GENTRIFY THIS: From Markets to Malls

London has been stabbed in the heart a thousand times over the past decade, and has not only lost much of its all-embracing warmth but also its wit, its personality, its edge. 

Areas once loved for their underground art and raves have been turned into dismal design hubs; social housing into luxury flats and cheap and cheerful marketplaces into open-air malls. La Bouche’s own heart has slowly broken as huge chunks of the capital’s cultural and historical hotspots have been changed forever, their ashes lying within airport-like tombs. And there is more set to go. We decided it’s high time to take a look at exactly what is going on. Who is gaining from these swift- blink and the next minute there’s an office block- transformations, and at what cost to the public, to the community?

From markets to open air malls…

Many Londoners will be all too familiar with letters from councils and construction companies, announcing a heap of repaving works. It began as the ultimate ‘well, what are they doing that for?’ question on everybody’s lips, but before long, letters such as these brought about a sense of doom for local communities. Yes, it’s all bloody noisy, but also what are the long term implications?

London’s most iconic markets seem to be common targets in aggressive repaving work, often bringing about misery for the traders, and coinciding with other uncomfortable ‘regeneration’ plans.

Take the notorious Camden Market, for instance. Back, in 2009, Camden High Street got a £1.5 million ‘naked streets’ makeover, whereby a single, one-way system was implemented, road ‘clutter’ (such as signage and bus stops) was removed - – and a heap of wider pavements added. The council and contractors FM Conway promised that this traffic master plan would provide safety and more room for pedestrians, and while this conveyor belt-like arrangement has its positives, it caused much disruption for the market stall owners, who rely on a steady influx of customers for their livelihood.

After the works, traders claimed that they had been disrobed more of their clientele than anything else, and most notably those from the older generation. A key bus stop was removed in the big strip, making transport to the market difficult for those less able, and the introduction of one single lane reportedly turned the high street into a bottleneck – a nightmare for traders who drive their goods to the site.

Since then, a number of other alarming business developments have taken place. In March 2014, Camden Market, Stables Market, and Camden Lock Developments were brought by an Israeli billionaire - Monopoly style - for £400 million. High street brands like Storm have since been ushered into the market alleys, once a haven of psychedelic fabulousness. This is an uneasy move not just for those who know and love the market’s vibe, but also for existing indie stallholders, already fretting about increases to their rents. And, in a further indication of how the market is to be run, food corporation KERB was given full control of the West Yard last summer - a space initially populated by a collection of independent food traders. These tenants were served a notice in June, inviting them to reapply for a stall, only with higher rents and a centralised payment system. 

La Bouche’s beloved Brixton market has also been subject to a £1 million repaving overhaul, and as with Camden Market, this has coincided with other unwelcome news. FM Conway, the very same company as in Camden, won a bid back in 2014 to patch up Electric Avenue, remove clutter, and improve pedestrian flow. Brixton traders were initially supportive of the plans to renovate the famous street, with reggae legend Eddy Grant even penned in to reopen the market. Like Camden, great benefits were promised for traders but it seems the project has caused only headache for them.

La Bouche clambered into watch trader Stewart Hornwood’s stall one day to chat about the whole unfortunate sitch. It is hard to get a word in at first, as the Lambeth Champion is inundated with elderly customers, queuing up to have their watches repaired. “It over-ran,” he tells us eventually, speaking of the resurfacing works. “It was supposed to take months, but it took a year. It put peoples’ backs out. Traders were shuffled about, and although they’re all just about still here, it wasn’t handled well by the council or the contractors. These are fragile eco-systems, street-trading, and they need to be cared for.”

And what about the impact the pedestrianisation had had on traders? Has it had the same crippling effect, as seen in up in Camden? “The pedestrian zone used to be from 10 am to 4 pm,” Hornwood tells me, “and it wasn’t enforced. But now, it has been moved to 8 am-6 pm, which means those who rely on vans for transport - such as fruit n veg stalls – have to have set up and be out of the market by 8 am, and then come back at 6 pm to pack up. That’s a ten-hour day!”

And it is not only Electric Avenue that has been rocked. Neighbouring stall owners have a new ‘arch-enemy’, so to speak. Network Rail have been busy decanting tenants from Brixton railway arches, putting out vibrant local businesses in the process. “Yep, Brixton’s been hammered from all corners,” agrees Hornwood. “Shops were temporarily relocated but the stalls were completely ignored. What are people supposed to do in between?”

Campaigners have argued that a phased approach could have been employed by the company, allowing as little disruption as possible, and enabling tenants to adjust. And while Network Rail has offered existing tenants discounted rates, the 75% who have agreed to return still face a steep increase, on top of rebuilding their businesses.

We ask Hornwood if there are any positives from all this mall-ification across London? “No,” he says decisively. “There’ll be no community left. The markets are for the people, they are affordable and we keep our prices low.”

It looks like the pavements of Golborne Road, off Portobello, are next in line for a make-over, and alarm bells are ringing. Already an online campaign exists, kick-started by designer Bella Freud protesting the disruption and implications of the proposed changes. Should tenants have legitimate reasons to fear? We think so: after all, it seems authorities are repaving the way for  gentrification.

HELP BRIXTON MARKET TRADERS BY REPAIRING THE OLD BARROWS. Traders can use these to get their stock to Electric Avenue. So far, four out of the remaining twelve have been restored.

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