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Trainspotting and Trendsetting

Like any other metropolis, Edinburgh has its share of glitz and glamour, stoops and slums. The thing that has always intrigued me is the way that trend and fashion are often born in the precincts of the poor, only to be worn out by the machinations of popular culture and the lumbering action of the bandwagon. Edinburgh’s Leith district provides an illustration.

The theory goes like this. Poor suburbs = cheap rent and the perception of a lower standard of living. The well to do, the normal and the sane are kept away by the prospect of street crime, the grimy appearance and the stale smell of urban decay. It is this environment however that often provides the inspiration for those amongst us that push the boundaries of popular culture and create something new. Struggling artists, writers, musicians, and others who dwell on the fringes of the bell curve can’t necessarily afford to live in nice neighbourhoods and might find such places…well…boring. Seen through a different lense, the grime and danger that most people avoid is actually life in its fullest urban expression. Seeing a shouting match, a brawl and an OD on your way home may be scary, but it’s also vibrant, and for some, inspiring.

So lets say the creative crowd move in and get to work. Good art, music and culture often stems from the underground, and its likely to attract a host of taggers on. Trendy cafes open up. Local bars host the freshest sounds of the underground. The wheels of popular culture start creaking. Word spreads. At the epicentre of creativity new fashion is being born and the pack follows in droves. Added demand for rental space pushes prices up. The scum moves out. Hell, the place is even cleaned up a bit. Before long (I don’t know, how long does this take?) every woman, man, their cat and Vauxhall lives on the street where only junkies and ne’er do wells used to sleep on concrete pillows. The effect? Just another regular, safe and boring suburb is born; all the while the party, and the new cool, is being generated somewhere else.

Don’t believe me? Irvine Welsh‘s 1993 literature (and later film) classic Trainspotting was largely set in Leith. The images of social decay and hedonism gone awry provided powerful inspiration for this film. Early 90’s Leith was true to this depiction. But not now. UndiscoveredScotland had this to say:

“Anyone who has read Irvine Walsh’s Trainspotting will feel they know all they need to know about Leith, and steer well clear of it. Yet today’s Leith would be barely recognisable to the 1993 characters of the book. Over the past decade what was a typically rough-edged large seaport has turned into something very different. Today’s Leith is a fitting foil for Edinburgh’s Athens of the North; and while calling it the Venice of the North might be going a little far, the ongoing development of its many waterfront areas into smart (and expensive) flats; into restaurants and bars; and into shops and offices is certainly pushing it in that direction. ”

Welsh, who was raised on the (then) gritty streets of Leith, recently lambasted its ‘yuppification’, and “accused developers of providing just a few token “cheap” housing developments to keep local people quiet while building posh flats for ‘rich incomers‘. Further evidence of this yuppification can be found in recent news announcing the development of Leith as an ‘international culinary centre‘. So it’s now a very nice place to live. Not so many needles on the street, but perhaps not another trainspotting around the corner. The only thing left to ask is…where is it happening now?