Why Glasgow's Finnieston neighbourhood is now up there with London's Shoreditch

Why Glasgow's Finnieston neighbourhood is now up there with London's Shoreditch

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At the Yorkhill end of the district of Finnieston, the long-neglected corridor that assists in linking Glasgow’s city centre to its garlanded west end, stands a 75ft ash tree. If you’re familiar with this part of Glasgow you may have seen it roughly opposite the Park Bar at 1223 Argyle Street in front of a row of blonde sandstone tenements called Franklin Terrace, writes Kevin McKenna.

I suppose we should simply call it the Finnieston Tree. Curiously though, like the district which it favours with its shade, it was possible to walk past it – day after day – and not notice that it was there. And yet there it has been, probably for around 160 years and bigger than the four-storey buildings which stand behind it. It may not be the oldest resident of Finnieston but it isn’t far off and, though I am no expert on the arboreal heritage of my city, I doubt there is another tree like it in Glasgow. Nor is there anywhere in the city like Finnieston.

Not long ago a feature writer for one of London’s chi-chi culture guides wandered north to accord Finnieston the ultimate status: “It’s like Shoreditch,” she said, Shoreditch being the recently gentrified neighbourhood in London’s east end. The writer probably thought she was conferring the ultimate accolade.

As endorsements go this one is in the dubious category as I know people in London who would struggle to tell you where Shoreditch is. But everyone in Glasgow, and many beyond, now know where Finnieston is: it’s the neighbourhood behind The Hydro concert venue where everyone goes for food and drink before going to see Kevin Bridges or Take That or Nicola Sturgeon.

In what planning panjandrums now call the "halo effect" being transmitted from The Hydro, cafes, pubs and restaurants are sprouting quicker than they did in Dodge City when the railroad was being built. One business and consumer specialist who analyses these sorts of trends recently claimed that around 40 new eating and drinking places have taken root in Finnieston and that when The Hydro is hosting a major event, people will spend around seven hours in the area seeking to maximise their concert experience. The gold rush has come to Finnieston and the pan-handlers are setting up their tents.

Only a cynic would curl his lip in disdain at this, surely? Surely it deserves this Klondyke? For Finnieston has long been regarded as the west end’s delinquent older brother who’s never settled in a job and has fathered four children to three different women. Like the benighted arrondissements of Anderston with which it stood sullen and unloved for long enough, it was ravaged by the wrecking ball that the rest of us know as the M8.

In other countries they build motorways to nourish the city; in Scotland we destroy part of the city. Then the lights went out one by one in the tool-rooms and the work-sheds of the shipyards along this stretch of the Clyde, leaving the Finnieston Crane a giant orphan whom we all made fun of as we hung a silly straw locomotive from its once-proud neck. No wonder Finnieston had a chip on its shoulder.

Now though, it is being mentioned by some in the same hallowed tones as the Left Bank of the Seine in Paris. And so, last Sunday in a Glasgow soft with a week of rain, I set out to tour Finnieston and regard it with fresh eyes.

Kevin McKenna samples life in Finnieston

You start your urban peregrination at Anderston Police station, a utilitarian and brutalist structure which makes you think of John Carpenter’s besieged law enforcement building in Assault on Precinct 13. Then you head west and you wonder why a neighbourhood bounded by Kelvingrove Park on one side and the River Clyde on the other was ever left to twist in the wind. And I did indeed count more than 40 food and drink emporiums on this stretch of Argyle Street.

At Pane e Vino the manager, Luis Ferreira, arranges his staff rota on forthcoming attractions at The Hydro. “There is no doubting its effect,” he said. “We are fully booked weeks in advance of any major event. Last year was incredible with the Commonwealth Games and the independence referendum. People come here at around 5.30pm and stay for a while because the concert venue is a straightforward 10-minute walk over the covered walkway through there.”

Nine places to eat, drink and shop 

It helps too, of course, that this part of the western approaches hasn’t been bled dry by prohibitive parking charges. Nor is every street tied up with residents-only parking bays. Unlike Byres Road and the streets that surround that strutting peacock of a boulevard, Finnieston is an area that seems to want visitors to stay for a while.

Just a few doors along is The Finnieston, a dark little saloon hung low on the street where Sarah Toome, a young journalist, and her friend Jack Strand, a newspaper designer, are drinking craft beers. Jack has been living in this neighbourhood for 20 years or so and points to the nice gastro pub across the road.

“The day after I moved in here I was walking past the bar that used to stand on that corner,” he said. “Suddenly, the door burst open and a man ran out being chased by another brandishing a meat cleaver. Behind them there was an angry barmaid throwing glass tumblers at the two of them. Until then I’d lived my days happily in nice Edinburgh. ‘Welcome to Finnieston,’ I thought. I’ve lived at a few addresses throughout the west end of Glasgow, but I always return here. It’s got loads of character and its own warm atmosphere. It’s great to see all these new places going up and I hope they’ll all stay.”

Two of Glasgow’s smartest restaurants are to be found here, each gushing review bringing more people here who sense, somehow, that the gods of food and drink are shining their light upon Finnieston.

“Have you been to Ox and Finch yet?” I’ve been asked breathlessly on several occasions in the past 12 months. Thankfully I have, else I’d have been thought a witless bumpkin who wasn’t yet with the picture. Sadly, I haven’t been to the Gannet on Argyle Street, also known as "the award-winning Gannet". It seems that if you haven’t been to both of these places then your place among the city’s demi-monde is in severe jeopardy.

I’m told, though, that some of the chaps from the licensing board of Glasgow City Council have been snooping around in recent weeks. Their presence, according to another bar owner I spoke to, is welcome.

“There are a lot of nice places to eat and drink here,” he said, “but there are also a few cowboys in here to make a quick killing then move on. The licensing board must be getting new applications to open here every day, but if they want this part of the city to maintain this sense of optimism and style then they must exert quality control. If you grant too many licences then there’s a risk that they all become unsustainable and the bars and restaurants at the lower end of the scale start their two-for-ones and get run down.”

There is a polyglot presence here. Among the restaurants, cafes and food shops there is Chinese, Indian, Korean, Japanese, Italian and Thai. And a Turkish barber’s. Many years ago, while at Glasgow University and trying to escape the Hutchesons’/Kelvinside and St Aloysius tribe with their rugger and faculty scarves, some of us would find refuge in the Grove Bar, thriving in what might be called the pre-gentrification era. Further up is the aforementioned Park Bar, still the favoured destination of a Highlander seeking familiar cadences.

As I make my way up the street I encounter young men with old beards, checked shirts and desert boots pushing prams. I deduce that these are the hipsters, the Generation X of the first quarter of the 21st century, and who have marked this territory as their own. Yet three miles east in an edgier neighbourhood young men with old beards and older eyes have been pushing prams for many decades.

The process of renewal is popularly assumed to have occurred when the owners of the Crabshakk, a ridiculously frou-frou wee outlet further up the road in Partick opened up in the Finnieston end. In truth, though, the renaissance was well underway by then as STV and BBC Scotland moved into Pacific Quay and their employees found bars like the Ben Nevis and Lebowskis. 

George Thompson, who owns the graphic design company Geo-Graphics, set up shop in Finnieston a quarter of a century ago and has never regretted it for a minute. “I’ve seen this place transformed from being a collection of secondhand shops to, in my opinion, the most stylish neighbourhood in Glasgow. Everything you want is here by day and by night and the prices aren’t as expensive as some other places.”

At the end of last year, The Hydro’s first full year of operation, its owners claimed the venue had generated around £130m in economic spin-offs to the surrounding area following 93 events and 165 performances. If that intensity of engagement is maintained then Finnieston will continue its ascent to the top of Scotland’s list of most desirable entertainment destinations. 

Yet for some the change in circumstances has been too sudden and dramatic. They fear it must be having a deleterious effect on other parts of the city, most notably Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, which was fast becoming a charity shop and Poundland thoroughfare.

Ironically, though, the foot of Scotland’s most celebrated street is thrumming with activity. It has a vibe. In any event, the retail decline of Sauchiehall Street, due to a toxic combination of exorbitant rates and the banking crisis of 2008, was well underway before the advent of The Hydro. 

There is no evidence, meanwhile, that smaller venues have been losing out. If The Hydro maintains its economic numbers many more places in Glasgow, beyond Finnieston’s little sunset strip, will soon be basking in a warm economic glow as bars and restaurants and places to stay open across the city to take advantage of the crowds. 

George Thompson, who has counted them all in and out from the window of his studio opposite my Finnieston Tree, is glad the area is set fair on a northerly breeze.

“This place has lived in the shadow of Byres Road and the affluent west end for far too long. After what was done to it in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s long overdue it’s time in the sun. This is no longer the place you hurry through with your collar turned up on the way to somewhere else.” 

There is an old-fashioned launderette on this street which runs disco nights and a barber’s shop which gives you free beer while you get a haircut, and you imagine that a father of four or five could relish haircut day for the children. 

It’s got that sense of community that every city needs. You could work here, drink here, live here, have a laugh here. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s what we Glaswegians like to think we are all about. 

Perhaps we could get Liz Lochhead, Scotland’s Makar, to write an ode to the Finnieston Tree?