Sunday was my five-year anniversary of moving to London. Shortly before I made the leap here, Joe Fontana unveiled a new theme song declaring that this was the city of opportunity. I think there are several reasons that moniker didn’t stick, but when I moved here, London truly did seem to be on the cusp on something.
More specifically, citizens were mobilizing in exciting ways. In my first year here, I attended dozens of citizen-run events and knew of several exciting renegade projects. These were things that had no title sponsors, few rules, and a spirit of camaraderie that five years later has all but disappeared from my experience of London.
There’s certainly no single cause of that shift, but there is one I’ve put my finger on: too much gatekeeping and protectionism among our city’s organizations has left the rest of us without a way to make those little pockets of magic happen.
I watched that happen with an event called Startup Drinks, which began as a very casual citizen-run pub night that brought anywhere from 5-50 entrepreneurs out each month. When I first moved here, it had just got up and running, and was perhaps the most important thing happening to build that community. Fairly quickly, though, it was commandeered by “support organizations,” who passed it back and forth, kind of ruined it, and ultimately killed it.
Or take Market Lane, which was supposed to be a forerunner to the Dundas flex street as a place for community activity. Except I see far more talk from prominent organizations about people that aren’t wanted in Market Lane than people that are. So is it truly a public space if nobody in the public is given the keys to create something there? That would require relinquishing a little control to citizens, and London institutions seem to struggle gravely with that.
It will be an exceedingly unpopular thing to say, but the city is a little overrun by public and non-profit organizations staking too wide a claim. Some of our largest, most powerful bodies appear to prefer owning over championing great things, while squashing whatever they don’t like.
If I were playing armchair urban psychologist, I’d say it’s the unfortunate product of institutional ego, interpersonal puerility, and a touch of paranoia. Whatever the cause, the result is that now I see London flatten a lot of its potential.
The feeling in the air that made me believe this was a city on the cusp of something five years ago is easy to identify in its absence: empowerment. It was a brief moment when Londoners believed they could make things happen, and our institutions weren’t yet in their way.
I think we can recapture that, but it will take some honest introspection, tough conversations, and a lot of metaphorical unclenching inside board rooms. So, to celebrate five years of living in London, I’m issuing a challenge to our local organizations: put those things on this year’s agenda. Get London back on the cusp of something, and then let the community push itself over the edge into greatness.