London Evening Standard by Simon Jenkins
War has ruined Aleppo’s souk, London’s street stalls face the threat of developers: in both cases, they must survive.
The news has been dreaded by all Syria-lovers. Aleppo’s souk is on fire, a casualty of the civil war. The burning of the largest destination on the old Silk Road has echoes beyond the bounds of conflict. A people is a people but a city is for ever. The fire tears at the fulcrum of 2,000 years of East-West culture.
Aleppo is, or was, a glorious warren of avenues, alleys and medieval courtyards, a mall before its time, a city within a city. Pleas of Aleppo citizens that the civil war fighters at least stay clear of their leading visitor attraction went unheeded. War is taking its toll on everything it touches. What fate now awaits Crac des Chevaliers or Palmyra or old Damascus?
Aleppo, Damascus, Istanbul and other cities of the Middle East increasingly resemble any other concrete and glass urban jungle. Their rulers destroy their ancient palaces and grand 19th-century suburbs with abandon. The only antique features in which they still take pride are historic mosques and covered souks. These are both pleasing to the eye and popular places of resort and relaxation. They are crucial to the ever more important generator of wealth, tourism. To destroy a souk is to destroy an economic resource.
Aleppo is a World Heritage Site, though much good that does these days. Before we start deploring the destructive philistinism of other nations, we should reflect on our own, for there are many forms of urban desecration. London may not smash its historic quarters with shells and mortars but bulldozers and “section 106” planning waivers can do the job just as well. And they are.
Already Unesco is planning to “visit” London — as if it needed to — to witness the visual damage lately done to two sites, the Tower of London and Parliament Square, by the thoughtless over-development of the Shard and Southwark on the South Bank. In the latter case, an area predominantly of Victorian warehouses and tenements has become a bleak acreage of faceless glass, glowering across at the Tower.
Markets are no less vulnerable. To the coalition Government, town-centre retailing is expected to give way to unregulated out-of-town shopping and hypermarkets. The policy for existing high streets is to appoint Mary Portas to bemoan their fate. As for London’s traditional street markets, I know of no city-wide policy for their retention. All are in effect opportunities awaiting development.
Ask the public, domestic or visiting, on their view of London’s future and I would bet that among their chief concerns would be the preservation of such oases as Portobello, Camden Lock, Borough market and Covent Garden. They enjoy them not just as places to shop but as informal, intimate, visually attractive features of the London scene.
This was reflected in the explosion of rage that greeted Kensington and Chelsea’s permitted expulsion of 150 Portobello Road stallholders two years ago, to make way for plate-glass windows and an All Saints chain store. It is reflected in local reaction to this month’s decision by the Mayor, Boris Johnson, to overrule Tower Hamlets council and allow the destruction of the remains of Spitalfields market opposite Hawksmoor’s Christ Church. Johnson’s reason for overruling what should be a local decision is a mystery known only to him and his favoured developer, Exemplar. Bang goes the City of London’s last remaining souk.
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