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The Struggle to Save Peckham, South London's Cultural Epicenter

What the threat to the popular Bussey Building nightclub tells us about the war on fun in London.
November 20, 2015, 5:50pm

The smashed window of a Foxtons estate agent in Brixton. Photo by Chris Bethell

In response to gentrification, certain residents of Berlin simply set fire to hundreds of luxury cars and watched rents plummet. While such action might seem extreme, recent announcements on the entirely miserable future of cultural spaces in Peckham, South London, certainly makes you wonder how far things would have to go before we might see a little Zündung in the English capital.

Last week it was reported that Southwark council had rejected plans to turn a multi-story car-park, currently home to exhibition space Bold Tendencies and Frank's Rooftop Bar, into 800 affordable artists' studios. Instead the council opted for a collaboration between a developer called The Collective which says it is based in a "grand Georgian building" in "prestigious" Fitzrovia, and Carl Turner Architects. Together they are the gang behind the much criticised" Pop: Brixton" hell-scape. Including "multi-use event spaces, pop-up retail and cafe/bars", the scheme is likely to target ambitious young professionals and will offer "over 50" artists' studios. If the Brixton model is followed, the pop-up will prop-up property prices for a few years, before the council cashes in by selling the car-park to another developer.

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The day after the Bold Tendancies announcement, it was discovered that beloved nightclub the Bussey Building is under threat thanks to a development of luxury flats. Understandably, South Londoners are furious. The level of anger around the Bussey has already forced the developer to pause the application while they figure out their next moves—but it would be naive to think that the club has been saved just yet.

Situated just a few hundred meters from each other along Rye Lane, this tale of two buildings reflects our contemporary Tale Of Two Cities in a mirror which—potential misfortunes aside—we should probably break at the first opportunity.

Bar Story in Peckham, which is synonymous with the gentrification of Peckham, but now finds itself under threat from the redevelopment of the station. Photo by Nick Pomeroy

Peckham possesses two of the characteristics most valuable to property developers: "authentic culture" and poor people. Like drone pilots guiding in missiles, the crosshairs on an architect's digital design program destroy communities via remote control, delineating exactly which slice of the city is next to be Luxury-flattened. The end of all life comes not by explosives but the boredom of financial viability assessments; abstract models of how many unaffordable shoebox flats must be built on our social housing and public spaces to ensure the developer's 20 percent profit. Unable to counteract the cultural desert their schemes inevitably produce as everyone, bar the most banal of office workers, is priced out, developers crave neighborhoods that give them marketing buzzwords—"Artists!" "Markets!" "Nightclubs!" "Edgy!"

With social capital high and land values low—over 65 percent of residents are on social rents significantly below market rates—Peckham is a target selected with laser-like precision: building anything means big, big money.

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Immediately after the 2011 disturbances, cupcake fascists took to the streets for #RiotCleanUp, sweeping away evidence of the poor and the antagonisms that created them; a process which in Peckham has now reached its logical conclusion: social cleansing. Despite the Evening Standard's breathless fantasies of the "up and coming," a more significant factor in Peckham's enclosure is quietly tucked away on Southwark Council's 2012 "Peckham Action Plan," revealing that the Mayor's "2011 Riot Regeneration Fund" has thrown up a few million to redevelop Peckham Rye station station into "Peckham Rye Gateway"; demolishing the existing courtyard and shops to create a shiny new station and "Plaza."

While this might seem like a strange way to respond to the deep inequality and trauma that catalyzed the riots, in our authoritarian society it makes perfect sense. In 18th Century Paris, Hausmann—the city's prefect—bulldozed new streets through working class districts to ensure troops could put down insurrections, with soaring rents scattering the more rebellious population around the suburbs. Ever since the Jubilee Line extension to Canary Wharf, in 21st Century London gentrification has arrived on public transport. Huge state investment into mega-infrastructure projects like the London Overground and Crossrail are explicitly designed to drive up land values, starting a gold rush for landlords, and developers along their route.

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Peckham ranks as one of the most deprived areas in the country. The rent increases brought about by the station improvements will inevitably force thousands from their homes, replacing the bothersome underprivileged with those on a better day's pay. In an age of permanent austerity where the only government response to endemic poverty is why the fuck are you still here?, this is a pretty useful piece of urban re-engineering; little wonder it is the policy of councils across London.

That might sound far-fetched, but in her book Mortgaged Lives, Ada Colau—Mayor of Barcelona—traces a direct link between the contemporary urban control methods introduced by Margret Thatcher and those pioneered by General Franco, leader of fascist Spain. Franco realized that difficulties renting and the onerous conditions of home ownership produced a compliant population less resistant toward the regime. Thatcher's "property owning democracy"—the eradication of affordable social housing—was propelled by the same thinking; disobedient workers could be tamed away from widespread strikes with huge mortgage debts and the fear of losing their homes.


Related: Watch 'Regeneration Game', VICE's film about the battle to live in London


The city can be thought of as a collection of "formal" and "informal" spaces—the sterile, stage-managed financial districts, and Westfield centers, against the beautiful chaos of the social territories where culture is kept alive. When there is "no such thing as society," social space is subversive. Following the riots every housing estate in London is being mooted as a "brownfield site" suitable for development, with "problem" communities such as Broadwater Farm—the epicenter of the unrest—singled out for "regeneration." All new housing developments must submit plans to the police for approval, while the criminalization of squatting makes self-organized housing an imprisonable offense.

But the current acceleration and extension of urban control runs far beyond housing: the police and councils are waging a war against what's left of London's nightlife, forcing the closure of pubs and clubs like Madam Jojo's, or imposing airport style security on venues such as Fabric. Street gatherings like Hackney Wicked are being pushed out of existence with security costs, while the private control of public space prohibits everything from music to photography. Passionate streets give rise to sedition. Gentrification of the informal city ensures the destruction of anything going against the present politics—essential in a time when "There Is No Alternative."

"The cultural scene has come to Peckham because gentrification has pushed it out of everywhere else… Where will be left for culture to flourish? Where are we going to live?"

If anyone doubts the direction things are going in Peckham, the council's "Action Plan" helpfully clarifies; boasting that thanks to Southwark's "close relationship with developers," 40 percent of the area is now undergoing "regeneration" in deals worth over £4 billion [$6 billion]. If the first act of any war is to map the territory, the Action Plan's careful detailing of almost every artistic space on Rye Lane as a development site suggests that the comparatively small scheme at the Bussey Building is merely the avant garde. The entire Copeland Industrial Estate—home not just to the Bussey, but hundreds of creatives, clubs, and social spaces—is slated to go. The proposed schemes are just the thin end of a very big wedge: Peckham Rye is one of seven areas across Southwark mapped by the council, six of which are the focus of intensive gentrification.

Peckham has come to recent prominence due to its thriving cultural scene, but the cultural scene has come to Peckham because gentrification has pushed it out of everywhere else. While it's true that a lot of artists are fucking annoying, solely blaming them is to ignore the much wider forces at work: Shoreditchification is now a word; the Olympics killed Hackney Wick; the Manor House warehouses are to be demolished. As projects like Crossrail formalize even the furthest of the informal suburbs into the rental machine that London has become, where will be left for culture to flourish? Where are we going to live?

The abstract financial models that bring developers to Peckham are as lonely and devoid of human emotions as a radar scanner: the one variable not considered is our reaction. While Peckham may appear to offer the opportunity to make quick cash, would that still be true if the building sites were blockaded by angry residents? Communities across London have shown that if you fight, you can win.

What is built today will define our society for a generation: cities, like oil tankers, can't simply be turned around. To make multi-million pound investments developers need stability—there has never been a more important time to rock the boat.

This article was corrected on November 23 2015. The Collective is based in Fitzrovia, not Mayfair. The project aims to create "over 50" artists' studios – although the Collective states that the number is unconfirmed – rather than the "mere 50" we reported.

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