London's Latin Americans Are Bearing the Brunt of Gentrification
"We belong here, we settled here – and why is it that now that the area is finally going to be improved we're not allowed to be part of it?"
A march to save the market in August
Because they are the most visible signs, it can be tempting to think gentrification is largely about the dystopian Meccano of luxury flat construction, or the arrival of pop-up shops that only sell poached eggs. They are baubles which magnetise popular attention, and by the time they've arrived, it's too late. More often ignored, at the sharp end of urban transformation, are those resisting their displacement by the baubles: a steady murmur of impassioned local campaigns to save treasured community assets – libraries, parks, youth centres, clubs, pubs, independent shops – from the smiting hand of developers and local councils.
Two of the most intense such battles going on in London at the moment have one striking thing in common: they are both vital community hubs for Latin American Londoners. Under the most immediate threat, after years of fending off the inevitable, is the Seven Sisters indoor market (AKA Pueblito Paisa) – a popular, buzzing little hub of Latin shops, cafes, restaurants, barbers and other businesses in north London. It is a prize example of a city that can still offer more than identikit high streets – a community hub to Latin Americans, cultural variety to non-Latins and a break from the Anytown monotony of regeneration industry architecture and privately-owned public spaces.
There will always be more plazas.
More plazas and more of this: "Coste Café", "HCBC", "Pasta Express", something that looks awfully like – but, for intellectual copyright reasons, is not – a Boots. As part of Haringey Council's massive Tottenham regeneration project, Seven Sisters itself is slated to be reduced to an adjunct. In a fine example of bullshit regeneration argot, it will become "the gateway to Tottenham". First dismantled, and then humiliated.
The market's stallholders and customers have been fighting for a long time – you can even see a fresh-faced Matthew Wright sticking up for them in this short BBC film from 2008, when they were confronted with the same threat. (There is a new full-length documentary about the market, too.) At the time they were backed by Boris Johnson, the newly-elected Mayor, who appealed to Haringey Council to hold off their proposed demolition and preserve the "much loved" market.
They did so, but the wrecking ball has been swinging towards them in slow motion ever since. Last month, finally, Compulsory Purchase Orders were issued to stallholders by Haringey Council; people have until today to formally object to the CPOs – those counted as objectors will also include signatories to a petition. As its name suggests, the CPO is the last legal refuge for getting rid of residents who won't budge voluntarily – but they still haven't given up.
Earlier this summer I sat down with a few of the traders and campaigners in the market, in a tiny shop called Videomania that sold imported DVDs, the walls plastered with heart-rending kids' pictures demanding to "Save Our Market". The campaign was organised by Mirca Morera, who founded Latin Corner UK to advocate for Latin culture and to lobby decision makers to save the market. They described a paragon of the much sought-after spirit of community.
"The children treat the corridors as a playground," Morera said fondly. "People are allowed to hang out, it's a true public space – you know, you don't necessarily have to spend money to be here. It's not always about efficiency... of course, efficiency is important, but it's ugly. And I always say we could become a true tourist attraction doing things our way. I wouldn't come here if it was just another Boots and another WH Smiths. There's something special here."
Seven Sisters market traders will be offered a spot in a new indoor market, which will be built across the road – but it will not be ready for years, and although current stallholders will be offered rates reduced by 30 percent, campaigners object that even if they can survive in the interim, this is still likely to be a prohibitively high cost. They are not just railing against the winds of change, either. They produced their own, fully-scoped rival plan for regenerating the market buildings, the Wards Corner Community Plan, submitted to Haringey in 2013, that would restore the ageing building (rather than tearing it down), minimise disruption, save the market and open up an abandoned upper floor as a cultural space. It even won planning permission (and the support of Tory GLA member Andrew Boff), but residential property developer Grainger won the bid, with their bold plan to build more plazas, more expensive flats and more branches of Coste Cafe and Pasta Express.
"They underestimate us, the community," said Vicky Alvarez, who runs a money transfer business, El Cafetal. She pointed out that the local area used to be a lot more dodgy, when it was quiet and the building abandoned, in the 1980s. "We brought a lot of safety to the area because we were here. We are decent people, we work really hard, we do two or three different jobs most of us... you will see people here who get up at four in the morning to do cleaning jobs, and then they come here to run the shops, and then finish, close up the shops and go and do more cleaning jobs, just to keep everything running. When the financial crisis hit, the market didn't even feel the recession – because we worked really hard, extra jobs if we needed to. I feel so angry, I feel like we've been betrayed. When you put your heart and soul and your blood, sweat and tears into something, not for you, but for everybody..." she tailed off. "Nine years we've been fighting."
"No Longer Invisible", a report produced by Queen Mary University in 2011, found that London's Latin population had quadrupled in number in a decade to 113,500, a level close to the city's Polish-born population; and it will have increased significantly since then. A large proportion work in low-skilled manual labour jobs (often in spite of holding much wider professional skills and experience), such as cleaning and catering. The report also found that a shocking 11 percent of Latin American workers were paid beneath the minimum wage, ten times the rate for the UK population at large.
Another even larger hub for these communities is in Southwark, around Elephant and Castle – and as the area lurches into the middle stages of a full rip-it-down-and-start-again regeneration programme, it is again the Latinos and Latinas who've made the area thrive who are going to be first out the door. Latin Elephant, the community's impressive lobbying campaign and collective, has found there are over 120 small Latin businesses in Southwark – 41 percent of them owned by women, significantly higher than the national average. They are understandably concerned about how many of them will last beyond the moment when the last crane is finally brought down.
"There's going to be loads of opportunities for retail in the new Elephant & Castle," said chair of Latin Elephant, Patria Roman-Velazquez, "but we don't know if we're going to be allowed to take any of them." The group formed to give the local community a more powerful voice, because traders were being excluded from meetings about the future direction of the area, and not engaged in discussions. "It's really difficult to get past the gatekeeping. But we've opened channels of communication when we can, we respond to all development documents when we can with our own thoughts and proposals. What people need to understand is this is as much a community issue as a business issue."
Not for the first time, it seems that the hard work, enterprise and community spirit of expatriate groups – often in areas decidedly down on their luck – quickly becomes exploitable capital for the developers who move in next.
"What the Latin American businesses in both Elephant and Seven Sisters have in common is a sense that we came here and revitalised the area when no one else really wanted to," said Roman-Velazquez. "We belong here, we settled here – and why is it that now, now that the area is finally going to be improved, we're not allowed to be part of it? We want to be part of this, and reap the benefits of regeneration. Migrant and ethnic businesses are very adaptable, and they are vital parts of these communities. There's a real sense of belonging here, of a right to the place."
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