John is a Trustee of Fitzrovia Community Centre and resident of over 30 years.
I moved in to Fitzrovia in 1979, and have lived here ever since. I lived in in a one bedroom flat in Marylebone for £13 a week, but found my friend in Fitzrovia only paid £6. I found out who his landlord was and got a two bedroom flat for £10 a week! The flats had no heating and no lifts, but it was cheap.
Then, it was mainly private tenants, but people started to take up the Right to Buy scheme and Housing Associations came in to buy and renovate the old buildings. One of them took over my block, knocked down the whole of the building – leaving just the front intact – and redeveloped it. The Housing Associations had a duty to provide housing for all, so you got a wider cross section of the community moving in, especially around Great Portland and Great Tichfield Streets. This area was like a sweatshop for the garment trade – the clothes wholesalers helped my budget a lot - so there was a big Jewish population too. That gradual build-up of ethnic groups made it a more multicultural area.
When I moved here we had our own butcher, baker and ironmonger. We used to have lots of working men’s cafes, but they’re all gone now. Virtually every other shop nowadays wants you to drop in for a cup of coffee – my goodness, even the old underground toilets on Foley Street are a coffee shop. And of course the supermarkets! We’ve got a mini this and a local that on every corner, and the neighbourhood has become much more 24 hour.
I’ve never felt threatened in Fitzrovia, even though it’s in the West End, and it’s always looked very nice here. Fitzrovia was ‘prettified’ quite a lot through the 80s and 90s – with hanging baskets and trees that I’ve seen grow from practically nothing, The buildings are wonderful too. Walk down Great Portland Street and look up, and you’ll see these amazing old buildings with modern frontages at the bottom.
It’s not perfect - the roads are in a terrible state and the traffic is bad. We used to get regular visits from the neighbourhood police but we don’t see them around anymore. It would be nice to have some local shops. But it’s still a great place to live. I love it here and can’t imagine living anywhere else.
I didn’t get to know people terribly well until I stopped working so much. Then I became a trustee of FCC, to give something back to the community. We originally had two rooms in the main building, but this centre has been beautifully done and we’re so lucky to have it. I feel at home here.
In the future I’d like to see more communication between people. I must admit we’re very lucky in my block, but others don’t talk. I go out for a walk every day with a gentleman of 91, and when we come back we sit outside and people have started talking to us when they go past. I think that this centre could do that – bring people together for conversations. I would like this area to be more like a community - it’s like a lot of strangers living close together, which is sad. Australia has amateur dramatic societies in every area, but there’s nothing like that here. I’d love to get hold of the swimming pool and turn it into a meeting hall where we could have shows - all kinds of things could be possible.