Editor's note: London Underground is a regular column written by London journalist and writer Barry Neild on life in the world's most global city.
LONDON, U.K. — There’s no scientific proof that London is the coolest city on Earth, but it is.
Of course, I wouldn’t know it from looking out of my window. I don’t actually live in the fashionable part of London and, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit, I have no idea where it actually is.
There are reasons for this — and not just the fact that I hit the uncool age of 40 in two months.
The truth is London’s sense of cool is capricious. One day hipsters are all over a particular zip code. The next they don their rakish porkpie hats, mount their trendy fixed-gear bikes and pedal off elsewhere.
Determined to rectify this, I recently set off in search of London’s epicenter of cool. I’d like to say I did this on my single-speed racer, sporting some natty headgear, but it was raining and I had to be back in time to pick up my daughter from nursery. So I got a lift from my wife.
When I first visited London more than two decades ago, the coolest spot was West Kensington. Then it was Camden, then Islington. Five years ago it was Hoxton and Shoreditch. Coolness in London always follows a pattern: the kids move in; new bars open; rents rise; the squares arrive; the kids move on.
A case in point is Notting Hill. In the 1960s and19 70s, this west London district had a downbeat cool. The rundown Georgian architecture and dilapidated junk shops backdropped by a vibrant Caribbean immigrant community made it an ideal base for the hippy counterculture movement. (For the backstory on Notting Hill, see this On Location video.)
Now it boasts some of Britain’s costliest homes, including one owned by arguably the uncoolest man
in Britain — Prime Minister David Cameron. Portobello Road, Notting Hill’s once-bohemian shopping street, is a tourist mecca, awash with tacky souvenir shops and passe cupcake parlors.
So where’s cool now?
Before setting off, I contacted my friend Jacqui who, thanks partly to being aged at least 10 years cooler than me, seems to have more of a finger on the pulse. “Dalston,” she said, without hesitating, quickly reeling off a list of bars, restaurants and cafes for me to check out.
The drive from my home in Kilburn (an unlovely suburb that has proved perennially resistant to the
forces of gentrification) to Dalston, a down-at-heel neighborhood in London’s northeast, is like a timeline covering the capital’s changing face of fashion.
We passed through Camden, its tired streets clogged with black-clad teenagers, then Islington — the nominal birthplace of former leader Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” era and now an over-priced stag party destination — before traversing Hoxton, which had its day after birthing the ludicrous “Hoxton fin” hairstyle once sported by soccer star David Beckham.
“Dalston’s probably the same as the rest of them now,” speculated wife Suzanne. “If it’s full of Americans, then we’ll know it’s already over.” As an American, she can almost get away with saying things like that.
On first impressions, there’s nothing obviously chic about Dalston.
On a drizzly day, this anonymous cluster of residential roads built around a main street of fried chicken outlets and discount stores, is as grim a sight as can be seen anywhere in London, although there is a shiny new rail station.
But after sundown, it apparently finds its mojo. “Wander around at 11 p.m. and the feeling is not
dissimilar to being in the lower east side of Manhattan at its mid-90s peak,” the Guardian newspaper reported, offering a list of Dalston celebrity sightings (none that I’ve ever heard of).
This article, published last year, says that while previously hip London locations such as nearby
Shoreditch are now crowded with hilariously expensive cocktail bars, Dalston is cool because it
juxtaposes its fashionable fripperies with the prosaic squalor of the inner city.
There are “pop-up” club nights and several new ultra-hip venues, including the Dalston Superstore, a double-wide former retail space converted into a bar. On weekend nights, lines of London’s bright young things wait for hours to get into this place. When we visited for lunch, it was virtually empty.
According to Suzanne, whose coolest years were spent in Manhattan at its mid-90s peak, Dalston
Superstore isn’t far off the mark, although it more closely resembles the kind of bars that have been
springing up in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood in recent years.
It certainly ticks all the usual cool boxes: Its few customers were all kitted with Apple laptops. Two of them were impossibly beautiful Icelandic girls interviewing a potential roommate — a lumpy and eager Englishman wearing an ironic T-shirt. When he exited, they mocked him mercilessly.
After lunch, we tracked down a few more of Jacqui’s recommendations. These include the Print
House, a converted factory-type place with requisite cafe bar and music venue; and Passing Clouds, a bar/club that’s way too hip to be open on a wet Wednesday afternoon.
But apart from a nice community garden, another edgy-looking venue called the Moustache Bar, gloomy jazz club and a bit of perplexing street art, there seemed to be little else to single this district out from a dozen other dreary stretches of the capital.
According to the Guardian, Dalston is so with-it that it even has its own music magazine, Pix. I email its editor, Hanna Hanra, to ask her what gives the area its cachet. Hanra has worrying news: not only has her magazine folded, she appears to be cooling to the idea of Dalston being cool.
“Originally it was a dump 10 minutes from Shoreditch but due to the development of the [new rail
station] and the continual influx of people it has been somewhat gentrified,” said Hanra, who now DJs and edits another non-Dalston title, Beat.
“When I moved there five years ago there was no where to eat, but now there's a thriving cafe society scene, clubs, music venues.”
Our last port of call was Violet, a small cake shop from Jacqui’s list. It’s a dainty little place carved out of an oddly-shaped building on a pleasant residential side street. A young woman served us cupcakes. She told us she’s from Pennsylvania. Suzanne raised her eyebrows.
Hanna wouldn’t have been surprised. When I asked her how long Dalston could stay ahead of the game, she dropped a bombshell: “It’s already over mate.” I asked her where was next, but got only a vague response: “Creatively there’s a lot more happening east.”
We drove west. Home to Squaresville.
Other London Underground columns:
Ring the bloody Sex Pistols
Touring Churchill's secret bunker
Inside Buckingham Palace: Are you worthy?
Video: London on two wheels