For the past year, a group of social historians have been patrolling around King’s Cross – chasing leads, connecting the dots and burrowing their way into various community groups. They call themselves Story Palace, but their task? To tell a hundred stories over a hundred years, by meeting the people who have lived, worked and played here.
“It’s tricky,” says the group’s Polly Rodgers, “you could spend a year uncovering the history of one building. We’ve now got the lay of the land, have unearthed the main stories embedded in the community and understand the kinds of stories we want to tell.”
From the masses of individual tales they have heard, they’ve selected twelve over-arching narratives. These centre around themes that kept popping up: the people, cultural movements and events which most sculpted the ever-evolving face of King’s Cross. These include the Greek-Cypriot and Bangladeshi populations, labour activism, social housing, the Second World War, Granary Square and of course, King’s Cross station – its drastic redevelopment and the devastating fire on 1987.
In particular, the area’s LGBT+ community has been a vital source of information. “The stories we came across really set the scene,” says Polly’s colleague Michael Hall, “telling a much broader story about life during that period; the fashions, attitudes and the environment.”
Iconic venues like The Fallen Angel, The Bell and Gay’s The Word were all vital hubs at a time when stigma towards the community was rife. “People were physically attacked, vilified in the press and there was a dangerous lack of understanding about HIV,” he says. “The hardships and adversity really galvanised some of the thinking and the activism happening within the gay community and a lot of it started in this area.”
“One of our interviewees unequivocally stated that part of cleaning up King’s Cross was getting rid of the gays,” says Polly, touching on another reoccurring tension the team kept uncovering, the effects of the area’s redevelopment on marginalised communities.
“That said, I went into the project expecting it to be quite straightforward, with a narrative that revolved around anger about gentrification. It is much more complicated. While there’s undoubtedly anger and negativity towards the changes there are ways in which that is complicated,” says Polly. “As one man very eloquently put it,” adds Michael, “King’s Cross was a “shithole” before.”“It was important to get the balance,” Polly continues, “of course we have the horror stories, of people literally having to step over people with needles hanging out of their arms, and we’ve included that. At the same time, we’ve highlighted the value that the relative neglect of the area had for certain groups of people, who were really able to make it there own; occupying buildings, finding spaces to create and discover themselves.”
With a year left of their project, the Story Palace team, under the authority of History Pin and Building Exploratory, will continue to weave their multi-voice narrative of the area. From both impressionistic storytellers and expert informants, they’ll tell the tales of those who came here to party and those who came here to shop, from those who always wanted to live here and those who wanted to move anywhere else but.
“There’s such a rich story to be told about this part of the capital, with such a complexity of changes and experiences,” says Polly, “we’re going to continue gathering tales with an open mind and open eyes, expecting to be surprised and to have our expectations flipped.”
Throughout the year there’ll be a series of small exhibitions and a large final exhibit at the start of 2019 that will look to articulate the main stories that have been told in the area. Alongside this, the team are curating a series of downloadable heritage walks and a series of maps; they’re also making a film and a podcast about The Bell.