"It's just like any other high street." Gary's been standing on Camden High Street for roughly a month, holding a sign advertising a local piercing and tattoo parlour. He's an American and got offered this job while he was travelling. Camden has left him thoroughly unimpressed: "I'd liked to have been here in the '70s. But now it's a tourist trap."
We've come to Camden to speak to the subcultures that it's famous for; goths, punks and everything in between.
Gary says: "I see more hippies in Camden than goths or punks." We're a bit unconvinced by Gary's statements — especially after looking him up and down — so we move on to find someone else a little less cynical (although that might just come with the territory).
Dan works at Nemesis Tattoo and has been in Camden all of his adult life. He's angry about the changes he's seen in the area. "It's not Camden anymore, ever since the corporations cottoned on." He points to the prevalence of chain shops on the high street as proof of this, something that's hard to deny. He goes on to discuss how much the legendary Stables Market has changed:
12 years ago it was special. Nowadays people come to Camden because they've heard of it. Tourists from other countries. It's great for business but bad for culture.
Again he's got a point on the tourism front. Walking round these streets is arduous, even on a weekday, due to the throng of people. A large proportion of these are foreign school groups; Camden has become another box to tick on the London sightseeing list. Dan sees that Camden has changed to accommodate these new arrivals. "The facilities are a lot nicer now but it's not special anymore. It used to be dingy and grubby, but it was ours."
We move off the high street and into the famed Stables Market itself, where we meet Joana. She's returning to Camden for the first time in a month, just before she leaves England to return to her native Portugal. She used to work in Cyberdog, a haven for all things weird and wonderful and a mainstay in the market for over 20 years. She sees Camden as self-sustaining:
Alternative people come here because it's where the alternative shops are.
She's the only person we speak to who doesn't hark back to any forgotten prime of Camden, just enjoying it for what's here now.
The owner of one of Camden's goth shops, who'd prefer not to be named, said that lots of stores similar to hers had closed in recent years for a myriad of reasons. Taking a more pragmatic approach, she says that the genesis of online shopping hit many of the niche stalls hard. She also complains about the market's shift towards food stalls, leaving herself and her peers feeling "pushed to the side".
This complaint about food stalls is intriguing, in that these very same food stalls are worried about the future of the market. In fact, food has been a part of the market since 1974, although recently the amount of food stalls is rapidly increasing. This is a reminder that those who fight change in an area's makeup are perceived by others as part of the problem themselves.
Nearly every person you speak to around here says that Camden's heyday is past. It's fascinating to hear each person name a different period as the area's peak. Yvette has been coming monthly for two and a half years and for her the change is even more recent. "I come to Camden because I feel at home here." She's also the only person we find who explicitly mentions the g-word that's seems to be caught on the tip of everyone's tongue — "gentrification".
"Even in the last year and a half I feel less at home on the high street than I used to." The same visual keeps cropping up, where culture is squeezed off the high street and into one small corner of the market. She ends on a positive note, saying there are people trying to fight for the market to stay the same. She doesn't talk about exactly who these people are, but there have been anti-gentrification protests around here in the past.
Someone that shares Yvette's optimism is Bob. He stands out from the crowd even in a place where outlandish characters are the norm. He's seen Camden through its many guises but has one particular favourite era; the eighties. "All the different tribes would come down here and get in their uniform. It has changed now. There's lots more tourists and lots of the goths shops closed. We're hoping it [Camden's glory era] is going to come back."
He also remembers when King's Road in Chelsea used to be the home of punk. That was a similarly long time ago to (in his mind) Camden's heyday, but there's a distinctive difference in the two regions. Punks don't hang out in Chelsea. There's barely a lingering trace of what used to be there. Instead the street is dotted with designer clothes stores. It would be easy to dismiss Bob and some others' optimism as naïve, but the fact that these alternative subcultures still come to the area show that all is not quite yet lost for Camden.