North Laine - that's the name!

Photo:Panoramic view of North Laine 2010

Panoramic view of North Laine 2010

Photo by Henry Bruce

A student researches the area

By Mary Yost


Every year students from the United States come to the University of Sussex for a Summer School. In 2011 the students were asked to research and write up an essay about the North Laine area and this essay by Mary Yost was considered the best of the bunch. Mary, from Washington DC, had only been in Brighton for two weeks when she submitted this.


North Laine 40 years ago

Slums. Homelessness. Violence. Disease. These words describe North Laine that many people knew 40 years ago. In 1975 the Royal Institution of British Architects said that North Laine could never be improved and, instead, should be redeveloped. However, the idea of maintaining the spirit of the houses in the area gained acceptance and North Laine was declared a Conservation Area in 1976. The name ‘North Laine’ was resurrected at this same time by planning officer Ken Fines to make a connection to the area’s agricultural history [Curran].

An eclectic, hip oasis

North Laine has grown into an eclectic, hip oasis since the 1970s. One of the major catalysts for this change was the cheap rents. Local artists and businesses could open their doors with very little capital, making dreamers able to achieve their goals. Peter Stocker was an active resident of North Laine for more than 15 years and sold pottery in the area from 1980 until 2009. He said: “This was the sort of place you came to because you couldn’t afford anywhere else. It was cheap and you could have a go at anything, try your hand at a new trade” [Wells]. People like Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop, dreamed big and used their creativity to draw customers into North Laine’s businesses [Davidson].

Community newsletter helps to educate the residents

The North Laine Community Association (NLCA) is another major source of the area’s success. The organisation has used its newsletter, TheNorth Laine Runner, to educate the community and encourage residents to become involved in their neighbourhood. In 1976 the NLCA wrote: “It does or should matter to YOU what goes on in the area in which you live or work. It’s no good getting all upset when things happen that you don’t like if you haven’t bothered to take the smallest bit of interest when it was possible to stop these things. The community association is the body through which it should be possible to make your voice heard” [Introduction].

Encouraging members to unite

The NLCA has maintained this voice since the 1970s and has encouraged the community to become involved in their neighbourhood. Similar issues have been mentioned in TheNorth Laine Runner since it began publishing in 1976. These issues include the building of carparks, driving conditions, the construction of buildings and graffiti. These are some of the issues that embroil the community’s members and encourage them to unite and organise to maintain their conservation area [Introduction].

A victim of its own success?

North Laine has become a victim of its own success. Long-time residents are moving out because they are unable to afford the high rents. Barry Leigh, planning and environment co-coordinator for NLCA, said: “Now with housing only suitable for the rich and shops only available to those with high margins and deep pockets, we wonder why that magic and specialness can no longer be fostered” [Davidson].

Keeping the area intact

This high cost of renting space has residents fearing that chain businesses will invade the area, causing North Laine to lose its charm. In 2003 Ian Pearce, a former resident and NLCA member, urged the community to take action against this threat. He wrote, “I read in the last Runner that the old Artworker shop in Kensington Gardens - one that I remember singling out to a colleague as being ‘typical North Laine’ - has now been taken over by Costa (lots of money) Coffee. I hope that I don’t sound too condescending but you really do have something special there in the shape of North Laine, so not just for my sake but for all those other people who want to return and those who have as yet never experienced the atmosphere, please do all you can to keep the area intact [Pearce].

A lack of political will?

North Laine’s community also suffers from a lack of political will. Since 1971 North Laine has seen a rapid increase in younger residents and a displacement of the elderly population, especially since the early 1990s. Affluent people are buying houses and are replacing the older, poorer renters who gave birth to this eclectic neighbourhood. These younger residents live in the area for an average of 6.2 years. Many also work in London, which means that their long commute time inhibits these residents from becoming too involved with their North Laine community [Campbell]. If this trend continues, it will be challenging for North Laine to retain its eclectic spirit.

Not a huge variety of stores

In addition to the housing costs and demographic changes occurring in the area, North Laine also suffers from not having a wide enough variety of stores. In 2000 Barry Leigh wrote in the North Laine Runner about the threat of having an unsustainable level of restaurants. He said: “We must never allow a single use, such as restaurants, in an area, as has happened in Preston Street and others. These roads have now become a shadow of their former selves. Without the mix, they are stagnant and dead” [Leigh]. While North Laine has been able to maintain a relatively stable mixture of businesses, restaurants and theatres, this is a problem that has always been on the neighbourhood’s radar and may become a more prominent challenge as chain restaurants and cafes, such as Costa Coffee, overtake established, local businesses.

Change has both positive and negative aspects

Change is inevitable and brings both positive and negative aspects to any community. North Laine has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. While there are many negative results from these changes for the community, I would argue that these changes have been mainly positive because they have stemmed from the NLCA’s community organising efforts. If this grassroots organisation were not present, North Laine would not have its Bohemian spirit. Many of North Laine’s residents remain proud of their neighbourhood and seek to maintain the sense of community that Maurice Allmen described in the early 1980s. He wrote: “Do you ever think to yourself, ‘How lucky we are to live in North Laine?’ Do you ever count your blessings as you look around this beautiful and very convenient part of Brighton?” [Allmen]. As long as a handful of activist, caring residents retain this sentiment, North Laine will be able to ward off the chain stores, encourage community involvement and retain this feeling in their neighbourhood.

It will require residents' active involvement

In 1979 historian Philip Gavston illustrated how North Laine’s current neighbourhood could be predicted by its history [Gavston]. This activist, community-oriented neighbourhood has fought many battles to become the area that it is today. It will not let these successes disappear overnight. However, a fight against money is a hard battle to win and will require their residents’ active involvement.

The power of grassroots organising

In conclusion, I am an optimist who thinks that North Laine has the potential to maintain its community feeling if its residents become or continue to remain active with the NLCA. I firmly believe in the power of grassroots organising and know that this association has the ability to achieve its goals with its community’s support. In addition, many visitors are attracted to the charm of this Bohemian district, so there is a large interest to maintain North Laine’s community feeling. As a tourist I was attracted to this area because of its large number of local and unique businesses. I do not like visiting other streets in Brighton because they do not have this feeling. Therefore, as Ian Pearce said, more than just residents have an interest in maintaining the spirit of North Laine. The support to maintain this eclectic neighbourhood is far reaching, meaning that it will retain its environment for years to come.

Works cited

Allmen, Maurice: "North Laine - it’s a wonderful place." North Laine Runner, February/March 1982

Campbell, Neil: "From hippie to yuppie: the gentrification of the North Laine." North Laine Runner, November/December 2007

Curran, Tim: "North LAINE—that’s the name." North Laine Runner, December 1980/January 1981

Davidson, Barbara: "Mavericks faced with the chain attraction." The Argus, 21 April 2003

Gavston, Philip: Comparison of private residences in North Laine: A transition zone in Brighton between 1871 and present day, 1979

"Introduction". North Laine Runner, December 1975/January 1976

Kaniuk, Lottie: "The other side of glittering Brighton", North Laine Runner, February/March 1977

Leigh, Barry: "Enough is enough", North Laine Runner, September/October 2000

Pearce, Ian: "Keep North Laine special", North Laine Runner, May/June 2003

Wells, Miriam: "Trafalgar Street has transformed in the past three decades", The Argus,1 September 2005

Whitehouse, Arnold: "Rebirth of North Laine", North Laine Runner, May/June 1983

[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 212, September/October 2011]


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