Never trust everything a travel guide tells you, we’ve learned. But that doesn’t mean we think Lonely Planet got it wrong when they named one south London suburb as one of their coolest places on Earth.
The honour went to Tooting: land of the “curry mile”, the UK’s largest swimming pool, Sadiq Khan, a fancy bingo hall, the medics of St George’s Hospital, Europe’s largest Chicken Cottage, and — as nostalgics are fond of mentioning — an old BBC sitcom named Citizen Smith.
And not a lot else, many seem to think. But Tooting was singled out for its “gritty charm”. Some viewed Lonely Planet's accolade as a long time coming, while others were simply baffled by it.
Once the dust had settled, we went to see whether folks here were tooting their own trumpets.
‘Eclectic, without being poncey’
Mark Westcott is pulling pints in Craft Tooting: the first craft beer shop in Tooting, “and therefore,” he chuckles, “officially one of the top ten craft beer shops in the world.
“It just rolls off the tongue, y’know? New York, Lisbon, Tooting, Abu Dhabi...”
“And Derby?” asks one mishearing punter in a hopeful East Midlands accent. It’s clear people are now coming from far and wide to Tooting — or, as locals call it, “Tooting, of all places!” We’re told this very shop has even seen an influx of camera-wielding Japanese tourists in the wake of that fateful Lonely Planet article.
But what many have known in this part of the world for three or four years is that the area around Tooting Broadway tube station is an embarrassment of hip riches. It was inevitable that creative types would end up here as rent prices forced them further and further down the Northern line.
And so the curry restaurants and pound shops of SW17 have new company. In Tooting’s two indoor markets, we observe a whole generation of post-Instagram businesses whose carefully-designed interiors practically have tints and filters built into them. Chic, pun-heavy drinking venues now rub shoulders with Islamic fashion stores; street food vendors are now the neighbours of fruit and veg sellers.
“We actually brought in the night trade,” points out Kiki Evans of Unwined in Tooting, a former pop-up now with a permanent home in Tooting Market. “Lots of people didn’t get to even see the market before. It was closed when they finished work. It was dying and we gave it new life.”
The word that Evans and others are keen to stress is community. Many of the traders talk about Tooting’s self-sufficiency; claiming that the traditional and new industries complement each other and that the markets’ change of function hasn’t compromised their ability to give a punter everything they need. In Evans’s words, Tooting is “eclectic, without being poncey like Brixton.”
Take Pedal Back Café: a place to get both your caffeine fix and your bike fixed. Co-owner Ria Redford-Moore says it offers something fresh and modern, without wanting appear too exclusive. “Coffee and bikes are two things that are often a bit snobby and hierarchical,” she says.
“People in other parts of London moan that you can’t shop on your high street anymore,” says Magda Fenikowska of Graveney & Meadow, a low-lit brunch and drinking spot. “I think Tooting has an answer to that,” she says. “You genuinely can buy local here, and people do.” She cites Tootopia, an annual food and drink festival she helps organise (which runs from 22 to 24 September 2017).
“What you notice here is that people seem to actively give a shit,” adds another of the brains behind Tootopia. Braden Fletcher is the events manager at Tooting Tram & Social: a bar and music venue in Tooting’s former tramshed. “It took us a few years to convince promoters to put things on down here, but we've very glad that we eventually did.”
Indeed, what Tooting has now that it undoubtedly didn’t before is a status as a nightlife destination. The night tube is making SW17 a going-out hotspot in its own right; not just a corridor to other places.
Chris Kemp is the general manager of The Castle: supposedly Tooting’s oldest pub, it recently underwent a much-needed facelift. Part of its new, wider offering includes a tent in the back garden used for ultra-popular Bake Off-style culinary contests.
“My gosh, was Tooting crying out for a place like this,” Kemp remembers. “Before, the pub smelt of piss and nobody came in. It was pretty much only making money from the car park.”
‘I hadn’t heard about it’
News of Tooting’s cool credentials were yet to reach Sundar, the man behind the till at Sri Video & Grocery. “I hadn’t heard about it,” he admits. “But I guess the area has changed a lot since I got here…” Just then, a youth leaps into the premises, and — bellowing — extracts an imaginary gun for an imaginary robbery. We later reflect with Sundar that the prank was cruel and, briefly, a bit terrifying. “We get that stuff,” he shrugs.
It’s a cliché to remark that gentrification never touches everyone in an area, and that it probably displeases an even greater number of people. Nevertheless, it’s worth saying in Tooting’s case, since the area has changed so rapidly. The cool wave only seems to have struck around 2013 (and is sometimes attributed to the arrival of Soho House’s Chicken Shop). There’s worry that all this attention could leave the area’s authenticity — and its diversity — hanging in the balance.
Proudly standing out from the kitsch decor that fills much of Tooting Market are the simple hand-painted signs of Stannard Butchers. The guys have traded here for more than 50 years (the longest in the market), and seen plenty of change. Current owner Daniel Stannard has an array of sharp knives; we wonder if he’ll have even sharper words about Tooting’s new ambitions of world-beating trendiness?
“I definitely don’t think at age 17, 18, I’d have called Tooting cool,” he says matter-of-factly. “I guess you’d say there’s a different demographic now. Is it cooler these days? Depends on what you mean by the word. Personally, I liked it better when this was a market in the truest sense of the word.”
Jerry, a cobbler who works next to the tube station, has the same view. “A market is where you buy things,” he reasons, gesturing with towards the offending part of Tooting with a hammer.
“Tooting doesn’t have what it used to have. What I want is a proper old-fashioned pub, where you can sit, and drink. Some of the ones around here are a bit too into food, know what I mean?
“Tooting right now is not good for business,” says Sami, who works in a clothing outlet in Broadway Market. “And that’s not cool for me.” He feels that increased parking costs have put off shoppers, while rising rents in the area mean retailers are truly attacked on two sides.
“The only people who win are the people who get money from parking tickets,” Sami adds. “This was a strong Muslim and Asian market. But now lots of those people go to Wembley instead. Once I would have been too busy to talk to you. But not anymore.”
As we stack up the coffees on our trendy Tooting tour, we reflect that the flat white is perhaps the ultimate symbol of gentrification; since flatness and disproportionate whiteness are two things people complain about most in a rapidly smartened-up urban area.
One of the managers of the Indian restaurant Dosa n Chutny, Prabhu Prasath, says that over the last three years, he’s witnessed a change in his evening clientele — which is now “maybe 80% white people”. But he says this may reflect little more than cultural preferences over mealtimes: the trend is reversed at lunch, when there’s a strong Asian showing. At all times of day, what he hears from diners is that Tooting is something of a pilgrimage site; not just somewhere that's 'locals only'.
“People say they come very far to get here,” he reports. “An hour or more, from places like Kent. They say it’s because they don’t get proper South Indian food where they live.”
Emily Hammerton-Barry of Graveney Gin, a local distiller, is no less aware of the changing profile of Tooting. She used to visit her granny here as a child. “I do recognise that I’m part of this whiter presence, and I think the worst thing that could happen to Tooting is losing its diversity. The markets have to stay affordable and somewhere that anyone feels able to use as a central point.”
But maybe it’s already game over. Maybe whatever is happening in Tooting has already happened, past tense. If even the Telegraph already knew about its coolness, then surely it’s in with the City types and out with the hipsters — to Mitcham, Croydon, Crawley, the Isle of Wight. It’s a definite RIP to anyone who was here before then, whether the working class or the South Asian community. And say sayonara to Tooting Market: that’ll be bulldozed for Crossrail 2, because after all, transport links are way more important than… you know… the places you actually want to be transported to. (Ladies and gentleman, we give you the London Astoria.)
At least, you’d think all that was true based on how some people talk.
There’s too often a tendency to discuss the fate of a place as if it was a closed chapter rather than a living, breathing, ongoing story. What we’ve learned is that Tooting is simply the latest centre for a very active debate around positive and negative development and social forces in London.
Whether cool or otherwise, fragile or otherwise, Tooting is at least notable — and sometimes that’s enough to like somewhere.