I rarely reproduce material from my Thursday evening newsletter On London Extra on the website because it’s meant to be exclusively for On London supporters (the more of those the merrier, by the way). However, spurred by my frustration with the populist politics and reductive media coverage of that tangled bunch of issues labelled “gentrification”, I hereby present an adapted and expanded version of a story I told newsletter recipients lat week.
I’ve lived in Lower Clapton, London E5, since 1992, and for most of that time have been an appreciative customer of a local corner shop – more of a mini-market really – that is run by a delightful man who came to London from Turkey and is staffed by Londoners from many other parts of the world. Friendly, eclectic and sometimes pleasantly chaotic, it is the retail acme of London diversity. I bloody love it.
Back in 2010 came news that Tesco wished to open an Express branch a few doors down. There were protests on the street. Local councillors tried to stop it happening. The fears were the familiar ones: the arrival of a supermarket giant would put the lovely corner shop out of business; other independent traders would suffer too; the life would be “sucked out of the community”; Lower Clapton Road would be “vibrant” no more.
Of course, none of those things happened. The corner shop, knowing the appetites of its most loyal fans, began providing more of the things we crave – posh coffee, deli treats, nice wine and what has since come to be called “artisan” bread. The Tesco Express, meanwhile, catered mostly to a different clientele. You do not need to be a master of social observation to tell they are consumers who lack the money and maybe also the desire to indulge in the same tastes as the local liberal intelligentsia.
Eleven years later, both the corner shop and the Tesco Express are still with us and, it appears, doing well. Together, they have diversified the local retail landscape met the different needs of different customer groups, which also, of course, partly overlap. What that outcome tells us is that robotic protest narratives about “social cleansing” and the ruinous effects of “soulless” mainstream retail can be crude, simplistic self-indulgent, condescending, completely wrong and simply not up to the job of explaining why such changes happen, who they effect and how, and why some of the local people whose interests anti-gentrification activists say they have at heart give such changes a big welcome.
There are lots of similar examples of influxes of chain stores failing to have the catastrophic effects predicted. One of my favourites is another Hackney cameo, from several years ago, when a branch of Nandos opened on Stoke Newington Church Street, the rather boojie avenue in the heart of Diane Abbott country where I often get my Christmas shopping.
I had a Twitter tiff with someone about it: he said it would destroy the street’s individuality and force its independent restaurants and boutiques to close; I said I doubted it and pointed out, from experience, that Nandos customers were far more reflective of the local population mix in terms of age, sex, class, ethnicity and any other metric you care to mention than the appealing but rather niche carrot cake emporia he believed it would displace. Hackney Council has recently curbed daytime traffic through Church Street in the name of the green recovery. Truly, its character has not changed.
My urge to share these thoughts is both inspired by and follows on from the furore over Tower Hamlets giving the go-ahead to plans to enlarge and upgrade the shops and business space of the Old Truman Brewery building on Brick Lane in the East End. Predictions that this change will force existing small traders out of existence strike me as premature. Some might lose out, but others could gain from extra footfall. Like my corner shop, they might benefit from adapting. Concern has been expressed for the diminishing number of Bangladeshi restaurants, but the erosion of their different customer base is long-standing and due to wider changes at the City fringe.
Anxiety about losing valued local shops and high street personality is understandable and has every right to be expressed. But one local person’s loss can often be another’s improvement, and the latter group are not confined to “the rich”. Concern is reasonable. Catastrophism isn’t.
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