in 2011, you could argue this celebrated side of Camden went too. But for any young person outside the capital or the country, it was still an exciting prospect. Camden became more of a tourist destination than ever: people wanted Amy tours and to steal street signs from near her home, to take photos on the stairs from The Clash's debut album cover. Camden is still cool to outsiders. Cooler still to foreign investors.
Over the last few months Camden Market has changed dramatically. Teddy Sagi, an Israeli billionaire and majority shareholder of Market Tech Holdings, now owns a large amount of the area, with reports stating he wants to redevelop Camden into the "Borough Market of North London", i.e. neat and nice and not full of velvet-textured day-glo elephant posters. Half of the market has already been lost to development. The aesthetics have been sanitised: signs all black and white, logos and typography changed to look like those of cocktail bars where men in jeans-and-sheux prop up the bar ordering £17 drinks.
Kerb, a street food market operator, now manage the famous food stall area. As such, it looks like any other street food operation in London – the Dineramas and Model Markets – although, kindly, Kerb Camden don't charge you to enter to then queue and pay for food. Some older sellers have been forced out, while roughly half have stayed and are paying increased fees, or have been moved to a different part of Camden. On the positive side, the space is much clearer and there's less of the pushing and shoving. One of the new sellers told me, "Of course, I do feel bad knowing I've taken the space from someone else, but I do believe the food is better."
In fairness, they're not wrong. Some of the old food was pretty dubious. But a lot of it was decent, and a source of income for family-run local businesses. The threat of Camden's gentrification has hit the sellers of clothes and other goods, too. One pair who've had a stall in the market for over a decade told me they were in fear of losing their livelihood. They claimed their rent was going up every year or two and said the general feeling among sellers in the area was "very worried, with everyone unsettled".
Walking through Camden Lock Market you'll find a Voodoo Ray's, numerous stalls selling burgers and fries, and that great guidepost of gentrification, a Cereal Killer cafe. There's a restaurant area seemingly based on the pages of a Shoreditch property developer's mood board, called "Ghetto Grillz". With a Z. There's a large overpriced Borough Market-esque bakery-slash-coffee shop that you could have never imagined being there before. Many new shops and stalls have followed suit.
These changes have upset a cross-section of locals. Ian Shacklock, chair of Friends of Regent's Canal, said people who use the famous canals are concerned about what's to come. At Dead Dog's Basin, a stretch of the canal will be taken up by a large overhanging restaurant window so diners can get the feel of dining on water. "I'm annoyed about the restaurant, not so much because of its look or feel, but because it's stealing water," he told me over the phone. "We were campaigning to try and revive that dock to be used for movement of boats and goods and recycling and, you know, it could have been a supply chain to the markets, bringing the canal back to use. But we lost that battle."
Shacklock feels the same way as most people who know and use the area regularly. "I'm convinced Camden is only going to become more sterile and expensive," he said. "It's going to be expensive for stallholders. It will lose its uniqueness." The problem, of course, is that it basically already has. And a potential issue here is: what tourist will want to go to a Camden that's exactly the same as anywhere else?
Because outside of tourists and members of the local community, it doesn't seem like the capital at large particularly cares what happens to Camden. Londoners have spent the last five to ten years laughing at it, and understandably so: it's filled with tourists, to the point where it's often difficult to move; the high street is swinging with mass-produced faux punk studded belts and fishnet knee-lengths; and you can't even really buy bongs any more thanks to Camden Police trying to block the sale of smoking paraphernalia there last year. No one with mass cult appeal has declared their love for the area in years.
"To me, Camden hasn't been a place I've found vibrant or interesting for two decades, maybe three," said Savage. When I rang up Professor of Modern History and subculture expert Professor Matthew Worley, he agreed. "Camden has been more tourist attraction than youth cultural central for a long time," he said. "The form of gentrification [now] was preceded by a slower and longer process of commodification that goes back to at least the early 1990s, if not before."
What I remember being exciting about Camden as a 13-year-old who lived far away from London – the piercing studios, the knock-off band T-shirts, eating a weed lollipop and thinking it would get you high – was actually what an older generation sees as the area's ruin.
Caitlin Davies, who wrote Camden Lock and the Market – a book about the lives of the stall owners – said over email that while losing the market may be a concern now, "fears of losing the real market have been raised repeatedly since the 80s". Those who had the original vision for a Camden Lock market filled with skilled craftspeople in 1973 would never have believed the amount of tourism and tat the area is defined by today. The Union Jack mugs. The fake Zippo lighters. The fucking emoji pillows.
Camden is a place where subcultures were born, but it's also somewhere they go to die. It's the final resting place for new rave, 70s punk, indie – a place where committed followers can still buy the accessories and reminisce, but where they're unlikely to find nearly the same kind of atmosphere as they would have during any of those eras.
That said, Camden is still a good spot for punk, metal and indie gigs. It's still got a lot of decent bars and pubs. And it is, importantly, still a place where new bands can cut their teeth. Joel Amey from Wolf Alice says their band wouldn't have been the same without Camden – without the years of getting drunk there, claiming it as their home and rehearsing in the now bulldozed Scar Studios.
"It was just always a place where you could definitely get a gig," he told me. "It always felt like, in east London, the doors were sometimes closed to things that weren't moulded in the east London scene – at least when I was 17. Camden lets you make mistakes, and that's very important for young musicians, because you need to make at least 3 million all the time. You're not going to get struck off the A&R list in Camden because no one is in Camden if you play a shit gig. The place was very unpretentious; it would let you kind of do your thing. It's hard for me to find fault with it, even though I know everyone else does because it seems like everyone is walking around with a fucking trilby and trying to buy a bong."
Camden has a role to fulfil, but it's no longer somewhere you can just be. Few young people have been able to afford the area's extortionate rent for years, and it's an expensive area to hang out. And if young people aren't spending time somewhere, then subculture and creative activity is dispersed.
"Place is important," said Worley, talking about subculture. "It's where a sense of 'scene' is forged and personal connections made. Subcultures often become associated with place." If cultural centres are displaced, it "forces things to move and change". So where has that activity gone? Grime is arguably the most urgent British music subculture since punk, and started far from Camden, out in Bow, where many pioneering grime artists were born and raised, hung out, wasted time and – crucially – just were.
Camden doesn't belong to anyone any more. Unlike other areas – Dalston, Peckham, Deptford – it hasn't been what the developers are selling it as for years. It's not particularly famed for its "buzz", and neither is it an area where your neighbours are "as likely to be social housing tenants as wealthy lawyers and arty creatives"; a place where "affluent professionals, punks, students and artsy types all rub shoulders". Its sense of identity died years ago, and there aren't a huge amount of people clinging on.
It's for that reason that many won't be sad to see Camden go. Jon Savage is one. "I'm not a sentimentalist and I am a Londoner, so I understand the way the city works," he said. "Nothing stays the same, and Camden has been a shit-hole for a long time, really. As long as that sort of feeling – that ability of young people to come together and make a culture – remains, then that's OK. It's disgusting and makes me very sad that London is so expensive and difficult for young people to live in."
Still, it's always sad when London loses another part of itself. Even if you despise the place – if you don't care about anything going on there now; you think it's a gaudy, stinking embarrassment: Leicester Square in an Anthrax hoody – I doubt you want Camden to become a "Borough Market of north London", or worse yet a second Shoreditch – a once cheap and free zone for young people that out-prices you quicker than the skyline rises. Architecture critic Rowan Moore said it best in 2015: London is eating itself with greed. Who'd have known it'd bother eating Camden.
Camden can't die if it's already dead, but we should hope that some semblance of its former self keeps ticking over, because the alternative is even worse.
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