Published: 11th November, 2010
by JAMIE WELHAM
FORTY years ago Fitzrovia was under threat as steely-eyed developers demolished houses and erected office blocks on an unprecedented scale.
The area, which many wrongly believe was dreamt up by estate agents, but was actually given its name by young bohemians drinking in the Fitzroy Tavern between the wars, was fast becoming a departure lounge for families.
It was in this climate of social upheaval and rampant development that GLC (Greater London Council) architect Max Neufeld and his neighbours set up the Charlotte Street Association (CSA).
And this year the group is celebrating its 40th anniversary by revisiting past victories, remembering old faces and setting out some future battles.
Living in and around the street, which is best known for its restaurants, Mr Neufeld and the CSA vowed to halt the developers who they claimed had “led to more destruction than World War Two” with schemes such as Centre Point and the Post Office Tower.
In spite of its name, the association covers most of Fitzrovia, from Euston Road in the north to Oxford Street in the south, and from Gower Street in the east and Cleveland Street in the west.
Among the early milestones after their first meeting in painter Adrian Heath’s house in March 1970 was a long, arduous and ultimately doomed battle with the record company EMI over their office building.
Other notable challenges were trying to keep chain restaurants from encroaching on the area’s well-established independent scene and the long-gone delicatessens that supported them. There was also a famous victory in persuading the GLC to buy up a car park earmarked for office development and turn it into Crabtree Fields.
Championing their “invisible victories”, Mr Neufeld, now 78, said: “It has never been easy since we started as 10 people in a room, and I think a lot of our work probably goes unnoticed because people never realised buildings were under threat in the first place. I can think of significant battles to keep Georgian buildings in Goodge Street and Windmill Street.”
Where the Association has found life harder, is fighting the inevitable tide of soaring property prices and the social change it foreshadows. Fitzrovia has unquestionably become gentrified, although there remain significant pockets of deprivation. The Association has always campaigned for more affordable homes in the area, and Mr Neufeld said it was still their biggest challenge.
He added: “As we look to the future, I think we have never been more under siege than we are now from developers, at a time when it is harder and harder to run a community association. We’ve always said we are not opposed to change but we do want to guard the area.
“Living in central London for many families is simply impossible.
“We have managed to encourage more families back but I think people from the outside at least, sometimes forget that people live around here. The amount of affordable housing we get is absolutely unbelievable.”
Tonight (Thursday) the Charlotte Street Association is holding a party to celebrate its anniversary. It continues to hold monthly committee meetings and has around 350 members but is always looking for more. To find out more visit www.charlottestreetassociation.yolasite.com.