The fight for Notting Hill

Some locals are determined to preserve its soul in the face of bankers, MPs and planners

Gentrified

22 Sep 2016

We moved to Notting Hill by accident in 2012. A fruitless search of overpriced box rooms in Brixton led a friend to joke that we should just relocate to London’s most enviable postcode if we were going to be so picky. One chance Gumtree advert later and we were on -Portobello Road to visit a flat. I trod with caution past the pastel rows of houses, reasoning that it must be part of an elaborate crime ruse. After all, who rented a room for £650 a month in W11?

Previously one of London’s worst slums, the area has not just gentrified but super-gentrified over the past 50 years to become the home of the rich, famous and slightly ridiculous. As the working classes and African–Caribbean immigrants have been pushed out to make way for members of the cabinet, we have traded bohemians for bankers and pubs for pooch cafés. Yet with property prices down and community relations feeling the strain, it doesn’t all smell of roses in the shared gardens of the metropolitan elite. After Brexit flushed out the Cameroons, the once omnipotent Notting Hill set has been reduced to a bunch of bickering backbenchers. In the aftermath of the vote — as neighbours took down Remain artwork from their whitewashed walls — a café near Michael Gove’s house erected a poster banning him from entering. At least it will provide David Cameron with a safe space to dine in when he returns to his old home.

It’s not just Brexit that’s the problem, though. A pre-referendum May survey by Stirling Ackroyd found that while the majority of property prices in the capital -rocketed in the past year, those in Notting Hill fell by 10 per cent. It seems that the influx of bankers and their iceberg basements, along with Osborne’s tax rises, have failed to maintain the area’s one-time je ne sais quoi.

While trendy estate agents had to close temporarily before securing last-minute funding, others have not been so lucky. In a sign that we’re a hipster destination no more, American Apparel — home of neon lycra — has shut its Portobello branch. The local artisan popcorn shop, too, has felt the struggle, and was recently replaced by a common-or-garden sweet shop.

Cracks are emerging in the community, too. One of the borough’s big pull factors, Holland Park School, has long been dubbed the socialist’s Eton. Tony Benn sent his children there. However, at last count, five of the school’s former pupils have died fighting for Isis, with another jailed over a plot to send cash to jihadis.

Meanwhile, a plan to get rid of one of the last eyesores from the old days has hit a brick wall. After four years of consultation, developers had hoped to replace the grey and dilapidated Newcombe House by Notting Hill Gate with an 18-storey tower that would provide a ‘vibrant new urban quarter’. Alas, the promise of yet more luxury apartments and high-end shops wasn’t enough to woo residents, and it was rejected by the council following a petition. It is now subject to an appeal.

For there are many locals who have resisted the push to poshness. Take a stroll down any of the area’s most affluent streets, such as Blenheim Crescent or Lansdowne Road, and you’ll find that one house which is bringing the neighbourhood into disrepute. Whether it’s chipped paint or a bin liner covering a pipe leak, the gentrification fightback is on.

Then there’s the carnival. The c-word that can send a shiver down the spine of even the most hardened resident. As the Caribbean floats arrive with two million revellers in tow to reclaim the neighbourhood over the August Bank Holiday weekend, Electric House shuts its doors, and well-heeled residents flee to the Cotswolds. With crime up by 10 per cent last year, the local MP, Lady Borwick, attempted to exert some control over this year’s carnival by suggesting it could be ticketed. The idea was met with outrage by organisers.

But carnival or no carnival, crime occurs year-round. Recently, a 16-year-old boy was stabbed to death just outside the bookshop made famous in the Richard Curtis film Notting Hill. Yet the tourists continue to flock there, searching for movie memorabilia — the blue door, the travel books, the shared garden. Only now the gates Hugh Grant once oopsadaisy’d over are covered in anti-climb paint and barbed wire.


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