I have “mouthed off” pretty regularly these last few years about our high streets and town centres.
One recurrent thought that I am having is “is it time to consign the term high street to history and to just talk about town centres?”
Is the term “high street “outmoded and a product of some human thinking and extreme behaviour that we are learning to correct and temper?
Many of us have started to associate the term “high street” with chain stores and mass, uniform consumption, all terms that do not have very positive connotations. At a time when “ human scale” “bespoke” , “conviviality” , “making”, “fresh” , “inspiring”, “craft “ are the concepts being embraced by a young generation who are having to deal with an economic landscape bequeathed by a couple of greedy generations before them , does “high street” work?
Where are the most desirable places to hang out? They are rarely classed as “high streets” but rather, more eclectic , less corporate parts of our towns and cities like Manchester’s Northern Quarter, London’s Broadway Market , the Mitte in Berlin or Williamsburg in New York. What they all are parts of our “Town Centres”? They are all in locations where people have traditionally gathered to discuss and debate, meet folk, trade and do what most of us love to do, watch the world go by and watch others go about their business.
Does that “business” need to be rows of chain stores, often selling something not that different from another chain store 50 metres away and often offering us no connection to the provenance of what they are selling?
I know that critics will again have a go at what I am saying, arguing that this is a middle class view of the world , that it’s the view of a hipster (well I am far too old to classed as a hipster! And isn’t it about time that those cynics stopped knocking people who are trying to do things differently?) I still understand the value of bespoke, Gerardine and started with nothing, Red or Dead started on a market stall, and under our ownership it remained devoutly “indie” and was nothing but serendipitous. We always sought out and took risks (albeit low cost ones) on up and coming areas and didn’t set out to “displace the indigenous population” as we opened in offbeat areas of London (yes Neal Street, Rupert St and the like was offbeat in the early 80s), Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Vancouver et al.
At Red or Dead we experienced at close quarters the battle that “indies” have with trying to get retail outlets in high trafficked locations. We were turned down by countless pension funds who had snapped up town centre commercial properties and would only lease them to retailers like Next, and Oasis with large covenants (replace that with corporate structures and large overdrafts!)
So many “high streets “ are now largely in the control of pension funds and in instances these pension funds would rather keep their empty units, just that, empty, and maintain the “book value” of these units rather than rent them to someone who can’t afford the inflated rents that the likes of Jessops, Woolworths, Zavi and Blockbuster were paying.
Town centres could be so much more than high streets full of chain stores and empty units. Can we not accept that in some cases the “book value” of the pension fund owned stores is a thing of the past, and that if the real market value were applied to them then we might get back a town centre that was interesting? Yes it would hurt our pensions in the short term, but it would mainly hurt a generation that has left a relatively bleak landscape for the generation below them, it’s the least we could do.
I’m dreaming, but just think of how attractive and interesting a town centre could be if it were to contain all those interesting trades and makers that formed part of the vibrancy in the past. Add to the “baker the butcher, the candlestick maker “ a graphic designer going about his or her business and offering as an aside a bespoke birthday card service. Wouldn’t it be great to watch a craftsman making a chair or architects at their drawing boards? It might just inspire a generation that making and creating stuff is a real option.
So let’s let go of the term “high street” and celebrate town centres, places where people get together to enjoy being together and seeing what people get up to. It’s not as if this has not always been the case from the Roman forum to London’s Southbank Centre; places of human discourse with shopping, entertainment and food and drink thrown in, work.