As I walked down Lewisham high street a few weekends ago, past the weekend market stalls setting up in the rain, the bloke selling nike trainers out the back of his van, second hand soft-toys selling for 50p, stacks and stacks of bread…the question of the market’s future and more broadly, what the impact of gentrification on Lewisham Central will be.
I recently got into a debate with a friend over the issue. I’m a believer in progress and change, that things aren’t worth clinging to for the sake of it. But, my friend argued, there needs to be respect for what the community already has and currently wants. The existing character of the area is usually what draws would-be gentrifiers, attracted to a less-polished and more ‘real’ way of life (although regarding Lewisham, its my opinion that the pull of a quick commute, the fact its in zone 2 and the comparatively cheap property prices are the factors that outweigh the unpleasant aspects of living in the area).
This is of course at the heart of the gentrification debate. To what extent must communities adapt to the needs/desires of new arrivals with better spending power versus continuing to represent and meet the needs/desire of people who have deeper local roots, and were here during the thin years?
Change is good, improvement a necessity. I don’t see the future of Lewisham being piles of nike trainers sold out of the back of a van or having 4 middle eastern supermarkets selling identical goods and having dead poultry hanging up on display. To be sure they give Lewisham unique character and a vibrancy and colour that doesn’t exist in, say Blackheath, but in my opinion the historic circumstances which meant they were needed in the community are becoming less and less relevant. The fact they continue to exist shows there is still a need and desire for this type of shop, but once they no longer meet the wider community’s needs – which I imagine happening over the next couple of years – then it is right that other businesses that meet different needs start to appear.
This would be part of the ‘natural’ gentrification, assuming the Council hasn’t jacked council tax rates or a developer brought up the freehold and wants to parachute a cereal cafe in its place; ‘natural’ to the extent that excessive property prices driven by the Lewisham Gateway development have meant young professionals with higher disposal income are being drawn in to the area like never before.
Interestingly, outside of ridiculous property prices and the Lewisham Model Market, signifiers of gentrification in Lewisham central are actually quite hard to come by. It’s touched the areas surrounding it – Ladywell (although always the nicer & richer cousin), New Cross (although always more student & bohemian) and Deptford (benefitted massively from proximity to Greenwich), but the core of Lewisham seems to have been largely untouched.
Note: See my previous posts on the poor retail options in Lewisham Shopping Centre as an example of this
The development and ‘gentrification’ in Lewisham central is that it is so explicitly top down. Build it and they will come. Places like Shoreditch, Hackney, Brixton drew in artists/bohemians/young people looking for affordable and edgy places to live long before the developers cottoned on. But for places like Stratford and Lewisham the improvement of these areas has been top down, mandated by Councils and Developers and not initiated by the communities within. The time and space for evolution has been limited, giving it a more more intrusive and unnatural feel. Cart before horse, a distinct commercial push for change.
The reason that London is one of the most successful and envied cities in the world is that it never stops evolving. It remembers its heritage and past but does not fetishise it to the detriment of progress and improvement. It is a fine balancing act to bring the past and future together to create a coherent present. Unfortunately Lewisham was a victim of a lack of ambition from the Council in years gone by, which requires decades worth of catchup squeezed into a few. It needs to be done smartly and with sensitivity and I worry that in the upcoming years the changes have the potential to alienate swathes of the community in a different (and potentially worse) way than other places.