Suzanne Hall and her colleagues have been researching urban change and the ways that high streets express locally the global urbanisation phenomenon for a long time. The lecture she gave on June 5th was a presentation of her ongoing research for LSE’s Ordinary Streets program which focuses on Peckham’s Rye Lane. This particular high-street is a very interesting example considering it is characterised by an especially high degree of multiculturalism and multilingualism. Peckham’s densely woven fabric of uses and cultures is in fact an enhanced version of many London high streets. However looking at the maps indicating the nationalities of the people who live in London (projected during the lecture) one realises that certain immigrants end up in certain parts of the city. In other words the areas which are populated by people from the former British colonies or from countries of the developing world are not very often also inhabited by Americans, Australians or western Europeans.
Peckham is mostly populated by immigrants who are struggling to get by and are -quoting the lecturer- places delineated by ‘loose cohesion and prosaic public dimensions of ordinariness. Considering Peckham’s wealth in culture and its potential for development, home secretary Theresa May’s statement according to which ‘the wrong people should be stopped from coming into the UK’ is rather aggravating. Suzanne Hall’s work as a whole focuses on proving such statements wrong. One way of doing this is by studying multilingualism ‘as the ability to read the cultural and economic landscape of the city and translate it to products services and networks’, and to quote her again, ‘multilingualism should be explored as an urban capacity’. It is common knowledge that London is a highly unequal city but this research aims to study the potential that most deprived inner city areas have, instead of dismissing them.
Getting down to facts and numbers I was surprised to find out that two thirds of Rye Lane’s shops are independent retailers, 30% of which have been there for 20 years. 61% of the traders speak 2-4 languages and 1/3 speak four or more. The whole room laughed out loud when it was mentioned that Rye lane is more language proficient than LSE itself. What I found truly fascinating was that 25% of the shops practice mutualism, which is basically subletting part of their shop to another trader. This practice maximizes the variety of products and services offered. Most importantly though, considering that some pay 150£ per square meter each week, the monthly rent adds up to 500£ per s.m. that is equivalent to retail rent for Knightsbridge which is in fact the highest in the world.
The question that was posed at this point was how come Peckham is in desperate need of “regeneration” and “tidying up” compared to Westfield that is seen as one of London’s ultimate success stories. Especially keeping in mind that Peckham houses 2100 businesses with 13.400 employees while Westfield counts 300 businesses which generate 8500 jobs. Not to mention that Westfield absorbed huge amounts of public capital for infrastructure while Rye Lane retailers are of course self-funded.
Examining the reasons why, many possible answers were given. The one that saddened me the most was extremely superficial and had to do with aesthetics. Rye Lane is neither tidy nor organised. Shops look nothing like Oxford Street and their untidiness has to do with them not looking English enough in order to be accepted by the general public.
It was also mentioned that Rye Lane has an underground grunge or cool side to it because due to relatively low rents for loft-like spaces, it houses a considerable number of artists’ studios. Many of Rye lane’s facets were outlined but one of the most important reasons for its potential not being recognised was that its rich cultural value is not visible.
Firstly because there is no dialogue between the inhabitants and the authorities to possibly negotiate any sort of help from the state. Secondly there is no dialogue between the inhabitants and traders themselves. In their struggle to survive they are too involved in individual profit or in their personal quests, to find ways to define themselves as a whole, organise a trade union and appoint representatives.
In the short discussion that followed the presentation some questions were posed that gave Suzanne Hall the opportunity to clarify her conclusions. One was that London streets are almost equivalent to living organisms and have a great potential to redefine themselves. Another interesting fact is that 50% of high-streets as we know them today will be extinct in the future because of on-line shopping and large shopping centres. However their very existence apart from interesting and vibrant is very useful in drawing political conclusions on the way that societies are structured. Multiculturalism and multilingualism instead of a problem that makes communication and organisation difficult could actually be the only answer to the possible formation of a new commercial unit. What’s even more important is that this multicultural experiment could find ways to figure out the model of self-organisation that occupy movements have attempted world-wide but have not been able to sustain for more than a few weeks at a time. And this very self-organisational model could oppose and possibly counterbalance the rigid conservatism that seems to expand dangerously the last few decades.
Immigration is an unavoidable fact due to global socio-economic circumstances. Nevertheless it is also an anathema because people who are reluctant to accept change nurture and spread conservative or even crypto-nationalist ideas. Learning to accept multiculturalism and recognise its potential is truly creative contrary to gentrification that is sold as regeneration but actually destructs the urban environment by homogenising it. There are gentler ways to change cities for the better because ultimately (as eloquently put by Suzanne Hall) the first act of creativity is observation.
Ordinary streets program website here
Download the lecture and the pdf for the slide presentation here