2017-01-25 09:34:18
Footsteps: The London of London’s Mayor

Catch the red double-decker bus on Buckingham Palace Road — outside Grosvenor House, which was once home to the Dukes of Westminster, but which now holds a luxury hotel owned by an Indian conglomerate and a fancy Cantonese restaurant called the Grand Imperial. Ignore the Starbucks. Breathe deeply and feel as if you’re in the thick of the Great British Empire. If it’s a quiet Sunday, you may get a front-row seat on the bus’s upper level, before the doors close and the cordial but firm female voice of the automated conductor welcomes you aboard Bus “44 to Tooting Station.”

Many Londoners will be familiar with Bus 44, if only in lore. It’s the route that the father of London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, used to drive. During the city’s mayoral race — which swept Mr. Khan to power last May, with more than 1.3 million votes and the largest personal mandate of any politician in British political history — the “son of a Pakistani bus driver” became, in the words of the BBC, “one of the most hackneyed phrases of Mr. Khan’s time on the stump … so overused in his leaflets and speeches.”

The slogan was a politically expedient nod to Mr. Khan’s blue-collar, immigrant roots, in a race that pitted him against the silver-spooned Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith (the son of a knighted financier). After the election, it was a source of boundless cosmopolitan smugness for Mr. Khan’s supporters. Sure, Britain might be going to hell in a Brexit hand basket, but Londoners had elected the first Muslim mayor of any major Western city — the son of a Pakistani bus driver, no less — and isn’t that something?

You will ride the bus in an arc, across the Thames River to Tooting: the southwestern neighborhood where Mr. Khan was born and grew up, attended school and mosque, served as a member of Parliament and still lives, with his wife, a lawyer, and two young daughters.

A half-century after the Khans immigrated to Britain, their adopted neighborhood is fittingly at the heart of an anxiety shaping Mr. Khan’s mayorship — about the status of working-class London and whether it can still be saved.

Today’s Tooting sits on the property development vanguard: an uncertain neighborhood caught between “up and coming” and “arrived.” Already, it has lost its status as predominantly blue collar and scarcely resembles the area of Mr. Khan’s boyhood.

Get out at Tooting Broadway station, by the century-old statue of King Edward VII. On a recent Sunday morning, a lone flower merchant at a stall just outside the station was selling bouquets of pink lilies — and “orchids for a fiver” (5 pounds). Across the road, the remnants of a raving Saturday night lay untouched: an overturned grocery cart, swiped from the megastore down the road, a half-full bottle of chardonnay and a neat pile of vomit. Walk north on Tooting High Street, which follows the line of a Roman-built road.

If Bus 44 seems to begin in the beating heart of Imperial Britain, its ending here is decidedly post-Empire: a heady cultural mix. The side-by-side Broadway Market and Tooting Market are worth a morning’s wander. Past the vape store and the craft beer shop, things get interesting: an Afro-Caribbean takeout restaurant, salons hawking hair weaves and henna tattoos, an abaya bazaar, a bicycle-themed cafe, a comic shop selling old Marvel prints and the Annapoorneshwari Astrology Centre, which boasts a specialty in “all types of astrology” including “future of your life” and “black magic.”

The low-budget “Oriental Shop” sells canned jackfruit and Cheez-Its while, next door, a sleek pizzeria serves pies on sourdough crust. At the tiny Harry’s Chocolate Emporium, try the 60 percent chocolate bar filled with cheese fondant. (The bacon version is too cloying.)

It’s enough to make a Londoner — even a Canadian transplant, like this writer — nostalgic, in the sour sort of way that one can pine for only something that has yet to pass, but is sure to go soon. In British newspapers, Tooting is sometimes referred to as “the new Shoreditch” in reference to the slick East London neighborhood that was also, once upon a time, down on its heels. To translate: That’s a bit like labeling something “the new Brooklyn” or “the new Berlin” and hoping things stay cool, stay “authentic.”

Many of Tooting’s lower-income residents (often immigrants from South Asia and the Caribbean) have already been priced out, but many others remain in sprawling housing developments or turn-of-the-century townhouses. For now. Of the 16,239 Tooting residents counted in the most recent census (2011), nearly half were born outside Britain and 53 percent identified as mixed race or nonwhite.

That number brings Tooting in line with Greater London, just 45 percent of which identifies as “white British” — down from 58 percent in 2001, and compared with 80 percent for broader England and Wales. Muslims make up 21 percent of Tooting’s population. More unusually, 0.4 percent of Tooting (63 people) identifies religiously as “Jedi Knight” — in reference to the “Star Wars” films.

The area’s ability to evoke urban nostalgia is perhaps why Mr. Khan’s childhood in Tooting featured so prominently in his early campaign addresses. Indeed, the Labour Party candidate’s strategic use of Tooting did not go unnoticed. Opponents accused Mr. Khan of a mushy sort of wistfulness — of endlessly alluding, in stump speeches, to a bygone 1970s era, when life in London was ostensibly sweeter and fairer. Conservatives branded him a political nostalgic, much as detractors of Donald J. Trump in the United States objected to his descriptions of 1950s American “greatness.”

Northward leads you past the Tooting Islamic Centre and the Mirch Masala restaurant, which Mr. Khan has claimed as his local spot and where he was sometimes interviewed for glowing campaign articles that invariably involved photo shoots featuring food. On a Saturday afternoon, the dish to order is the nihari: a lamb leg delivered in a thick, fat-laced broth — so tender you could cut it with a butter knife.

Across from Tooting’s northern subway station, Tooting Bec, is the Wheatsheaf pub, an old public house. “When I was growing up, it was an I.R.A. pub and I used to run past it,” Mr. Khan told The Guardian in 2014, referring to the Irish Republican Army that fought for independence from Britain during the bloody Northern Ireland conflict. “Now I come here even though I don’t drink. There are quizzes on Sunday nights.”

Today, the Wheatsheaf is a kind of every London pub: recently renovated from rugged old-man boozer into bright, upscale-ish bar with dark wood interiors. Its menu is designed to accommodate almost everyone — with appearances from French onion soup, crispy pork with Asian slaw, cauliflower curry, pappardelle with Italian sausage, and a tenacious steak and kidney pie with mashed potatoes.

East from your starting point brings you along Mitcham Road. There is an Italian shoemaker, a West Indian bakery, a Polish deli and Balkanika, an eastern European food shop that sells canned tripe soup and trashy romance novels in Balkan languages. While you are there, peek inside the Gala Bingo Club, which used to be the famed Granada Cinema and which debuted, in the 1930s, with a screening of “Monte Carlo.”

Built in the Art Deco style, the playhouse was so elegant that it was known, in its time, as a “cathedral of the talkies.” Early on a recent Sunday, two elderly women in black orthopedic running shoes sat smoking on the building’s steps. Inside, a lone patron played Sizzling Slots under a chandelier.

If you keep moving east, you’ll hit Furzedown, a quiet, residential area where Mr. Khan and his family live. It’s fairly unremarkable, where houses cost a little less than in central Tooting, because they are farther from major transport links.

A stunning 75 percent of voters in Wandsworth, the London borough encompassing Tooting, voted against Brexit last June. That figure stands out from the rest of the capital city, which also rejected Brexit, but by a smaller margin.

Mr. Khan, for his part, is fighting Brexit from the capital: trying to insulate a city that didn’t want what is coming. He started a “London Is Open” public relations campaign and is angling for special deals on post-Brexit work visas. At the same time, he has seized the spirit of the time to push for more municipal autonomy. In October, he joked about declaring London a city-state, akin to Vatican City. “I love the sound of El Presidente,” he joked in The Financial Times.

Still, it’s hard not to see Brexit and Mr. Trump as populist repudiations of what Mr. Khan stands for, symbolically, as a Tooting-born “son of a Pakistani bus driver”-turned-mayor. Or even as a more concrete slap in the face; Mr. Trump, after all, has threatened to ban Muslims from terror states from entering America.

Another way to look at things, though, is to see London’s mayoral race as a foreshadowing of what was to come in greater Britain and America — but what people weren’t quite ready to see back in May 2016.

During the campaign, Mr. Khan’s opponents worked hard to link him with Islamic extremism: drawing attention to moments when Mr. Khan shared conference stages with reported Islamist radicals — or when, as a human rights lawyer and campaigner, he defended some people he described as “unsavory characters,” including a hard-line Islamic cleric who called for the destruction of the Jewish people. They pointed out that Mr. Khan represented an extraordinary 21st-century paradox: He was a career politician whose popularity hinged, in large part, on his claim to outsider status.

Mr. Khan’s team accused the Conservatives of using racially tinged political messaging. Conservatives, in turn, accused Mr. Khan’s people of trying to avoid normal political scrutiny by branding competitors as Islamophobes and racists. But then Mr. Khan won, and many a political commentator declared that rationalism had triumphed over bigotry — and everyone moved on, for a while. Tooting, for its part, was left to bask in the light of Mr. Khan’s ascension.

Today, Mr. Khan’s Twitter feed reads almost like a caricature of earnest liberalness, with tweets about homelessness, pollution, subway disruptions and worthy municipal task forces. He posts photos with multicultural groups of beaming Londoners and makes reference to his attendance at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender events and interfaith services.

In his sincerity, and tendency toward cheery #LoveLondon platitudes, Mr. Khan plays it safe on social media — but also, through this banality, offers himself as an antidote to @realDonaldTrump.

Continue east on Mitcham Road and you will hit the neighborhood’s hidden gem: Tooting Commons, a park of over 200 acres with tangled paths running through manicured lawns, and Tooting Bec Lido, the largest freshwater pool in England which was built in 1906.

One cool day in autumn, some 20 swimmers performed confident front crawls. Near the picnic tables, an elderly man wearing woolen socks under Birkenstock clogs practiced some kind of calisthenics: bending and stretching his body in unhurried sequences. Along the sides of the pool, a gaggle of 60-something men stood glistening in the morning air, their swollen bellies hanging over wet bathing trunks. They talked among themselves and slowly towel-dried their bodies in what appeared to be a display of alpha-masculinity. You call this cold? In case you’re hungry, the retro Lido Cafe near the shallow end sells ice cream and stuffed baked potatoes.

As you move north from Tooting Broadway, and then off the main streets, the houses — mostly late Victorian or Edwardian — grow larger. “Prices have shot up in Tooting in the last couple of years,” said Robin Chatwin of Savills, the real estate agency. An influx of growing families, many from the more fashionable districts that hug the Thames River, have produced the spike.

The word “gentrification” was coined by the British sociologist Ruth Glass, who applied it to her studies of north London in the 1960s — but it is here, in south London, that the term is now bandied about with the most zeal. London, after all, is in the midst of what Mr. Khan calls a “housing crisis,” which has seen a steady erosion of “genuinely affordable” homes. In Tooting, subsidized public housing is scant and waiting lists are long.

Back on Tooting’s main street gentrification plays out via chicken drumsticks. The neighborhood has long been littered with cheap fried chicken spots, a few with names that allude to an American provenance, like Dallas Chicken & Ribs. But then the local shops were joined by Chicken Cottage: sort of Britain’s answer to Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. Chicken Cottage begot Nando’s, which then begot Chicken Shop, a small franchise owned by the entrepreneur behind Soho House, the global chain of private members’ clubs for those in “the creative industries” — and where half a rotisserie chicken is juicy, if rather pedestrian, at £9 ($11.20).

Mr. Khan, for his part, is still a man about town. He still shops at the local markets, where passers-by stop him for selfies. He still eats curries on Tooting High Street. Every weekday, he walks to the bus stop, and then rides the bus and subway to work, alongside his voters. Last summer, he attended the funeral of a local 20-year-old who was stabbed to death in front of parents picking up their children from school. And in the fall, he backed a grass-roots campaign for a historic plaque to memorialize the one-time Tooting resident Sidney Lewis, the youngest British soldier to serve in World War I — joining up at age 12 and fighting in the Battle of the Somme, before his mother tracked him down and arranged for the Army to send him home.

Tooting has been settled since Roman times, but it was little known until the 17th and 18th centuries, when an influx of Huguenots — French Protestants fleeing religious persecution — arrived and set up shop as hatters and dyers. Their skill was unmistakable, and soon Tooting’s Frenchmen were supplying hats to the cardinals of Rome. London expanded rapidly through the Victorian era, absorbing surrounding hinterlands into its core. By the 19th century, Tooting was a substantial suburb.

Unusually, the area became known for its Victorian-era correctional institutions and so-called lunatic asylums. Wandsworth Prison, the largest prison in Britain, was built in 1851, and is still in operation. The original building stands firm, surrounded by a 20-foot wall laced with barbed wire, though refurbishments in the 1980s and ’90s improved sanitation and added in-cell electricity. Today, the impressive penitentiary — with its imposing wooden door, thick covering of soot and notoriety as a gang-riddled institution where, the BBC reports, prisoners import drugs via cellphone-controlled drones — gives off a sort of neo-Dickensian air. But Oliver Twist would most likely have been found at the nearby Friendless Boys Home for children who “have lost their characters or are in danger of doing so.”

Up through the 20th century, Tooting remained suburban in the minds of many Londoners. In the late ’70s, the area entered Britain’s collective consciousness in the form of Wolfie Smith, the protagonist of the wildly popular BBC comedy series “Citizen Smith,” which was set in Tooting. In the show, Smith is a beret-wearing Communist and founder of the fictional Tooting Popular Front, which seeks “Freedom for Tooting!” The gag was all the sillier for its suggestion that Tooting — out-of-the-way suburban Tooting — would ever find itself at the vanguard of a revolutionary class struggle.

Mr. Khan was born at St. George’s Hospital in Tooting in 1970, the fifth of eight children, seven boys and a girl, in a family of Pakistani immigrants that came to London shortly before Mr. Khan’s birth. Space at home was tight. The Khans lived in a small three-bedroom house on the Henry Prince Estate, which was opened in 1938 as a 10-acre public housing facility with nearly 300 apartments. Mr. Khan slept on a bunk bed until he was in his 20s.

Today, the estate is tidy and quiet, dotted with inner courtyards, tiny playgrounds and signs prohibiting ball games. At the back, a parking lot meets the slow-moving Wandle River, which is lined with a thicket of trees and shrubs. One afternoon in late fall, a family of ducks made its way slowly up the river, and a handsome young father stopped to let his small daughter watch the birds pass. On the bank, near the ducks, lay a Snickers wrapper, several garbage bags, a boot with the top cut off, a pair of green cargo pants, an empty bottle of brandy, an antibacterial hand wipe and a lone latex medical glove.

London’s mayor almost always speaks fondly of Tooting, but there are exceptions. During his campaign, Mr. Khan recounted early memories of racism in the area: nasty enough to send him and his brothers to the local Earlsfield Amateur Boxing Club, where the boys learned to fight and where one of Mr. Khan’s brothers still works as a coach. Mr. Khan said his daughters have never received that kind of racial abuse. Some parts of yesteryear’s Tooting, to be sure, are unworthy of nostalgia.

You’ve escaped the tourist-clogged center of London, and made it southwest? Here’s what to do in the mayor of London’s London.

Tooting Market, 21-23 Tooting High Street; 44-208-672-4760; tootingmarket.com.

London Sewing Machine Museum, 292-312 Balham High Road; 44-208-767-4724.

Gala Bingo Club, 50 Mitcham Road; 44-208-672-5717; bingotastic.com/halls/london/gala-tooting.

South London Swimming Club: Tooting Bec Lido, Tooting Bec Road; 44-208-871-7198; slsc.org.uk.