Why Secret London might ruin our city

This post was written by Jacob on February 7, 2010
Posted Under: London

“Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling. Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley. This art I acquired rather late in life; it fulfilled a dream, of which the first traces were labyrinths on the blotting papers of my school notebooks.”

- Walter Benjamin, “Tiergarten”, Berlin Childhood around 1900

Over the last few weeks thousands upon thousands of people have been joining a facebook group called ‘Secret London’, and similar groups have been set up for other cities around the world. The point, apparently, is to tell absolutely everyone about those great places that aren’t already filled with tourists. The result, I can only assume, will be for all of those lovely little places to quickly become overcrowded and not-so-lovely little places, but that is only the beginning.

Already we live in a city that is fractured, or rather shattered by transport. If a place doesn’t have a tube station it barely exists in the consciousness of the average North Londoner. Where there’s a tube that will take you somewhere, most people will never walk. London is split into confined areas set around specified destinations, and through this already begins to lack identity as a city.

A few weeks ago, standing outside the Tate Britain, a couple of people asked me and a friend how to get to Liverpool street. We’re both Londoners and gave the answer that the best way would be to “go up the river for a couple of miles, perhaps there’s a bus that will take you along the Thames”, but this way of thinking about London, the geographical connection of places, seems rarer and rarer. It is as a result of a lack of this kind of thinking that people even feel they need groups about how to find cool places to go.

It might seem that I am simply arguing for a quaint old-fashionedness in an approach to a city, flâneurism even, but my point is more that the way that the city is split is of course not a result of the wills of the people who live in it. Maybe a better solution, instead of telling people where they can find a secret spot that is quite cool, would be to demand they challenge this edifice. To reclaim the city through a process of understanding that is so much challenged by the edifice of tube maps, transport systems, tourist information bureaux, city guides, etc. Without a doubt almost all of the secret places listed are random finds, so if we universalise this system of finding good places to go, we not only run the risk of losing our own secret places, but the entire way secret places may be found. And if the same principle is applied across all cities, that they become a mere collection of places rather than spaces, we may lose the entire reason why London is London.

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Reader Comments

John

Yes of course you’re being old fashioned and frankly a little NIMBYish. Imagine yourself as a tourist, wouldn’t you rather go to Cafe Spice for huge portions of badly mircowaved Nigerian/Indian okra slop with jollof than the Rainforest Cafe? There’s plenty of London for everyone, and plenty of secrets to keep and share. A coachload of italian schoolchildren are unlikely to understand why I like my favourite bench in Nunhead cemetery so much, but as I go there about once every 6 months I offer it to them gladly.

#1 
Written By John on February 7th, 2010 @ 1:38 am

As creator of the Secret London facebook group, I wrote a blog in response to yours. I invite you to read it and let me know what you think: http://secretlondonblog.onefinestay.com/ There is also a facebook discussion on the issue which I encourage you to engage with. http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=259068995911&topic=12498

#2 
Written By Tiffany Philippou on February 7th, 2010 @ 8:33 pm
Tiffany Sucks

Good god, does the universe revolve around Tiffany?

Rather than let people have a discussion on this blog, she wants to hog all the discussion to herself and her blog.

Get over yourself – your not royalty, even if your parents were tacky enough to name you after jewellery store.

All these “Secret London”, “Secret Paris” are for the nanosecond generation. By the very nature of what they are doing, they’ll destroy the things they profess to love. When they can’t get into their favourite restaurant, they’ll realise how stupid they were.

The favourite seat in Nunhead Cemetery is pretty safe – after 25 years of living and cycling round Peckham, Borough, Holloway, Finsbury Park, Clapton, Clapham, and Mile End I’ve never even heard of Nunhead.

#3 
Written By Tiffany Sucks on February 8th, 2010 @ 3:14 pm
Rob Haughton

Well done Troll. Hide behind your anonymity.

I have already responded to this blog on the discussion. And given my support to SecretLondon by saying the rules have not changed, this is simply word of mouth advertising which has been the backbone of any event or business since businesses begun.

But I just wanted to prove the point that I can imply that you seem like a “vulgar term for female genitalia” and give a name.

There is no need to be vindictive. I respect the author of this more than you (if you read the discussion, you’ll understand my meaning), at least he was making a point.

#4 
Written By Rob Haughton on February 8th, 2010 @ 8:41 pm
Andreas Papadopoulos

The name “Tiffany” comes from the Greek Θεοφάνεια. In the Greek Orthodox tradition this commemorates Jesus’ christening/baptising on the river Jordan by John the Baptist and is celebrated on January 6th each year (it’s also called Επιφάνεια or Epiphany). The female name is Θεοφανώ and the male Θεοφάνης. The eponymous jewellery store got its name much later. Given Tiffany’s surname I suspect she has Greek roots hence the name – it has probably nothing to do with the jewellery store.

Is there really a need for personal attacks such as the one above? It only betrays prejudice and ignorance.

Also, it’s somewhat odd to believe that the only thing that prevents hordes of people from flocking to these venues/locations/restaurants is the fact that they just don’t know about them. Is this really the case?

#5 
Written By Andreas Papadopoulos on February 23rd, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

I think secret London is a great idea, and if you don’t like it or don’t want to use it then refrain from doing so.

I do not think that it would ruin London in any way at all. If the masses would think that it would ruin london then they wouldn’t bother with it.

Just because something is secret and the world knows about it, it doesn’t mean that its no longer a secret. In the definition of the word it would literally no longer be a secret, but I don’t think you would get hoards and hoards of people to visit a park bench on a daily basis…there are so many other “secret” places that they could also see.

I am trying to write a user friendly guidebook on London, and if anyone wants a free copy once it is written I will gladly send you one. All I ask in favour of this is that you fill out a survey of mine which would take less than five minutes.

http://www.londonattractionsforfree.com

Peter

#6 
Written By peter on February 24th, 2010 @ 12:56 pm
Tom Davies

Having grown up in London and still spending a lot of time there, I feel there are two Londons; one for Londoners and the other for tourists and people who haven’t lived there long. The former know the city, know its often quicker to do journeys by foot or on the bus, than the tube. The best thing you can do if you want to get to know the city is to get an A-Z and invest a bit of free time visiting places by foot. That way you’ll find all the special places like unusual bars/pubs, theatres, cinemas, parks, green spaces, eateries etc that aren’t easily accessible by tube (the preferred mode of transport for the newcomer and visitor). These sort of places won’t become over-run, other than during temporary periods of hype such as recent inclusion on websites like SL, because they are harder to get to. Exposure on websites like SL will just benefit these places by occassional economic boosts, which in the current climate they may well need. So go and discover London on foot on the buses, know the city scape between A to B rather than popping up like a mole and feel smug about finding places that are special to yourselves. Theres nothing to worry about!

#7 
Written By Tom Davies on April 7th, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

I do not believe that the concept (or similar ones) will ruin the city. On the contrary … it could even help the small businesses and institutes that, in these hard economic times, are screaming for to being noticed and having someone on their porch (and come in).

This is my experience with the Secret Madeira and its Secret Sisters. Although it has not reached (yet) the totals like Secret London … it is very vivid and starting to be viral within the local population. For many years there a lots of unknown (hidden) places worth to visit on Madeira, Funchal and other villages on the island … but these are still unknown for most visitors. Even for a great part of the local habitants they are unaware of certain locations. It sounds strange but its true. Even I living here for 5 years on the island … each week I learn something new. I have to laugh at those who say that they have seen the whole island in one week. I call these people ‘short-sighted’.

And thus … if there is so much yet to see … why not give a starting hint for everybody to find it out.

#8 
Written By Don Amaro on August 21st, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

Firstly, I’m a big fan of SL (at this point I should point out that, knowing Tiff, I am obliged to say this lest she crush my sensitive gentleman’s parts with her delicate, yet deceptively strong, Greek hands) in principle – sharing knowledge is a great thing, especially when you know that other people can derive joy from it, and (often-times) small businesses will receive a well-deserved boost in business.

However, I do find myself agreeing, to a degree, with Jacob – I came to know London, as a resident who previously only knew it in a non-integrated series of pockets, by walking around. Be it with a specific destination and route in mind, or simply wandering, I now have an encyclopedic knowledge of Central London (and beyond, to a lesser degree), and found a great many places along the way.

With that said, I think the case that is being made by Jacob here is a little narrow, even if I do agree with his underlying contention that encouraging a more flaneur-esque approach and trying to surmount the problems of fragmentation is a worthwhile goal.

(1) Often, I’ve found that I’ve come to know new parts of London and make fresh discoveries as a welcome bonus from visiting somewhere I’ve had recommended to me. Countless are the times where I have gone for dinner somehwere, and prior to then have poked around looking for good local watering holes and generally taking in the area. Giving guaranteed “local gems” as an anchor point can help to encourage exploration, rather than hindering it. You’re sacrificing a fixed commodity (a particular recommended) destination in favour of potential (propensity to discovering surrounding areas).

(2) Small businesses which do things well obviously thrive if they get a lot of custom. Overwhelming demand for their products/services encourages expansion or similar quality substitutes. It also can go some way towards educating people towards better tastes and demanding better quality across the board. This in turn should drive the demand for and supply of places worthy of “hidden gem” status. If tourists are doomed to the mediocrity of the (recently rebranded … good luck with that) Angus Steak House chain, rather than knowing any better, and demanding more.

Of course, the down-side is that places will get busier and we don’t get to keep it to ourselves as effectively. But, if they do poor trade, they’ll end up shutting and we’ll lose it outright. Or, they’ll continue to do improving trade and it’ll get busier organically without the amplification of the word-of-mouth effect that facilities like Secret London offer.

Fact is, great spots will invariably get busy. We have to simply accept that, keep it on our roster of good spots (along with their number on speed-dial for the now mandatory reservations) and thrust forward in to uncharted territories finding new and exciting places – though given the turnover of businesses in London, you could probably walk around the same neighbourhood on a monthly basis and find new places to try …

#9 
Written By Gareth Rees on December 13th, 2010 @ 1:53 am

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