LIKE an expensive gas, the middle classes expand into hitherto despised areas of our cities. Whole parishes once earmarked for redevelopment or condemned as slums suddenly find themselves invaded by dual-income couples bent on rescuing the architecture from years of thoughtlessness. As each boom arrives, the race begins to find the next up-and- coming area. In the Sixties, Chelsea was dragged from the arms of old ladies and wired for sound; in the Seventies, Islington set itself on course to become the area with the most restaurants per capita in the country; the Eighties spawned such areas in handfuls - the station district of Grantham, Hyde in Winchester, Jericho in Oxford.
Examine the map of London and you will see that the hierarchy in the market follows the geographical contours. Those areas that arrived decades ago are on the tops of hills, beside the largest green parks or along the most reliable Tube lines. The rest can only aspire. Some that are ahead in the queue are there on an architecture ticket - Camberwell Grove with its Georgian houses, for example. Others such as East Dulwich, Stoke Newington and De Beauvoir, are soaking up those who can't afford Dulwich or Islington.
If baby boutiques, interior design shops and places selling gifts from Italy are the yardstick, then perhaps areas such as Stoke Newington have arrived. But is it chosen by househunters for its desirability or for its affordability? That is the real test.
Some areas have been in a state of up-and-comingness for an almost indecent length of time. Crouch End, in spite of sightings of Bob Dylan, is denied access to the arrivals lounge because it lacks a Tube. Winkworth estate agents say property prices here are still 30 per cent lower than those in nearby Highgate Village.
Acton meanwhile, which does have a Tube station, has tremendous appeal to those who cannot afford Ealing or Chiswick. Winkworth reports that three-bedroom houses here have risen in price from pounds 120,000 last year to pounds 140,000 now. Acton can also offer larger Edwardian houses than its neighbours, so though they may have to endure an address that sounds like a skin disorder, buyers can comfort themselves with the fact that they may be getting more house for their money.
Docklands, however, is the area that seems to have been kept waiting in the arrivals lounge the longest. The Eighties left it with one of the largest housing lakes in Europe. Unsold developments had to be boarded up for the recession. People who moved in on the magic carpet of hype rapidly became disillusioned. The Docklands Light Railway has left them unserved at weekends and in the evenings; the vital road route provided by the Limehouse Link Tunnel remains snagged with roadworks and hold-ups; and it is still easier to buy speciality chocolates than it is to buy a tube of toothpaste.
Yet estate agents here are wagging their tails again. Chestertons says prices are down 40 per cent because of the slump, but sales are up 50 per cent on last year. Hopes are pinned on the DLR running more frequently by the end of the year. There is now a Safeway at Tower Bridge, and office space is finally being taken up in Canary Wharf. It is an area that works best for the childless young and the old, those drawn to the apartment lifestyle in a Manhattan-meets-East-End landscape.
Almost every city has its own up- and-coming area that has been dragged, like Eliza Doolittle, out of the gutter and taught to enunciate its vowels. In York there is Bishopshill, where seams of little Victorian terraces, designed by the railway architect G G Andrews, run within the city walls. It was destined at one time to be cleared to make way for a second railway station.
In the late Seventies young couples discovered they could buy something small with two bedrooms for pounds 14,000 right in the heart of the city. Today the same houses change hands for pounds 60,000 to pounds 65,000. The very prettiest, in Dewsbury Terrace, will push buyers up to pounds 80,000.
Bishopshill is now the home of young lawyers, academics and distressed gentlefolk (in other words, divorcees). Community feeling gels nicely around a shared hatred of anyone who dares to park in areas reserved for residents. In the late Eighties people started removing the plate-glass replacement windows and putting back the sashes. Fireplaces have been reopened. Inhabitants refer to their homes as 'little cottages', bijou rather than pokey.
But the yawning trap with any up- and-coming area reveals itself when owners move into the child-rearing phase of their lives and try to move out and up. 'People leaving Bishopshill have a nasty hike,' says Edward Waterson of Carter Jonas estate agents. 'They might sell at pounds 65,000, but to find anything with three bedrooms in the country is going to cost pounds 100,000 to pounds 125,000.'
In Cambridge it was blight that created the areas now enjoyed by high-earning professional couples. For decades the Kite district, a network of unremarkable Victorian houses fronting straight on to the pavements, was blighted as it awaited clearance in favour of a massive shopping complex. In the Eighties, the vast scale of the scheme was abandoned and the Kite breathed once more. 'You could have picked up a house for a few pence,' says John Pocock of Pocock & Shaw. 'Now we sell them at pounds 130,000.'
But often the early explorers in the urban interior, hunting out new places to delight in, are couples who have scarcely graduated from university. The back-packers of the real- estate world, they relish the ethnic, the raw, the cheap and the neglected aspects of areas that have fallen from grace. In Cambridge, they have flocked to the railway workers' houses built either side of the tracks off Mill Road. The cheaper ones sell at pounds 60,000- pounds 70,000, though the large villas close to the station fetch more than pounds 250,000. The wholefood shops have followed them, turning this into serious bean-eating territory.
Though people sometimes move from up-and-coming to suburban areas, the two almost directly contradict each other in terms of image. The former attract people who abhor the hedge-clipping rituals of the latter. Inhabitants of up-and-coming areas are brave (they go where others may not wish to go), tolerant (of the shortcomings that still exist), liberal (in accommodating the good and bad aspects of city life) and not terribly wealthy (as they can't afford to live in a better area).
Montpelier in Bristol provided the classic ingredients for just such a social profile in the late Eighties, when prices in the established areas such as Cotham, Kingsdown and Redland rose out of sight for many. Montpelier offered a pocket of Victorian and Georgian houses, sandwiched between the quiet, respectable streets of St Andrew and the sleaziness and tension of St Paul's. Teachers, doctors, social workers poured in. Picton Street sprouted grocery shops selling olive bread.
House prices here rose faster than anywhere else in Bristol between 1986 and 1989. 'At the beginning this was just a shabby inner-city area like St Paul's,' says Michael Kendall of Allen & Harris estate agents. 'Now a Georgian house with four bedrooms will sell for pounds 110,000- pounds 150,000 and a two-bedroom Victorian house for pounds 50,000.'
But has Montpelier actually arrived? Though those who live there know it has, crusty-minded surveyors will often consider otherwise and downvalue sale prices accordingly. They refer to those houses close to the St Paul's border as 'too close to The Front Line'.
In another category are the up-and-coming areas that developers have tried to graft on to inner-city wasteland under the label 'urban regeneration'. These areas are built on promises which, like mirages, can remain tantalisingly out of reach. Newcastle upon Tyne has its own version along the banks of the River Tyne. St Peter's Basin, a marina development, has been living on promises for many years.
As it is close to the new law courts it provides eyries for legal eagles, bolt-holes for barristers. That you have to pass pigeon sheds, old warehouses, scrap metal yards and an incineration plant to get there failed to put off the early settlers. They have accepted that they formed a crucial early piece in a largeish jigsaw but have had to wait longer than anticipated for the next pieces to be put down.
There were four years of wrangling over land acquisition deals with the 48 different owners of the site before the East Quayside development could start rising out of the ground. The pounds 190m scheme, a mile upstream, has now started, and when finished should provide major town squares with offices, houses, an arts complex, a hotel and so on. It is hugely ambitious, and styled by the architect Terry Farrell.
Mike Goundry bought a three- storey townhouse overlooking the river at St Peter's four years ago. He was seduced by the model of what it would look like. 'I thought the model looked tremendous. Barratt used the word 'village' but I'd describe it more as a 'pocket' than as a village,' he says. 'It's not yuppyville but it is smart.' He bought for pounds 83,000 and two years ago, as the recession reached its nadir, he had the house valued at pounds 125,000. 'How many houses have risen in price during the recession?' he asks. Which just goes to show that you don't have to actually arrive in order to harvest the profits.
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