The Real Recedes: Change in a WTC
In one sense, any place is authentic and real - it is as it is. But as Knox (2005) points out, elements of the modern world - telecoms, technology, mass production, mass values - subvert the ‘authenticity’ of place so that ‘city spaces become inauthentic and “placeless”, a process that is, ironically, reinforced as people seek authenticity through professionally designed and commercially constructed spaces and places whose invented traditions, sanitised and simplified symbolism and commercialised heritage all make for convergence rather than spatial identity’ (p. 3). We can see these commercial spaces as attempts to satisfy visitors’ demands for existential authenticity where the place conforms to the city of their imagination. Salazar (2013) argues that imaginaries are ‘socially transmitted representational assemblages that interact with people’s personal imaginings and are used as meaning-making and world-shaping devices’ (p. 34), and that exoticized imaginaries of otherness prompt tourism. Potential tourists imagine ‘paradisiacal environments where local landscape and population are to be consumed through observation, embodied sensation and imagination’. Such paradisiacal environments are not of course confined to cliches of white beaches and waving palms: local landscapes, and population can be consumed in these ways in cities - by embedded tourists.
Imaginaries of cities are complex and in some ways contradictory. London is well known and well publicized, a global brand, and is undergoing radical and rapid change - yet imaginaries of London may be slow to change. Recent research on the images of London held by Czech non-visitors (Cherifi et al., 2014) show that images that would appear very old-fashioned to Londoners can be stable and slow to change. There have been energetic attempts to refashion London’s image - not least through the expensive staging of the 2012 Olympics. However, VisitLondon’s (2015) advice to first time visitors features just three main images: Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge and Piccadilly Circus. The imaginary of heritage, history and royalty remains well supported.
Yet over the past 20 years, London has been changing radically and profoundly. As Kuper (2015) shows, it has risen to the top of global reputational league tables - constantly vying with New York City. He argues that three factors account for this. First, London is now a global rather than a national capital and attracts money and talent from across the world. Second, it has become more colourful - for example, through renewed public spaces, spectacular architecture like Tate Modern or the London Eye, a renowned restaurant scene and street life. It has become more colourful too in its cosmopolitan population, attracted to London in part because now ‘it is a place without a dominant national culture ... to most foreigners London now looks like a place where you can self-actualise’ (Kuper, 2015, p. 3). A good place for being and becoming, then, but one whose sense of place and of itself is blurred, complex and contradictory. Finally, and paradoxically, London offers stability - a long history, institutions that have evolved slowly, and sufficient political stability to attract global elites who want somewhere safe to keep their money and their family. Whilst Brexit is an unusual disruption, there is as yet (2017) no evidence that it will substantially reorder this well established pattern.
These changes have had a profound effect upon places within London, most obviously through very rapid rises in property prices, seen by commentators as driving the working classes, lower middle classes and increasingly the professional middle classes from the central and inner city. This is what Erenhalt (2013) termed ‘the great inversion’ of a long established pattern of poor inner cities and prosperous suburbs. Now, wealthy elites have moved back to the central and inner city, whilst the less well-off and migrants move to outer areas. Indeed, once bustling parts of the most expensive areas of central London have become quiet, as more and more of the housing stock is acquired by foreign owners who are frequently absent (Rees, 2015). However, processes of real estate speculation and gentrification have reached into formerly unfashionable areas throughout inner London. As Erenhalt notes, ‘cre- atives’ and hipsters colonize rundown areas, attracted by low property prices and the opportunity to display their love of ‘edginess’. They are followed by bourgeois-bohemians (bobos), many of them foreigners. As gentrification proceeds, the wealthy move in. In 2012, London residential property worth ?83 billion was bought for cash - by those working in the City financial district and by rich foreigners seeking a safe and profitable investment (Goldfarb, 2013). This process provides an urbanism that is attractively well manicured and aesthetically appealing - but one where the private realm displaces the public (in gated communities or commercial spaces to which public access is permissive, not an entitlement), and ideas of mixed communities are absent. The urban atmosphere may be appealing, but has little connection with the real city. Tourism has played a significant role in this process of transforming and reimaging rundown areas, with some tourists’ urban preferences linking synergistically and seamlessly with those of some residents, and with tourism spending and tourist presence supporting the gentrification process (Maitland and Newman, 2009). However, super-gentrification and the profitability of new residential development is undermining the qualities that made the areas attractive, as rising real estate prices force out even long-established independent small businesses, restaurants and shops.
All this has been accompanied by a very rapid increase in the number of visitors to London. There were a record 17.4 million overseas visitors in 2014, and 18.8 million visitors are projected for 2015 - almost 3.5 million more than in the Olympic year of 2012. London topped the Global Destinations Cities Index in 2013 and 2014 (London and Partners, 2015). Taken together, these processes have driven the transformation of central and inner London, with areas that were once ‘undiscovered’ increasingly drawn in to the commercialized tourist heart of the city. Although celebrated by much of the tourism industry, this process is not unproblematic. As Bell and Welland (2007) commented of an earlier stage, London is becoming as high-rise as New York City, and ‘it can sometimes seem as though there is nobody over 30 on the streets and that a great experiment in mass immigration and assimilation is under way ... in an effort to capture the flag from NY, London risks losing what makes it London’ (p. 2). Of course areas and places in a dynamic city change constantly. In the 1960s, ‘Swinging London’ saw the incorporation of once off the beaten track areas like Carnaby Street and the King’s Road in a newly fashionable and vibrant commercial scene (Rycroft, 2002). But recent changes in London have been of a different scale. Perhaps, as Goldfarb (2013) claims, ‘the delicate social ecology that made possible London’s transformation into a great world city over the last two decades is past the tipping point’ (p. SR5). For ‘hard’ tourism, often first time visitors in organized groups who want to see London’s iconic sights, this may not matter too much; indeed the addition of new ‘world class’ developments may seem an advantage. However, those whose imaginaries are of a different London and who want a more integrated soft tourism will need to work harder to search out the ‘real London’.