It had been more than three years since I last stepped foot in London, a city I once knew well. In that relatively short time there has been major changes. I don’t find the changes surprising so much as how quickly they took place.
--London has never been cheap, but the cost of living or traveling there is now astronomical. Sure the value of the dollar has gone the way of Monopoly money in recent years but I’m talking about inflation. As an example the cheapest single ride tube fare in 2006 would have cost you two pounds sterling. Today that same ride will cost you four pounds ($8.00). London’s public transport is now the most expensive in the world. This photo of an HSBC ad campaign taken in the bowels of Heathrow Airport sums up the cost of living.
--The iconic Routemaster double decker buses have been replaced with a redesigned modern version. The Routemasters, produced in the 1950s and 1960s, were phased out on all but two routes in central London, which are frequented by tourists.
--Many Mom and Pop shops have closed and been replaced by chain stores and coffee franchises. I’ve seen this happen in New York City in recent years. Real estate values have risen to record levels and so have rents pushing independent merchants out of business. I only had a little time to wander in London but noticed this distinctly in Notting Hill. Some of the vintage home furnishing shops I loved checking out on regular basis, for example, have bit the dust.
--A large Eastern European community has emerged following the expansion of the European Union. What’s unique about this group is that many won’t necessarily immigrate to the U.K. They will work in the U.K. for a few years, where there are far better wages and employment opportunities, before returning home. In some respects they are the new migrant workers, skilled and international.
--The best part of Camden Market, The Horse Stables, has been demolished (more on this later).
--There is construction everywhere due to the real estate boom. The global credit debacle has already started to slow this down.
Some things were exactly as I left them:
--The local lives. Pub culture is still alive and well (but smoking is no longer allowed).
--The extraordinary amount of languages you hear when walking down the street.
--The tube stop closest to where you need to go on the weekend will no doubt be closed due to track work. A bus replacing the route will turn a 15-minute journey into an hour-long odyssey.
--London cabbies are the best in the world but at a price (see above).
--My old neighborhood Little Venice hasn’t changed a bit (more on this later).