It was an unplanned visit to Highbury. As the Piccadilly Line train left Finsbury Park I made a snap decision and, for the first time since 1978 alighted at Arsenal station, whose tiling still displays the original name of Gillespie Road, and turned left to the site of the North Bank turnstiles. That April day thirty five years ago I had come to support my team West Bromwich Albion in a losing FA Cup semi-final against Ipswich Town. I do not have happy memories of the place. Walking down little seems to have changed other than the obvious signs of gentrification which, back in the late 1970s, was only just beginning. Even the entrance is still there. I take my first look at the Highbury Square development, completed in 2009, following the football club’s relocation to nearby Ashburton Grove three years earlier.
The famous and listed Art Deco stands remain, sympathetically converted into flats whilst retaining original features, such as the players’ tunnel, and the East Stand’s magnificent entrance lobby with the bust of Herbert Chapman the club’s manager in the 1930s who not only achieved success on the playing field but showed a sharp business sense in helping to develop Arsenal as a brand. (It was at his suggestion that the name of the tube station was changed). There are new blocks at either end while the area that was once the pitch, home to Ted Drake, Cliff Bastin, Charlie George and Liam Brady is now a peaceful garden. A sense of space and tranquillity pervades the place.
It is not surprising that a residential development in a former football stadium, is turned in in itself and away from the surrounding streets but that is one of the problems. Highbury was the focus of the local community, accessible to most on match days for a few shillings. Highbury Square is a gated community and even the public access promised by the developers along the front of the Clock End, linking Highbury Hill and Avenell Road is not always open as a disgruntled local resident informed me.
As Islington gentrified and turned away from the club, so Highbury has introduced a yet wealthier demographic into N5, one which turns its back on the professional middle classes who live hereabouts. Highbury is in Islington but no longer part of it.
Of course, Highbury has always been private and simply become more private. This is not true of the many regeneration schemes and developments in our major cities where streets and long established public rights of way are swallowed up in vast retail and leisure complexes. This is all described in detail in a paper produced for the Royal Institution of Charted Surveyors by Anna Minton. She argues that this has already produced major changes in many places and that we are only at the beginning of a process of change which is little understood. Indeed in the case of Liverpool the Paradise Street redevelopment effectively means that pretty much the whole city centre is being privatised. Inside this private/public space there will be strict controls on behaviour enforced by private security. No skateboarding, no begging, no Big Issue selling, You may only eat and drink where you are permitted to do so. This strikes me as a further step in the creeping infantilisation of the British public. The amazing thing is that so many people accept being ordered around with such docility.
All of this raises many issues. Chief of them, I think and of most concern, is the decline of the communal. If Highbury, though privately owned, was once a place that local people considered to be in a sense communal property, it is even more true of the mall, be it Brindley Place in Birmingham or High Cross in Leicester, both of which have absorbed a significant number of what were one public highways.
With the decline of the communal goes the decline of communal activity, of the things that make citizenship meaningful. In a street you could meet, debate, demonstrate. In a mall, the private security force will soon remove you. A while ago the hoody ban at Bluewater attracted a lot of publicity. This was, in reality, a minor issue. The true implications were missed by the media. This is also an aspect of the depoliticisation of our society. Citizens are recast as consumers. If anyone doubts this let them try setting up a pitch to sell left-wing papers or hand out leaflets on Leicester’s High Cross on a Saturday morning, or try busking in Birmingham’s Brindley Place. These are not public spaces any longer but places where the public is admitted to consume.
All of this reflects a fundamentally passive political culture where mass membership parties are in decline and serious debate replaced by the sound bite. Every five years we have a referendum, dressed up as a parliamentary election. The living standards of the middle income sections of the population are being remorselessly squeezed and there seems to be no appetite to fight.
And as we pay ever higher prices, see our incomes cut in real terms, as we are turned into frustrated consumers rather than concerned citizens, the rich who have climbed to wealth on our backs, lock the gates. When the gates of Highbury are locked you know that, even at three o’clock on Saturday you will not be allowed in.