July 18, 2005
The heart of the city
Drew Whitelegg is a postdoctoral fellow at the center for myth and ritual in american life
King’s Cross station, where one of last week’s bombs exploded, has always been a central part of my life. When I was little, my mum used to take me on day trips from our suburban home to King’s Cross, where we’d watch the trains departing to Scotland and Yorkshire. Then we’d go exploring on the buses to London Zoo, Hamley’s toy shop in Regent Street, or the Science Museum.
This was my mum’s way of introducing me to the big city where she was born. Some mums teach their kids history; mine taught me geography, and King’s Cross was at the heart of it.
When I was 15, I’d regularly pass through with wide-eyed friends, on our way to London’s music and clothing stores, eager to bring back some urban cool to our smallish town. My first job after university was in a press agency near King’s Cross. When I got my doctorate in geography from King’s College (my mum had taught me well), I passed through King’s Cross on the way to the oral defense. After I got married to an American, we lived one stop from King’s Cross. Every holiday, every teenage concert, every night on the town, every budding romance, involved King’s Cross.
Of course, not all the memories are good. Waiting for a train at 2 a.m. could often transport me the short step from being alone to just being lonely. King’s Cross is also the only place in London where I’ve been physically attacked.
Late at night, especially in the 1990s when hard drugs moved in, the station—with its pools of urine and syringes and mad people—could be an unnerving place. When my California in-laws came to visit one time, they stayed at King’s Cross. “Don’t go wandering down dark alleys,” I told them, and insisted on walking them to their hotel.
In 1987, a fire in the Underground station killed nearly a hundred people, demonstrating the ramshackle nature of an underfunded tube; in successive years of this century, trains originating from King’s Cross crashed in suburbia, killing more, and showing that in addition to the Underground, the overground system was a mess, too.
Yet as I sat in Decatur last week trying to check on friends and loved ones, it struck me that grimy, chaotic King’s Cross is as perfect a symbol of London as the brash, shiny World Trade Center was of New York. In one of the great world cities, King’s Cross is one of the great public spaces. I’ve seen almost every walk of humanity pass through its doors and environs, every race, creed, color, gender, sexuality, class and age: a whole world of individuals merged collectively into the web of London’s transport network.
London’s tubes and buses throw everyone together into a shared everyday experience. There’s no business class or frequent flyer miles involved. Lawyer and laborer, Arab and Jew, schoolkid and pensioner—all are treated alike in this democratic mix. And don’t get me wrong: All complain equally loudly about broken down trains, poor service and overcrowding when they reach their destination.
But at a time when politicians spout about spreading democracy, London’s transport system is a form of democracy in action. The rich can’t escape the poor; they are forced to look them in the eye. Every now and then, the poor look back. When London’s homeless launched The Big Issue street magazine to raise funds for accommodation, they sold it outside the tube stations. And Londoners, one and all, bought it willingly. The Big Issue seller became as much a part of the King’s Cross scene as the kebab van and the gay nightclubbers.
The buses and tubes fanning out from King’s Cross take rich and poor (and some of the gay nightclubbers, too) into the heart of the city, its streets. And it is in the streets that people lose and then find themselves, in the “only valid field of experience,” as Andre Breton puts it. And, as in other great cities—New York and Chicago, for instance—the streets of London provide the anonymity that allows people to be who on earth they want to be. Because, in the spaces of great cities, no one really cares what you are. This is why liberal and progressives flock to them. And why fundamentalists of all types can’t stand them.
So King’s Cross, in a way, becomes a symbol here of open civilization. I’ve long argued that public transport helps break down barriers in cities and regenerates the public sphere, and if Americans learned to travel about on it a bit more and to mix with people not like themselves, they might be a tad less paranoid of strangers.
But as a symbol of civilization, of all that London’s cosmopolitanism can offer, King’s Cross became a logical target for those who’d like to spread the seeds of bigotry across Britain’s capital. Those killed in London’s bombs were quite possibly among the million who marched on its streets against the Iraq War—not to mention filled Hyde Park in the recent Live 8 Concert to alleviate poverty in Africa.
I don’t think bigotry will succeed. As the city’s Mayor Ken Livingstone argued after the attacks, people will still want to go to London, to make their home there. Just like a 10-year-old boy with his mum watching trains at King’s Cross, people will take one look at the place, and they’ll feel free.