UPDATE: My original letter is below, and here is the link to the article published at maidstoneandmedwaynews.co.uk.
I chose to live in Rochester because I thought it was quintessentially British, with its historic charm and the eccentric, vibrant High Street – a true Dickensian classic. I just had a short walk along the Rochester High Street. I counted sixteen empty storefronts – not including a couple that have been derelict since I arrived in 2010. I had to step out of the way to let the tumbleweeds drift by, as I read yet another eviction notice – this time served to an estate agent. Not even the estate agents are safe! Makes me wonder what will replace the devil we know. I’ve never seen a High Street with so many eviction notices taped to windows. None of this inspires confidence, and I wonder – what exactly is government’s vision for this once thriving High Street?
Are businesses expected to race down from London and fill all these vacancies with boring chain stores? I doubt that Londoners are going to magically fix Rochester. Why would anyone from London move here? The train service is horrible; you pay a premium for the worst service in the country. Apparently, there are no available doctors; trying to get an appointment is frustrating beyond belief. There’s no affordable housing for people who already live here – let alone new arrivals. Yet, the path is already being laid out for a London invasion (personally, I think London has lost its character and is becoming increasingly like an American city, but that’s another story).
Subway – gentrification’s gateway drug – has led the charge in Rochester. In its wake, Costa sprung up. Soon there will be a Starbucks. Then all the artistic, creative independents will be defeated, and – in the worst-case scenario – historic buildings will be remodelled to accommodate M&S Simply Food, Zara and H&M. Sad, but true. It’s like forest succession – one shop replaced by another. You could argue that it’s a natural evolution; it has to happen eventually. However, does it have to be so dull, predictable, unimaginative and destructive? I’m sorry if I sound pessimistic, but experience has a habit of diminishing optimism’s lustre.
If good old fashioned gentrification is not on the cards, perhaps local government and landlords are waiting for more charity shops to open? Or are they engaged in some sort of bizarre community art project – “A Glimpse of Downtown Detroit”? If the answer is the latter – congratulations, you’re well on your way. Having lived across the river from Detroit for two years, I walk the streets of Rochester and immediately feel nostalgic for the boarded up store fronts, smashed windows, homeless people living in doorways (the wrong kind of Dickensian) and drunks wandering the streets at night bothering patrons and bouncers. However, there is one crucial difference (aside from scale) between the decline of Detroit and the decline of Rochester – rent is incredibly cheap in Detroit.
Detroit has been trying everything in its power to encourage people to live, work and socialize in the city centre. The Rochester High Street, on the other hand, seems to be driving people away. Rents are sky high and it appears the risks inherent in operating a small business outweigh the benefits. Even popular, one-of-a-kind independent shops are leaving. One of my favourite quirky bookshops is rumoured to close in 2016, and there are concerns and rumours flying regarding the future of The Corn Exchange. Soon the only thing populating the High Street will be the ghosts of the past and present – chained to an uncertain future. Things look bleak for the old curiosity shop. The High Street is no longer the eccentric, quintessentially British institution that attracted me to this area – and I wonder if anyone else shares my concerns.
Back in the seventies, a popular joke started to circulate and it persists to this day: “Would the last person to leave Detroit please turn the lights off?”. Unless something changes, the same joke will apply to Rochester.