Getting off at King’s Cross Station is now a trendy business. What used to be the forgotten side of zone 1 is the new “hip” area of London.
The industrial brick of the station is combined with the shininess of the glass and metal buildings that have been popping up in this corner of N1 for the past 10 years.
Google’s London hub is now settled in Pancras Square, on the north side of the train station. Its campus is going to expand and 2018 will be the year it will start building London’s first “landscraper”, a building as long as the Shard is tall, along King’s Boulevard.
On York Way, not too far away from the King’s Cross Development, there is the glassed building where The Guardian has its offices. Walking along the Regent’s Canal towards Camden, visionary architects designed fancy apartments in the old gasholders.
The vibe of the area is now industrial-chic, making trendy what used to be rough. King’s Cross has been “cleaned up”. It is all part of the largest regeneration project that has ever been done in Europe and it is all very respectable. Hip, young, techy.
But King’s Cross has a different past: a dodgy fame still rooted in many a Londoner’s memory. It used to be the place where you would not go at night, unless you were looking for “a party”, which could mean dancing until late, or looking for drugs, or prostitutes, or maybe all the above.
It used to be a fun place, rough around the edges but rooted in the collective memory of ravers and artists, a place dear to the LGBT community that used to cram the drag and fashion night Kinky Gerlinky or flock to The Scala for an all-nighter of trashy movie marathons.
The Scala is still there, on the corner between Pentonville Road and Caledonian Road, and has been recently restored to its white splendour, even if its purpose has changed. It is now a club and live music venue, and on a typical Saturday night you will find hordes of European clubbers for the ‘Mega Spanish Party’ queuing at the doors.
Long gone is the time when the junkie and colourful crowd of The Bell walked from the station down “drug alley” to get to Pentonville Road.
“King’s Cross’s big cleaning started when the Government announced the project for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link from St. Pancras Station,” says local resident Julian, a videomaker in his forties. He has been living on a narrowboat in the Battlebridge Basin since the late 1980s. “They made the area all pretty and safe, but they took the spirit away from it.”
Now King’s Cross is where you go if you are looking for an Instagrammable avocado on toast or to meet with friends for brunch on a lazy Sunday morning.
They made the area all pretty and safe, but they took the spirit away from it
It is not an unusual story in London. A once-working-class area becomes the playground for rich corporations. But King’s Cross seems to be fighting back: some businesses are trying to recreate the magic party vibe that permeated the warehouses in what was called “the wasteland”.
Down Gray’s Inn Road there is the renovated version of The Water Rats, a live music venue that hosted, among many others, Bob Dylan’s and Oasis’ first gigs in London. The place is now refined, with uniformed bartenders and an expensive wine list, but in the back they still host Indie gigs and promote up-and-coming artists.
In 2005 the nightlife of the area went into shock when three nightclubs – Canvas (formerly known as Bagley’s), the Key, and the Cross – were to be closed to leave space for the Coal Drops project, a Covent Garden-esque redevelopment of the warehouses along the canal.
The list of nightclubs in the area is now depressingly thin, with only Egg and The Underground, a secluded gay club in Wharfdale Road, as Google entries for “night clubs in King’s Cross”. N1 party people should not despair though, as the developers pledged to bring back tunes and good vibes as part of the Coal Drops Yard proposal that will open in 2018.
Granary Square is also the forever-home of Word on the Water, London’s only floating bookshop, after a battle that owners Paddy Screech and Jonathan Privett fought hard against the Canal and River Trust when they were stripped of their mooring rights to leave space to the developers in 2015. More than 6000 people signed the petition to save the unique barge and keep enjoying the occasional wander through its bookshelves.
Word on the Water now is integral part of that side of King’s Cross that still rebels against the capitalistic rules of the City and keeps up the spirit of the crowds of outcasts and bohemians that crammed the cobbled alleys of this urban anachronism.