For those of you who aren’t aware, I’ve been living just off Turnpike Lane in Harringay, North London for the past six months, in a student house. Not a lot of people know where it is, until you meet their furrowed brow with ‘It’s near where the riots started last year.’ It always gets a sharp intake of breath, usually followed by an ‘Oh, right…’
It’s not been the best year for Harringay, on both a macro scale, with the riots, and on a micro scale, in a series of shop closures on the high street, indicating a deterioration of the area’s main shopping road. I can only comment on the aftermath of the riots, as I was still living back at home last August, and as such, have no first-hand experience to add to the account. Regardless, we all know what happened, and now would not really be the time to be telling you about ‘violent yobs smashing windows’ or ‘towering infernos sweeping through flagship stores’, even if I had seen it myself. I’m more interested in what I’ve witnessed over the past six months, which has been a Harringay in disarray.
When we moved into our house in September 2011, we spent the first couple of days familiarising ourselves with the area. There were still scars left from the riots a few weeks previously, such as boarded up windows yet to be repaired, shutters half-down as a precautionary measure, and Post-It notes of condolence adorning the window of the affected Body Shop on the high street. Although there were still reminders of the violence and looting, it was not at the forefront of our minds, as the pre-riot mood had presumably been resumed, and people were getting on with life.
Over the past half a year, though, the area seems to have taken a less severe, but undeniably dynamic, decline. There have been around five instances of extreme violence, in the form of stabbings and a shooting, some fatal, since we moved in, one of which occurred just one road over from our house. Having moved to Harringay from the somewhat less intimidating Bloomsbury, it has been difficult to conceal how uncomfortable this area can make me feel at times. I would never, for instance, leave the house alone at night unless absolutely necessary, as a result of the shady characters who lurk on street corners, offering cocaine to anyone and everyone, and the intimidating people who shout after you when you walk past. I feel terrible saying this, of course, because I’m sure the vast majority of people have no hidden agenda, and pose no threat, but given the alarming amount of stabbings and the like in the area, I prefer not to take the risk.
It isn’t just the violence though. Parts of the high street are pretty much constantly enshrouded in a cloud of cannabis fumes, with groups of young people huddled around potent spliffs. It is more than once, also, that I have been given the opportunity to buy drugs myself. I have always been approached first, and always in the same place. Usually, I am alone. It is incredibly intimidating, especially when you haven’t indicated an interest in buying drugs at all, and it’s alarming how explicit the dealers are. I don’t understand how they get away with it, given the relatively high police presence in the area. In fact, when we moved in, the amount of sirens we heard every night became a bit of a running joke, and even now, when any of us Turnpike Lane-rs go home for the weekend, we still comment on how strange it is to lay in bed in silence, without the constant backdrop of sirens and shouting.
On another level, there is the closure of shops slowly spreading up the high street. This ranges from chain stores, such as Thorntons, to the vast array of discount fashion stores adorning the high street. Every couple of weeks, a new set of neon signs will fill a window, screaming of a closing down sale, and by the weekend, the shop will be gone, leaving an empty husk, ready to be let to the next similar outlet. This has become especially prevalent since Christmas, and it has reached the point where on one point of the high street, three adjacent bargain fashion outlets have closed down. There is almost an overwhelming number of this type of shop, and it makes me wonder how much time there is left in the rest of them. This would leave the lower end of Wood Green’s high street with banks, charity shops and various cut-price establishments in an assortment of different niches. In contrast, the standard chain stores found all over the country, residing in Wood Green’s mall, Shopping City, remain relatively empty. Often, I will be the only customer in a shop, and even then I will feel incredibly uncomfortable as an eagle-eyed security guard watches me as I float around an empty store. I can only assume this is a preventative measure to reduce theft, because nowhere else have I encountered security guards at the door of a shop at 10am on a weekday.
On the upside, we are gaining an outdoor gym on the common behind Turnpike Lane station, and news bulletins from the council have informed us that the lighting in the area has been improved to act as a deterrent for criminals in the area. An increased police presence has supposedly been implemented in order to disperse groups of loitering trouble-makers and put residents at ease. This is all very well, but one must ask what is to become of this part of Harringay? It may not be the most dangerous part of London, and indeed, often there is nobody around and nothing much going on. But the decline over the course of a mere six months is undeniable, and I fear that without attracting back either some strategically-placed anchor stores, or a new style of independent, locally-run shop, the local economy could decay even further, leading to more issues with smaller outlets going bust. Wood Green is in serious need of some investment and interest from small, successful businesses, before we end up with an empty ghost-town of a high-street, overrun with drug crime. A bit of attention and gentrification may be all it needs to set people’s minds at rest, and draw them to the shopping centre from the surrounding residential areas. My housemates and I are about to begin the house-hunting process for the final year of our studies, and when deciding on a target location, the decision was a resounding ‘anywhere but Wood Green’. Is there any hope left for what could be a vibrant, community-led area of London? I will return for a visit to the area next academic year and see what has happened with the empty shops, and keep an eye on the local news, so that hopefully the next time I write a piece about Wood Green, it will be altogether more positive.