diamond geezer

 Monday, March 19, 2007

Stratford froths up

Stratford town centre isn't the loveliest place in East London, as anyone who's ever visited knows. The central shopping area lies trapped on a concrete island encircled by a four lane ring road. Pound shops, fast food joints and bookmakers jostle for passing trade in the characterless mall. Here market traders flog cheap veg and value binliners to tracksuited mums and basket-pushing pensioners. There's a Wilkinsons but not a Waitrose, and a JD Sports but not a Marks and Spencer. This is no chain store clone town, this is something considerably less affluent. If you had the choice, you'd almost certainly go shopping somewhere else.

Starbucks StratfordBut something astonishing has happened in Stratford, which may be the first genuine sign that the long-promised gentrification of the area is starting to have an effect. A branch of Starbucks has opened! In East London! In Stratford! I must say I was gobsmacked when I first stumbled across it. Right in the heart of the town centre, beside the southern entrance to the shopping mall, was the telltale green logo of Seattle's most famous caffeine peddler. More strikingly the front door was open, and local residents were actually stopping to go inside.

But closer scrutiny through the gleaming glass windows revealed that most of those sitting at the yet-to-be-graffitied tables weren't your typical Starbucks punters. E15's fresh coffeeteria boasted a runty kid sat slurping beside his shaven-headed dad, a socket-eyed pensioner staring at the racing pages of a tabloid and an anoraked middle aged couple cradling something warm and steaming. This new Starbucks wasn't yet attracting an upmarket clientele, it was just another café where local shoppers could go for an overpriced coffee and a mid-morning muffin. Stratford's residents haven't yet evolved into mass market consumers with a taste for gratuitous indulgence.

Starbucks StratfordThere are far greater changes to come as the 2012 Olympics draw closer. Look around the skyline and you'll see new apartment blocks springing up all over - swish modern blocks with curvy profiles and primary-coloured balconies. Slowly the moneyed classes are moving in - residents who prefer wine bars and boutiques to off licences and betting shops. One Starbucks is not going to be enough.

That's OK, because an enormous new retail playground is under construction to the north of the station. At the moment Stratford City is just a huge expanse of flattened railway sidings, but within the next few years it'll become a whole new urban district of homes, offices and of course shops. We're promised at least 100 new shops, of precisely the kind that don't exist in Stratford at the moment. There'll even be three major department stores - including a John Lewis! Given the poor retail environment that E15 offers today, this is little short of transformational.

But I fear that we may be seeing the development of two parallel Stratford shopping centres. One south of the railway for all the existing residents, and the other north of the railway for all the affluent incomers. One for everyday necessities, and the other for aspirational luxuries. One where local people shop, and the other where they mop the floors. At least 2007's new Starbucks has appeared in the right place to make a difference. It's a cappucino catalyst, and it might just start attracting more of the smarter shops that people on the opposite side of London take for granted. You'll not be seeing me inside Stratford's new Starbucks because I prefer a nice mug of industrial strength tea and a currant bun elsewhere. But rest assured that your Olympic taxes are already beginning to pay dividends. The bucks start here.

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