Primrose Hill is the kind of neighbourhood where you can spend £15 for a bag of organic tomatoes at one of the local artisanal greengrocers, metres from where Friedrich Engels wrote The Housing Question.
The north London village where I live has always been a political kind of place, even if the socialism is tempered with champagne nowadays. Boris Johnson, the Conservative prime minister, grew up here, attending the same primary school as the former Labour leader Ed Miliband. The current Labour leader, Keir Starmer, is our local MP.
But it is the hill itself, which boasts breathtaking views of the city, that has become a divisive issue for this normally cohesive community, which includes actors, newscasters and celebrated authors. Part of the Royal Parks that confer London much of its greenery, Primrose Hill is unusual in that it remains open at night. Demonstrators argued during a 1970s sit-in that the park should be free for all to use at all times. That credo was taken to heart during the coronavirus lockdown, when the park became a refuge for many.
“Globally, London has one of the highest numbers of open spaces within a major conurbation,” says Stephen Richards, a partner at Gillespies, a landscape-architecture practice. “There are the Royal Parks, but then there are the garden squares too, which goes back to a 17th-century idea of open spaces. The squares, which were privately owned, nevertheless set a pattern of access to open space and sky, which was seen as a luxury.”
With nightclubs remaining closed, Primrose Hill’s lack of a curfew has provided young people in particular with a new party venue. Unfortunately that has brought with it antisocial behaviour, from drug-dealing to defecating on the doorsteps of the (eye-wateringly expensive) pretty pastel houses that look over the park. The police have been able to do little. The residents are not amused. A community group has argued that the park should shut at night like others in London to try to quell the noise. Starmer has been enlisted in the fight.
A counter campaign has sprung up. It argues that true to the ideals that opposed gates in the 1970s, and to the Victorian ethos that first created a “park for the people”, the park should not be closed at all.
A temporary solution has been found. Fences are erected around Primrose Hill at 10pm on weekends. This has had the unfortunate effect of shepherding stragglers through the well-appointed high street to the nearest Tube station, initially resulting in street fights and smashed shop windows. The remedy does not seem to have satisfied either side of the debate.
“The gates are a thorny issue and it’s divided people,” says Maggie Chambers, editor of community magazine On the Hill. She adds that she has some sympathy for young people, who have few places to congregate. “The parks are for everyone, but there needs to be consideration. Perhaps the police could concentrate on the drug dealers and those bringing in sound systems, and ignore everyone else.”
Primrose Hill’s residents are not the only ones asking who parks belong to. The issue has come to the fore over the past month in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, another park I know well. When I attended New York University, the park’s famous arch provided the axis around which my student life revolved. A fortnight into that life, planes crashed into the World Trade Center in 2001 and I saw the Twin Towers crumble from my dorm window. With no idea what else to do, my roommate and I attended an impromptu candlelight vigil in the square with hundreds of others.
This month, the square has instead been the scene of clashes between police, revellers and residents of Greenwich Village, as 15 months of pent-up frustration is released. Party organisers have claimed they are exercising their First Amendment rights to congregate: a fight for their right to party. Those living in the square complain of drug-dealing, late night noise and violence.
After 15 years, my time in Primrose Hill is coming sadly to an end, due to a need for more space rather than less noise. We’ve chosen a house in another leafy suburb across the city, also opposite a park. This one has gates.