diamond geezer

 Saturday, June 14, 2014

What do you call that area of London between the West End and the City? Sort of north of Covent Garden and south of King's Cross. I bet you don't call it Midtown. But there's still an organisation out there hoping desperately that you will. I don't rate their chances.

Four years ago 560 local companies in the East West End/West City area grouped together and created inmidtown, a Business Improvement District they hoped would bring greater prosperity. Their plan was to make the area better for "investors, residents and visitors", and key to that was creating a finer sense of place. Bloomsbury wasn't good enough for them, Holborn wasn't suitably wide-ranging, and St Giles wasn't sufficiently well-known. So they plumped for an umbrella name, of the kind a particularly uninspired focus group might dream up. They decided on Midtown. And the rest of London shrugged their shoulders, walked away and carried on with the rest of their lives.

Undaunted they set up a website called inmidtown.org, rather than inmidtown.com or inmidtown.co.uk, because they seem to have a delight for offbeat URLs. This is their site for businesses and investors, which crows about worthy things like landfill, sustainability and collective bargaining power, because such are the high tenets of corporate responsibility. They last updated their news page (with details of an air quality monitoring project) way back in March, so they're not exactly a cutting edge concern. They're also just a little bit over-optimistic about the Midtown name. "The creation and roll-out of a distinct and identifiable brand for Bloomsbury, Holborn and St Giles... is vital to the area’s success as an area to work in, shop in and explore", they say, which can only suggest that the area's vitality is doomed.

Two years ago they set up a different website for visitors to the area, called gotomidtown.co.uk. This takes a rather more promotional tack, based on luring in potential punters who might spend dosh on restaurants, a museum visit or spa treatment. It won't surprise you to hear that Midtown is a great place to drink, and to eat, and to shop, and to relax, because anywhere that's ever had a PR-driven website is exactly the same. But good luck trying to locate any of the delights on the website, because gotomidtown.co.uk has one of the worst online directories I've ever seen. They have a map but refuse to list anything on it until you enter something into the search box, so you almost need to know what you're looking for in advance and serendipitous discovery is unlikely.

Wander around core Midtown, say between Bloomsbury Street and Holborn station, and you'll likely see big Midtown banners hung from the lampposts. I think they're designed to create a sense of community cohesion and to promote the key values that those in the business improvement district share. But it's hard to get excited about green rooftops you can't see, and power generation schemes that collectively cut carbon emissions, so I'm not convinced many people engage. Plus these giant banners don't include the inmidtown.org or gotomidtown.com address, oh no. They include a shortcut URL you're supposed to remember and type in instead, for example mid.bz/midtownfuture. The only problem is that they're entirely unmemorable, especially that peculiar bz suffix, and if you only type in mid.bz you don't end up anywhere relevant at all.

To promote this geographical concept in the flesh, inmidtown boast two physical drop-in presences. One is a bright orange kiosk immediately outside Holborn tube station, where a uniformed guide waits patiently to tell fresh-faced visitors emerging from the tube where to go, and maybe dishes out a (useful) area map. The poor lady in the newspaper kiosk alongside is clearly sick of being asked similar questions, and has stuck numerous paper signs on her magazine racks urging lost souls to go and ask somebody who cares.

And then, perhaps more surprisingly, there's a Midtown tourist information centre in a shop on New Oxford Street. I've managed to walk past several times over the past few years without spotting it, lurking smack between a computer shop and an Italian restaurant. The unit appears to be called Hotels Tickets Sightseeing Travel, with gotomidtown.co.uk written in rather smaller letters underneath, but that's because they want people to go inside and book something like a taxi or a ticket for the Heathrow Express. The shop window contains a variety of Midtown merchandise, should you be particularly proud of your local neighbourhood, including mugs, matches, pens and umbrellas. Most of these are emblazoned with Midtown's mascot, that's BuzzBee, which also explains why you can buy honey, honey sweets, honey dippers and even a mini bee hotel if the fancy strikes.

Poor old BuzzBee must have felt like such a good idea when the marketing team thought him up, embodying eco-credentials and sustainability in an efficient collaborative manner, and he even has his own Twitter account. But it seems his creators have finally realised they're on a hiding to nothing and thrown in the towel, because BuzzBee tweeted for the final time last week, pleading with any lingering followers to go and follow @gotomidtown instead. If they're the sort of person who likes corporate retweets for pancake deals and spa open days, who knows, perhaps they did.

If you live or work locally, or have a penchant for history, the best thing about gotomidtown is undoubtedly its series of guided walks. These run several times a week, almost daily in the summer, and cover such diverse subjects as suffragettes, Dr Crippen, rock stars and Sir Edwin Lutyens. They're also free, so long as you don't mind wandering around behind a man in a bright orange shirt for up to two hours. But I doubt that historians of the future will be calling this area Midtown, because existing names like Bloomsbury and Holborn are too strong, and because nobody likes an artificially bland imposition. Still, don't expect that to stop this business consortium from promoting Midtown as WC1's go-to destination of choice. And please, don't even get me started on The Northbank...

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