Tag Archives: Shoreditch

Quiet Riot

10 Aug P1050160

We are living through the London riots. At a distance.

As most of you know from the headlines being shown around the world, there was chaos in London from early yesterday evening through the night as crowds of angry and agitated citizens — most of them youths in their teens and 20s — concentrated in neighborhoods throughout the city and became destructive, confrontational mobs. They destroyed property, including homes, shops (a majority of them independent), and at least one treasured historic building. Civilians and police have sustained injuries, and one fatal shooting of a young man has been reported as connected to the rioting.

A well-written account by journalist Michael Goldfarb, who lives with his family somewhere very near us, appears on NPR. Click here to read it. As Goldfarb writes, the unrest originated with protests following the fatal shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan by police last Thursday. However, he continues:

On Sunday night, low-level looting spread to other parts of north London not far from Tottenham. The violence’s tenuous relationship to the Duggan incident disappeared. The rioters were a heterodox mix of black and white youths who did not come out on the street to demonstrate against the police. They hit the streets to take what they could: electronic goods and sneakers, and then trash the shops they had just looted. 

Goldfarb instead links the violence, as many have, to deeper causes of widespread unhappiness and discomfort among England’s young people– poverty, unemployment, marginalization and uncertainty about the future. The situation is deeply sad from all angles.

I’m writing this post mainly to share my own experience with many friends and family who have been kind enough to check in and see how we are doing here, and for anyone else who is curious. The images on TV and computer screens showing urban blocks consumed in flame are as scary to me as they are to you. But as of now, I have yet to see a single broken window, and I haven’t felt threatened or unsafe in any way.

As far as I know, the nearest incidents have happened about a mile from us. On Monday night we stayed indoors as sirens wailed for hours outside our windows, en route — I assumed — to the areas of East London where rioting and looting were overwhelming police.  The map below is said to show the location of initial riots throughout London (thank you to Michael in Paris for sharing it). I’ve marked where we live with a blue arrow.

We are close to where the trouble is, but we have not crossed its path.

What I have experienced firsthand, however, are the ripple effects of stress, confusion, uncertainty and fear spreading throughout London as a result of the riots, the reports in the media, and virulent rumor. It’s been enough to throw a hush over the city, and institute a quasi-lockdown throughout many normally vibrant neighborhoods.

Yesterday afternoon, for example, Mike received an emergency message at work ordering all non-essential employees to leave the hospital immediately. A few hours later, when I showed up to teach my yoga class at the Urban Physic Garden, I was instead drafted to help clean and close up the space early, because neighbors had been warning of riots and looting in Southwark. As I walked back toward the London Bridge tube station I overheard snips of numerous hushed conversations between commuters and on cell phones, and all of the shops I passed — many of them cafes that spill life onto the sidewalks during a normal summer afternoon — were indeed shuttered.

Similar evacuations took place in areas throughout the city. I learned this morning that our local library, about eight blocks from our flat, had sent all its employees home early on police orders.

Although the destruction has been very real, the climate of confusion and concern has made it difficult to separate fact from rumor. When Mike left work yesterday evening, he was told that the tube station he normally takes had been closed due to trouble in the area, so he walked an extra couple of miles in the opposite direction to take the National Rail. We found out today that the news about his tube station had been false; nothing out of the ordinary had happened in the neighborhood.

Last night after we cooked dinner in and logged some more time watching the news, the silence at home and outdoors was beginning to get to me. We walked to the corner store and bought a bottle of our favorite beer, then sat and talked and sipped in Hoxton Square alongside a few other groups of late picnickers. Every last one of the restaurants that ring the square — normally packed to the edges of their outermost wrought-iron gates with a tipsy and well-fed local crowd —  sat dark and empty. With no one to watch and barely any light to see by, the square was eerily calm and unwelcoming. We finished our beer and went home.

This morning The Guardian reports that, following the emergency deployment of 16,000 police throughout the city last night and hundreds of arrests, London has reached a state of “relative calm.” Elsewhere in England, the violence continued to spread last night, and there were disheartening accounts of injury and destruction.

I’ve heard accounts from several parts of the city telling how neighborhood residents have taken a stand for themselves when police control was ineffective. My friend Nicole shared this link to a video of independent shop owners in Dalston who chased off rioters during the worst of it on Monday night.

A video of an angry Hackney woman telling off the rioters has made the rounds among more than 1.5 million viewers already (click here to watch it). Her words have resonated so strongly with viewers around the world that a Facebook group has formed supporting a bid to have this woman participate in carrying the Olympic Torch when the games begin next summer.

While it often feels safer to shut the window and ignore what you can’t see until it goes away, there is also hope in the idea that communities gathering for positive reasons can achieve the same strength in numbers as loosely bonded mobs of angry and confused individuals. Tonight our friends at Songs From a Room will host a special gathering to underline the power of music and community, dispel fear and raise morale in the face of the last few days’ events. If you’d like to participate — no matter where you are — you can stream the video live here.

Update: I was just told that the Songs From a Room gathering has unfortunately been canceled out of concern for safety and ability for guests and artists to attend. I would love to know about other opportunities to share positive experiences in the midst of this unrest. If you have any leads, let me know.

Second update: Songs From a Room will not be hosting a full concert, but they will be live-streaming performances by two local artists … from our flat here in Shoreditch! Listen to it beginning around 9pm UK time on this website

Finding a Flat in London

4 Jul The apartment is in a converted old pub building -- we like the green brick and signage.

I think we’ve found a perfect place to live. This is the story of our two-day whirlwind search for it.

As most of you know, we checked into a hotel with a 4-day reservation and the goal of finding an apartment for the year within that window. That seemed manageable — with a lot of prep on craigslist, we were able to find our first place in Seattle within a weekend, and London is well served by websites and agencies eager to connect us to landlords with empty space on their hands.

We began with a pretty focused idea of the neighborhoods we thought we’d like (based on advice from friends), our main criteria (clean, furnished, within 10 minutes’s walk of a tube station, and in an area where either of us could safely walk at any time, plus a few wish-list items including hardwood floors) and a budget (based on the percentage of income we currently spend on rent in Seattle).

I actually really love apartment-hunting, so I was looking forward to the challenge of finding the one that was right for us. One bit of trivia already had me curious: the UK builds among the smallest homes in the developed world. While the average size of newly built homes in the US is 2,303 square feet, the average size of newly built homes in the UK is only 818 square feet (sizes converted from square meters, per the chart below).

Although our apartment in Seattle is smaller than the average, we’re both accustomed to living in a lot more space — and with a lot more stuff — than we need. In the UK, listings typically don’t disclose the size in square meters, and few people I spoke with during our search even knew that statistic. The number of bedrooms is a more common qualifier — weird, because bedrooms are absolutely not created equal — and the importance of other factors including layout, finishes, furnishings and of course location, is magnified. Size is relative, too, of course: I’ve seen apartments in Hong Kong designed to house families of 4 or more in less than 450 square feet. We only need a quiet place to sleep, cook and get our work done — hopefully we won’t be spending much time at home this year anyway.

After 30 hours of non-stop apartment viewing, it was clear that the we were more inspired by the surroundings than the spaces themselves. We jumped on the only property that met all of our criteria, and were even able to successfully bargain down the price by £25 per week (many thanks to Jordan & Magda for the bargaining advice).

I’m estimating it’s actually on the larger side of what we’ve seen, around 500 square feet, with one bedroom and an open plan sitting room/kitchen. It’s in a converted old pub, which gives character to the outside, but the remodel is only five years old, so the windows, kitchen and floors are all brand new and in good shape. The furnishings are really minimal and clean, which I like (we viewed some furnished places with truly ugly furniture, threadbare mattresses, etc.). It’s got kind of a funny layout with all of the rooms opening off a tiny boxlike space that you enter from the hallway — it’s hard to explain, so I’ll take pictures soon.

The neighborhood is a total gem. You can find the area on Google Maps by entering part of our post code, “London, N1.” I think we’re technically in Hoxton, just steps from a little green courtyard called Hoxton Square. The square is ringed with really tempting-looking cafes and art galleries, and its grassy center is in constant use by visitors picnicking, reading, walking their dogs and just enjoying the space. The neighborhood of Hoxton/Shoreditch at large is really charming and full of eclectic shops. restaurants and arts venues (there’s a circus and a small theater company right on our block). We’re less than a 10-minute walk from the Old Street tube station and have ready access to numerous bus routes and several of London’s bike sharing hubs.

The apartment is in a converted old pub building -- we like the green brick and signage.

sunny, south-facing kitchen + living room

new windows in the bedroom keep it quiet

just enough storage, we hope.

We’ll get the keys to our flat within the next few days, once our background checks have gone through. Many more photos to come as we set up our cozy home base!

For readers who want more info, here are the lessons we’ve learned about searching for rental flats in London:

First, as a renter, you can either work with an agency or directly with a private owner. If you have the time to comb the classifieds for private listings, you’re likely to save quite a bit of money; however, you lose the security of an experienced broker/manager and — more importantly in our case — you have to work with each owner to set up viewings, negotiate points of the contract including furniture and pre-move-in cleaning, etc.

Working with agencies streamlines the search, because they handle the majority of rentals in the market, and because they help ensure that the contract between you and the landlord is legit. This efficiency and security comes at a price, of course — in our case, we were expected to pay anywhere between £180 and £400 in fees, and other agencies routinely charge even more. The main components of the total include fees for our background checks and a “finders fee” to the agent, and charges for both fluctuate broadly depending on which agency ultimately gets your business.

Although we viewed several privately owned properties, we ultimately chose an apartment that was managed by an agent, and decided that it was worth the extra fees. A few tips from our experience:

1. Seek agents that know their submarket well. Agencies typically have proprietary lists of properties, therefore, if you find a place you like, you need to work with the one agency responsible for leasing it. Logically, the agencies with the largest pools of rentals in the most desirable neighborhoods can charge the highest fees. We found our agent because we noticed the name of the firm attached to several properties we liked in the neighborhood where we wanted to be. It turns out, this agency operates exclusively within three London neighborhoods. We found the focused expertise and local knowledge was appealing, and helped us quickly narrow our search.

2. Ask about every fee you may be assessed up front, and require your agent to spell everything out for you. You could be expected to pay a cleaning fee, a move-in fee, a move-out fee, etc., and agents won’t necessarily tell you this until you’ve already put down your nonrefundable deposit.

3. Know what you want, and be firm, just as you would in the US. Don’t let the agent show you apartments beyond your budget, outside of the area you want, etc.

We used the following websites to search and filter apartment listings:

globrix.com — this was the most helpful because it has the most user-friendly interface, with the most options for customizing your search by area, unit type, price and other criteria; however, all properties on the site are leased by agents.

gumtree.com — this is like the British version of Craigslist, and the most fruitful place to seek direct deals with private landlords (though agencies list here as well). The quality is variable and you’ll need to be wary of scams.

sabbaticalhomes.com — a great find for us, this site links academics who need to sublet their homes with other academics in search of rentals. Agencies don’t list here, so all negotiations are direct with owners, and prices are highly competitive. You need a .edu email address in order to use the site. (Thanks to Austin for this recommendation)

zoopla.com — this site was recommended by a woman at our bank, and although we were already well into our search and didn’t get to use it much, we did see some compelling listings from both private owners and agents.

Finally, there’s the art of bargaining. You’re expected to haggle over the price of your flat, which is listed on a per-week basis. When we knew what we wanted, we made an offer that was £45 per week lower than the asking price. The agent came back with the landlord’s counter-offer. Although he said her price was firm at that point, we responded with an offer that was £10 per week lower (at this point my stomach was in knots because after viewing several other options that turned out to be awful, I knew we really wanted to sign the contract). The landlord accepted, and we got in at about £100 per month off the asking price. I realize that if she signed at that amount, we’re probably paying no less than she expected we would in the end, but it still felt like a success.


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