10 things you might not know about high streets: 6. The high street can be sociable and intimate

May 9, 2013

The Tiger Who Came to Tea
So they went out in the dark… From The Tiger Who Came to Tea © Judith Kerr and Harper Collins

6. The high street can be sociable and intimate

Whether suburbs are regarded as a distinctive feature of the contemporary urban landscape or as symptomatic of ‘sprawl’ the recent upsurge of scholarly interest in suburbia has done little to displace the dominant image of the suburb as a primarily residential phenomenon. The reality is unsurprisingly that the suburban town centre is a much more complex and dynamic entity than generally understood. In spite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the majority of people in English-speaking countries live in it, suburbia has remained “the love that dares not speak its name”: it is frequently despised and easily patronised*. From an architectural point of view, there are some good reasons why the suburbs are considered a poor solution to mass housing. With the widespread use of cars and low densities, contemporary thinking would suggest that suburbia represents a poor use of natural resources and an unsustainable way of designing.

Yet, before we dismiss suburbs as a bad thing, I suggest that we need to reflect on the circumstances under which they are the best solution and thus to separate the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ elements of suburbia. From a social point of view – despite assertions that suburbs lead to alienation, that they are homogenous breeding grounds for apathy – ‘the sticks’ are the place so many people aspire to. This includes immigrants to Britain and their children who see the suburbs as the place where they can proudly state their new sense of belonging and where they can create new modes of sociability, as was described by the participants in the recent BBC Radio 4 programme: Journeys Down my Street: Ode to Finchleystrasse, who told of recreating Viennese Kaffeeklatsch in London’s Finchley Road: transporting the social life of the old country to the new.

Stanley Halls, South Norwood

Similarly, the cosy image drawn by Judith Kerr in her classic children’s book ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ belies the author’s background – a German Jewish refugee who spent several years of her childhood on the move until she settled in the south-west suburbs of London. The book depicts how the family home is barely disrupted by the astonishing appearance of a ‘big furry tripey tiger’, who joins Sophie and Mummy for tea and promptly clears the house of all food and drink. When Daddy comes home the obvious solution is to pop out to have supper in a café. See how the illustration at the top of this blog has Sophie wearing a coat over her nightie. Not only is home a place of safety (or refuge), but the high street, even at night, can become an extension of it.


Zoroastrian Centre, formerly the Rayners Lane Grosvenor – an Art Deco cinema built in 1936. Image from http://www.modernism-in-metroland.co.uk/rayners-lane-grosvenor.html

The night time economy is not a subject generally considered for smaller town centres. Clearly nightclubs and all-night pubs would be in conflict with the needs of local residents, but in the past town centres of the sort we are studying accommodated uses such as clubs, theatres and cinemas quite comfortably. If town centres are to remain relevant for young and older people alike, they will need to provide for their needs – whether for an early evening supper, for ‘catch-up’ shopping after work hours or for entertainment.

* As suggested by Professor Vesna Goldsworthy, Director of the Centre for Suburban Studies, Kingston University. See: Goldsworthy, V. (2004) ‘The Love that Dares not Speak its Name: Englishness and Suburbia’. In Rogers, D. & MacLeod, J. (Eds.) Revisions of Englishness. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 95-106.

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