In three and a half years, my local shopping parade has gained an Italian restaurant, a Persian cafe, a fancy wine shop, a retro furniture shop-cum-cafe, and most recently a microbrewery pop-up bar.
I love them, and the transition town market up the hill, and all the other nice changes to my new area. I am part of the gentrifying forces that are pricing me out of the area.
I arrived in Crystal Palace as a refugee from rising rents in East Dulwich. So it was all so familiar, being shown around Herne Hill by Giles, the Chair of the Herne Hill Forum. I was visiting with Jenny Jones, a Green Party member of the London Assembly, to discuss rent increases and how she could help.
Years of hard work by local residents and traders have hugely improved Herne Hill. The junction project, including a pedestrianised area by the station, opened up a space for a regular street market. Shop vacancy rates fell close to zero. Lovely banners designed by a local artist appeared on lamp posts, showing off the area’s attractions.
Meanwhile, landlords like the Dulwich Estates and Network Rail declined to lift a finger. A lively local pub was left closed by Dulwich Estates for years after floods ruined it. The latter let retail units rot, failing to fix problems like leaks in a timely manner.
When they twigged that the area had improved so much, they decided to cash in.
Dulwich Estates hiked the rents on independent local shops like Just Williams toy shop, now closed. They let the pub to chain Fullers, and aim to replace the popular music venue on the first floor with a hotel.
Network Rail kicked out traders to refurbish their units, and say they can return if they’ll stomach a rent hike to full market rates. Some businesses have thrown in the towel and closed. Others are very happy in refurbished units nearby, but still frustrated by basic communication issues. You can see some of their closed shops in the image at the top of this article.
What will happen to the businesses in nearby Network Rail railway arches, as yet untouched, including a brewery, maker space, welders and car garages?
Local businesses and residents took all the risks, and in time the landlords take all the benefit, driving those businesses (and many residents) out in the process.
Over the past few years I’ve seen similar sad stories all over London. The carpenters and brewers and scaffold yards in Hackney Wick; the small sculpture foundry and photography studio and climbing wall and bridge club in Parsons Green; the bespoke manufacturers and MOT garages and hairdressers in Peckham; the large aviation foundry and warehousing and cash-and-carries in Charlton; all being driven out by the mad rush to build housing, and to capitalise on the rising value of these areas.
Just up the road from me, the local authority, Croydon, wants to earmark an area in Crystal Palace for redevelopment. Slightly ramshackle sheds and yards make developers rub their hands with glee, oblivious to the economic and social value that local communities and businesses can create in those forgotten spaces.
This is the area where the local transition town market lives. They’ve transformed it, along with a local cafe, some artists studios and some established antiques businesses. It’s now “up and coming”.
I was talking with a friend, one of two brilliant women who run the transition town market, about this on Wednesday. She’s worried that all her work will just accelerate the process of gentrification. It’s not that she opposes improvements to the area – she has been a driving force behind some of them.
With my planning hat on, I can see the sense of building homes on the low-slung Sainsburys, and reconfiguring some of the buildings to get flats on top without losing the commercial space below.
But our dysfunctional land and property market ensure that improvements are followed by rising rents and further redevelopment. We hear often that residents forced away as rents and house prices rise. But so too are businesses. All too often, the residents and business owners that make the area exciting in the first place are the first to be driven out.
It makes a lot of people wonder: would it be better to keep the area a little bit shit?
If, like me, you want the answer to be “no!” then we really need to change the way our economic and housing policies are unfolding in London. That can begin with the elections for the Mayor and London Assembly in May.
The Green Party’s manifesto will feature community leadership and ownership strongly. It’s something in mine and Sian Berry’s bones. Just imagine – if the local communities in Crystal Palace and Herne Hill owned the land in their town centres in a Community Land Trust, we could determine our own future; a sustainable business plan in every sense, with fair rents to meet costs, and a chance to really promote local employment, ethical producers and more besides.