It was late one evening in 2015, when Khamisi McKenzie and Daniel Opoku-Baah, the friends behind wings restaurant Drums & Flats, first heard about Peckham Levels.
“I was up late at Daniel’s house and was like, ‘Raaa, this is sick man,’” McKenzie tells me. “The idea of doing something so close to where we grew up and have bare memories from being little kids, we thought this would just be the deal.”
“Being local, we thought, ‘Boom, this is it’,” adds Opoku-Baah, “so we jumped at it.”
Located in the borough of Southwark and home to an ethnically diverse population of around 30,000, Peckham is one of the many London areas grappling with gentrification. After years of high crime rates, defined by cases such as the murder of ten-year-old Damilola Taylor on an estate in 2000, Peckham has changed – and fast. Today, though Southwark is the 12th most deprived borough in London, crime in Peckham has dropped significantly. Property prices here were among the fastest to grow after the 2012 financial crash, with Peckham seeing a 45.7 percent increase between 2014 and 2018.
Much like Hackney, another area that has undergone rapid regeneration in recent years, Peckham can feel like a divided neighbourhood. The high street is still lined with Afro-Caribbean bakeries, hair salons and vegetable stalls but minimalist coffee shops and small plate restaurants – symbols familiar to any area with a recent influx of affluent residents – have also taken root. Mangoes are three-for-a-quid on a Rye Lane market stall, or £2.95 each at the posh deli a few streets down.
It's hard to pinpoint when Peckham started to change, but 2007 was a pivotal year. That August, Transport for London opened the first London Overground route, which would link Peckham to central London when the extension was completed in 2012, making the area far more alluring for potential homeowners. This followed a similar Jubilee line extension that opened eight years earlier and added around £80 million to Southwark's residential sector. It was also the year that Southwark Council began a regeneration project, prompted by the Save the Peckham Multi Storey campaign and backed by government investment, to transform a derelict car park in the centre of Peckham.
It was this empty car park that would eventually become a symbol of change in Peckham. Back in 2007, however, it was still just a grotty car park. Southwark Council leased the top floor to non-profit company Bold Tendencies, who turned it into Frank's Cafe – a rooftop bar and arts space with incomparable views over the low-rises and parks of south east London. Inspired by the success of Frank's, the council decided to develop the car park's middle floors and in 2015, opened the space for bids on a short-term lease.
Make Shift, the socially conscious property development team behind POP Brixton, entered a pitch for the car park and won, beating off Bold Tendencies’ bid to turn the space into hundreds of subsidised studios for local creatives. “Peckham Levels” – then “POP Peckham” – sought to turn the unused car park floors into a bustling hub for food vendors and bars, with desks and studios for small businesses, social enterprises and creatives. Using the Southwark Council funding, the commercial venture would give ten percent of its profits to a community fund, and require all vendors and studio tenants to complete one hour of community outreach work a week. Make Shift would also rent some of the office space at a subsidised rate to business owners from the SE15 postcode. Profitability, support, community: this redevelopment had it all.
“One of the things that was often said was that [Peckham Levels] was about giving people from the surrounding area and within the area a chance to do their thing, basically,” explains McKenzie, when we meet for coffee a few hundred metres away from Peckham Levels. “Local people were gonna get a chance to do what they were gonna do. Start-ups, young entrepreneurs – that was all meant to be the focus, from what we were told.”
“When we had initial talks and even past initial talks, ‘community’ was a word that was always used,” he continues. “[And] not through anyone saying anything specific to us, but there was always a feeling that we were valued being part of that community as well.”
Make Shift, in agreement with Southwark Council, pledged that Peckham Levels would “support local, independent enterprise, creatives and community groups,” according to a 2019 service-level agreement document seen by VICE. Food vendors applying to take spots at Peckham Levels were required to state whether they were Southwark residents and what they hoped to do as part of their community hours.
Picky Wops, a vegan pizza pop-up, was one of the first food businesses chosen by Make Shift to open in Peckham Levels. Owner Cristiano Vitelli was equally blown away by the brief.
“The proposal that they offered to us, which was the same proposal they offered to everyone, was amazing,” he tells me. “It was so shiny.”
“[Make Shift said,] ‘It's going to be very expensive, but we're going to give back to the community, we subsidise the most expensive rent for the people who have the studios downstairs,’” he continues. “There was a community investment scheme in place. It was great.”
A community-centred project that would transform floors of nothing into revenue sounded like a dream opportunity. Peckham Levels was the development to solve gentrification – an alternative to the plague of luxury flats creeping through the city.
“[Peckham Levels] was about creating a platform, really, from the local talent of Peckham and helping them to turn their ideas into thriving enterprises, and then looking at what else we can do with the community,” James Leay, managing lead for Make Shift tells me over the phone. “I really want it to be a space where everybody feels welcome, that's really inclusive of the local community, that is representing the best talent that Peckham's got to give.”
In December 2017, after building work delays, Peckham Levels finally opened. It’s a vast space – in order to reach floor five and six, you climb several flights of stairs, painted in Instagram-bright colours and plastered with leaflets for local club nights and poetry events. Each floor is around 2,600 square metres. Levels five and six house seven food units and three bar spaces, with seating in between, and the floors below contain the studios and shared facilities including a 3D printer and event space. If you look out of the sixth floor window, you get a clear view of Canary Wharf.
But transforming a vast, unused car park into a habitable space was never going to be easy.
The problems with Peckham Levels appeared before the project had officially opened. A few days prior to launch, as well as on the opening night, a water tank burst in Drums & Flats’ unit, preventing them from taking part in the celebrations. This would be a precursor to other building challenges: lack of extraction, mould and heating issues. As the months went on, the teething problems started to affect sales. Footfall was a challenge for the building, with an entrance that was hidden at the bottom of a back alley, and a lack of signage. Air extraction worked inadequately, leaving your clothes smelling of frying oil. Young food businesses who had taken a leap of faith in the project, hoping to be supported as part of the Peckham Levels community, were struggling to keep up with the high rent, which was similar to that of central London.
“[The beginning] was ridiculously difficult,” says Rang Baban, who has run Nandine, a Kurdish food business, in Peckham Levels since it opened. “More difficult than it should have been. It was difficult for us because it felt like we were taking the burden [by] paying this ridiculous rent in the first year.”
I ask what problems he encountered initially. “The extraction issue. Your eyes stung. Constant staff turnover,” he explains. “You aren't making money so you can't pay the world's best wages. The footfall wasn't as high as they said it would. We took everything with a grain of salt but it wasn't enough.” Baban added that Nandine has struggled to make a profit at its Peckham Levels site, citing high rent and service charges.
McKenzie agrees. “There were a lot of things that shouldn't have taken as long as they did to get sorted,” he tells me. “I think it is a massive massive task to turn a car park into a fully functioning building.”
Alongside these structural issues, Peckham Levels’ community focus wasn’t nearly as present as the food vendors had anticipated. The venture is yet to turn a profit, meaning that the commitment to donate 10 percent of its profits to a community fund is yet to be fulfilled. Make Shift told VICE that as it doesn’t expect Peckham Levels to become profitable until its third or fourth year, so has contributed its own money to that fund in the meantime. This is good, but it does mean that Make Shift gets to determine the amount that it will donate. (This amount was not disclosed to VICE).
Meanwhile, community hours, which are part of every Peckham Levels member’s contract, go largely unfulfilled, according to all the food vendors I spoke to. The service-level agreement between Southwark Council and Make Shift outlines the company's initial commitment to "deliver 3,600 hours training or equivalent community benefit," but admits that it has "struggled to make this work in a meaningful way."
“If you walk onto the high street in the day time, you're going to see a lot of black people, and if you walk into Peckham Levels, it was its own entity.
Perhaps more damaging than all of this are the perceptions of the food vendors themselves, many of whom grew in Peckham but do not feel at home in the colourful behemoth of Peckham Levels. After 13 months, Drums & Flats decided to leave.
“The footfall wasn't what we expect,” explains Opoku-Baah. “I think the majority [of the reason to leave] was really a business decision, because if we disagreed with how they did things, or if they weren't having the impact on the community that we thought they should, the only way we could improve that would be to stay.”
“We were pissed to leave, for all the reasons we wanted to be there,” adds McKenzie. “It was just looking at it as a business decision.”
Out of the 11 food businesses that took units at Peckham Levels, four have moved to other locations, five still remain in the business and three have failed.
Picky Wops operated from Peckham Levels for 12 months, before financial problems forced them to close the unit. Vitelli is now running a kitchen takeover at a pub in Brixton. “Our own investor, after we planned a relocation, pulled out after Peckham Levels had been so bad,” he says. “We ended up losing everything: our business [and] our people.”
There was another issue that rubbed Drums & Flats the wrong way. Opoku-Baah and McKenzie noticed, uncomfortably, that they were the only local black business owners on the food and drink levels. Combined with the operating problems, “there were enough [other] reasons to leave,” McKenzie tells me, “[like] it not representing everything that we felt like it would have.”
“You walk out into Peckham, you're going to see a mixture of different people,” he continues. “If you walk onto the high street in the day time, you're going to see a lot of black people, and if you walk into Peckham Levels, it was its own entity. That was a thing that we felt that was a bit weird. It was a bit weird that Daniel and I were the only black business owners on level five and six.”
“All of our bredrins would come there,” he adds, “and I'd say to them, ‘Be honest, if we weren't here, would you actually come?’ And a lot of them would say, ‘What is there, really, here for us?’”
Vitelli agrees: “The community doesn't step inside Peckham Levels. They don't like it. They don't like the vibes.”
The question of who, exactly, Peckham Levels is for became a problem for other food vendors too. Rose Whyte was invited by Make Shift to open her bakery, Blue Haired Baker, at the site in February 2019. As a Peckham local, she also saw a disparity between the demographic in Peckham Levels and on the street outside.
“For me personally, as a person from the community, from a working-class background, I always wonder, where are these things for people like me, or people I know?,” Whyte tells me over the phone. “A lot of the people who go there aren't of the community.”
After a three-month stint, she decided to leave.
“I chose to leave because the people who were mostly coming to support my business were people that I knew that were [from] a demographic like my own,” explains Whyte. “For example, I would have middle class mums come in with their kids, buying fried chicken and chips, which outside of Levels costs about £2. They would go to Other Side Fried [a fried chicken vendor that joined Peckham Levels in December 2017] and pay £10 for it.”
Baban, Nandine co-founder, agrees that Peckham Levels’ clientele does not represent Southwark’s diverse population which, according to council data, is 36 percent black and Asian. Do local people go to Peckham Levels, I ask?
“If you're white, yeah,” he says. “I wouldn't know where to start to make ethnic minorities more aware of Peckham Levels. You're not going to get a Kurdish uncle coming to drink a pint, eat pricey food, and talk in a really, really loud place.”
Make Shift says that Peckham Levels represents the diversity of the area. However, when I spoke to current and former employees of Peckham Levels, they disputed this, claiming that the company has a higher percentage of white members – both those employed to staff the building and people who rent food units or studio space – than ethnic minorities. Quarterly report data from January to March 2019, made public by Make Shift to investors, confirms this, stating that of all Peckham Levels members surveyed, 12 percent are black, black British or Afro-Caribbean, and 72 percent are white.
What’s more, the majority of Peckham Levels’ studio spaces, which were promoted as a way to support local creatives and entrepreneurs, do not appear to be rented to Peckham residents. According to Make Shift, the percentage of Southwark residents in the studio spaces is “70 percent to date,” but the quarterly report states that currently, only 62 percent are from Southwark, while less than half (45 percent) are from Peckham.
“You're having people making major decisions not really understanding the demographic of the area,” a former Peckham Levels employee, who wished to remain anonymous, tells me. "It's just another layer of gentrification, they think they're helping the locals but it's not helping the locals. The people working in the company do not reflect the people outside in the community."
When asked if Make Shift had data on Peckham Levels’ member demographics, a spokesperson told VICE: “Peckham Levels hasn't yet conducted a full census that includes every member of the space, but is working on getting this information together to share with members and stakeholders in the future.”
Clearly, Peckham Levels has problems, but the project has succeeded in some areas. It employs 250 full- and part-time positions, and pays all service staff London Living Wage. Rents for food vendors have been reduced slightly, although they are still comparatively high, and a new subsidised unit is now being offered at a 50-percent reduction. The studios spaces might not be going exclusively to Peckham locals, but 20 percent are rented at around one-third of market rent. All of the food vendors and employees that I spoke to say that Peckham Levels staff are working hard to create a community-led project that is also financially viable.
“There's a lot I'm really proud of,” says Leay, when I ask if he believes Make Shift has achieved its ambitions with Peckham Levels, a year and a half in. “It's been a challenging journey to get Peckham Levels to where it is today, but in spite of that, if you look at what we've managed to achieve, there are some amazing things happening in that building.”
He does, however, conceed that more can be done for the food businesses in the space.
“If I'm honest, the food and drinks spaces need work,” he says. “We've had three that have failed. That's always gutting. I want to see all of those businesses absolutely thriving. [But] we can't do that for everybody, right? It's a platform, it's not a raft, and some businesses won't succeed.”
Peckham Levels sold a dream – a socially-responsible, commercially viable dream. It’s commendable that Make Shift wanted to create a council-backed project that wasn’t just another soulless high rise, but good intentions can only get you so far. And when promises aren’t stuck to, it’s the community that suffers.
Southwark Council believes that Peckham Levels is having a positive impact, announcing in February that the building lease has been extended from five years to eight years, with the intention to extend to 20 years. It has also dropped its plans to eventually bulldoze the car park. (VICE contacted the council for comment, but had not been offered an interview at the time of writing.)
“There are people there with good intentions, but there is only so much they can do themselves,” Whyte tells me. “If they pushed the lease forward and they have more time, something can be done. But it has to be genuine.”
McKenzie agrees. “Peckham Levels can have a positive impact for some people in the community,” he says. “If it will have an impact in the community as a whole? That's down to them.”
For the people of Peckham, and the food vendors working within the vast edifice of Peckham Levels, let’s hope it’s not too late to save a good idea. It’ll take a lot more than a few strokes of colourful paint.
UPDATE 22/05/19: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Bold Tendencies is a "development company." This has now been corrected. The length of time that Blue Haired Baker spent at Peckham Levels has also been corrected, from two months to three months.