I’ve been thinking a lot about my home town of St Albans recently. I was last home for Christmas and the intervening period may be the longest I’ve gone without a quick trip back to the old country.
I am often asked about my home town. When I describe the city, I occasionally talk about its history as a prominent Roman town and the wonderful cathedral. But for the most part I describe it as a once unique place fast becoming just another London dormitory town.
I covered this seemingly inexorable dilution of the city’s identity in my first job as a reporter on the local newspaper, and I’ve observed it on my intermittent trips home ever since.
Nothing symbolises this gradual decline of St Albans’ personality more poignantly than the steadily decaying hulk of the building that once housed the city’s Odeon cinema.
It lies on the main route into the city, its facade crumbling, the state of its interior a mystery. Amazingly, it’s been empty for almost 15 years now and the ownership picture of that period tells a labyrinthine tale of corporate speculation, bureaucratic indifference, political ineptitude and public ennui.
I would imagine St Albans must feel like a dreary place for young people now. But given that few of them have known anything different, perhaps not.
I remember my grandparents telling me about the city they knew in their youth; the choice of beautiful cinemas, the dancehalls, a city with fabric.
People gather in places, they connect and share, they learn, find inspiration and grow. Collective memory is formed in buildings where things happen, without them we turn inward, we seek to preserve.
Buildings like the Odeon are architectural signposts of a wider consciousness, the consciousness that helps give cities their identity. When I go home now, my sense is of a collection of individuals, divested of their connection to a city they no longer identify with, or help to shape.
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