What was King’s Cross like at the turn of the millennium?

Stephen Emms remembers a walk up York Way one evening back in 2002

Industrial landscape, early 2000s. Photo: Stephen Emms
Industrial landscape, early 2000s. Photo: Stephen Emms
It was a cool night as I stepped off the bus. The rain had eased but the air was still damp – and the Caledonian Road bristled with life.

Two mothers were having a noisy argument about something. Their kids attacked taut black bin-liners, before jumping on a discarded sofa, which clung to the kerb. One mother swore at them, but it was too late: the sofa had collapsed, and the bags burst to triumphant cheers, their contents swept into the traffic by the breeze. Horns beeped, voices screamed. Unruffl ed, the gang spread themselves over a brick wall.

I took a right turn at the Ethiopian restaurant on the corner; by the library, a fleet of trolleys lay upturned in the community gardens.

Headlines, Evening Standard c2002. Photo: Stephen Emms
Headlines, Evening Standard c2002. Photo: Stephen Emms
In those days, York Way dissected the vast derelict area behind King’s Cross Station, the site of the burgeoning redevelopment for a new Eurostar terminal. Former pubs and schools, all in the initial throes of regeneration, were concealed by scaffolding. Future hotels, restaurants, bars and shopping malls posed coyly behind plastic sheeting. Skeletal Victorian buildings lay half-demolished. It was a city being built.

“King’s Cross is like a theatre,” the owner of a caff on the Cally Road would tell me over weak black coffee. What he meant was that its cast of players – prostitutes, dealers, workmen, baffled tourists – all seemed to act out their roles against a set of ragged tenements and alleyways.

“No, it’s like a port,” an older customer next to me would insist, screwing up his face. “It’s the last place in London that feels like a port.”

He would then explain that the history of the area was marked by tides of progress and decline. “Change is inevitable,” he’d say, shrugging his shoulders. And he was right: there was a nagging sense of transience.

Euston Road, 2002. Photos: Stephen Emms/ London Belongs To Me Ltd.
Euston Road, 2002. Photos: Stephen Emms/ London Belongs To Me Ltd.
But at nightfall this feeling of impermanence was frozen. You could, if you chose, peer through the railings at the sprawl of work-in-progress London: a dozen skips, pregnant with debris, would be squatted on the mud, with fork-lift trucks and tractors dancing motionless around them. The orange hue of the lamps was reflected in the pools of rainwater. But nothing stirred. No cars; no music; no voices. This was central London and it was absolutely still.

And York Way’s complexion altered according to the time of day: rush hour saw a thoroughfare choked with traffic, while twilight ushered in a hesitant silence. On the weekend, clubbers would spill from nearby warehouse parties, at Bagley’s or The Cross, gesticulating wildly. But that night in 2002 the road seemed to be yawning, with only an occasional black cab shooting past, defying its stupor.

I continued up the hill on pavements littered with men-at-work signs and upturned bollards. Staring, for a moment, into the vast building site of the new terminal, at the cranes and bulldozers, I feared the future. Would our capital ever be the same again?

But then again, I thought, haven’t Londoners been saying that for centuries? In the end, only one thing’s for certain: we’re all just passing through.

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