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Ever since coming to England as a student in 1956 I’ve wanted to live in Portobello Road. I’ve lived here for twenty five years. It was love at first sight. As I walked down the street, I had to pinch myself to believe that it might be possible to own a bit of this. The building, once a magnificent lodge, had been converted six years previously from a sleazy hotel – rumour has it it was a brothel – into respectable apartments. The houses certainly aren’t ‘faded’ now. They gleam with white paint like newly iced cakes. The shops round the market have stopped selling useful things and been turned into estate agents and dress shops. The 20th century Theatre, which must have rung out with music hall songs, is used for designer sales. The modest Alice G Brown Welfare Centre built in 1918 with cherubs round the plaque now sells bespoke wedding dresses.
For me the area is not only redolent of the past but of the trendy present. I love the mix of ages and nationalities and races. Because I live on a communal garden I get to know many of the other people who share the green space. In summer, when the sun shines, we all come out like daisies. Barbeques sizzle and wine is drunk far into the night. Many of the flats are rented out so there is a continual change of occupants and I take particular pleasure in watching the babies turn into definable personalities before moving on.
I have thought about whether Portobello Road will encapsulate the ambience of this particular epoch and I have to admit that there’s a part of me that’s a bit apprehensive about what is happening at the moment. There’s a hunger for gutting interiors – it’s euphemistically called ‘refurbishing’ – burrowing deep down into the earth to create basements to house private gyms and palates studios, creating meadows on roof terraces, and then selling on for a huge profit, while contributing nothing to the community. If there’s a mammoth financial slump the area might go to seed once more and revert to ‘faded gentility’. But I don’t think that would really matter. I believe Portobello Road will never lose its essential character.