On days when it’s not pouring rain, I walk home from school. My route takes me through chilly-looking gardens and past more art galleries than I could have known existed. The streets of Fitzrovia and Marylebone are teeming with students, businesspeople and a handful of foreign nationals. Some chat with their partners, others hum happily to themselves, and some saunter heads-down, headphones-in. The only commonality is the swift pace with which their feet glide over the cobblestone pavement.
The first moment that I arrive at Edgware Road can only be described as the opposite of “a breath of fresh air.” Black cabs and double-decker buses zoom past pedestrians, who stand next to fruitstands and break city smoking ordinances. Storefronts are decorated with semi-pixelated banner signs that read names like Al Baraka Supermarket, Beirut Café, and Safeer Pharmacy. For every coffee shop there are twice as many electronics stores – for every electronics store, twice as many 6x12 meter markets. It’s loud and bustling and, for a British street, lovingly warm.
Edgware Road has origins that predate the Roman occupation of Britain. Known as Watling Street to Ancient Britons, the Romans incorporated it into trade routes for years. It was used by pilgrims in the Middle Ages and traversed by French Huguenots in the 18th century. Edgware Road became home to London’s first Indian restaurant in 1810. Arabic-speakers began arriving in the 18th century, but it was not until the 1970s Edgware became the permanent home of many Middle Eastern immigrants. The new residents opened businesses that catered to their families and other Londoners. When the street went through a massive renovation a decade ago, the City of Westminister published a plan in both English and Arabic.
The first time I stumbled across the street, I had luggage in one hand and a backpack in the other. This is not the London I imagined, I thought to myself. Where was St. Paul’s? The Tower? Had I been lied to by Hitchcock, by Turner, by the few (and I mean few) episodes of Sherlock I had seen? The gray sky loomed overhead, but it was my only preconception of London that rang true.
While Waitrose and Tesco close at early hours, the Lebanese markets on Edgware stay open. I learned this last weekend as I rushed out to purchase ingredients before cooking dinner. In the market, I listened to the melodic voice of the cashier as I waited, lemons in hand. 1 pound please. 2 pounds please. 1 pound please. A friendly pair stood next to shining bags of Doritos, telling jokes in a hodgepodge of English and Arabic. Everybody smiled; the customers were no exception. On my walk home, I inhaled the night air, taking in notes of cumin, coriander and gasoline. Everywhere around me were those familiar pockets of residents who stood smoking, talking and, more often than not, laughing. I walked in solitude, the lone flaneur on this 14km-long community.
Edgware Road is not what I imagined London to be – and that’s the problem. There is a conception of how the inhabitants of a place should look, should speak, should dress. Thinking like this ignores the reality of a situation. It dehumanizes people, and it reduces people to superficial identities. Since at least the 19th century, a sort of “accompanied solitude” has characterized Western cities. Why should we feel uncomfortable when this conception of community is challenged?
I don’t need to remind my readers about the executive orders – both illegal and morally reprehensible – that came out of the United States this past weekend. While Edgware Road will remain the way it is, there is no doubt that similar communities in the United States are being and will continue to be ravaged by the action. And that breaks my heart. Edgware Road is London, and the Edgware Roads of the United States are part of what makes my country great. We do a disservice to ourselves and to our communities by ignoring this fact.
Xander Mitchell is a sophomore in Morse College spending his Spring 2017 semester in London. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.