If Westminster councillors, and people like French ‘street market’ multinational Groupe Geraud and Shaftesbury PLC have their way, this beating human heart of Soho’s streets will soon become yet another example of the homogenised, cleaned-up, gentrified and ‘improved’ London street markets of Spitalfields, Covent Garden, and soon, I guess, Portobello.
Brixton Market has already succumbed to the charms of Groupe Geraud (see geraud.co.uk/our-markets).
And if this type of large corporation and one-time philanthropic but now mercilessly greedy London property company triumphs, every slightly scruffy London landmark of true banter, communalism and value will simply disappear. As will the cheap apparel, freshly cooked food, meat, fruit and veg and farmer’s produce they now provide to a growing band of enthusiasts and their traditional customers, the inner city residents and workers who still crowd into them.
Instead, these places will become the homes of loss-leading corporate plate glass chains, coffee shops and international fast food concessions. Plus, of course, imported items, clothes, ‘antique’ and trinket stalls. And they’ll be populated largely by smartphone wielding, fast food seeking, aimless clumps of tourists, who often don’t buy that much or certainly care much about the togetherness, comedy and conversation that true London markets provide.
Plus the world’s wealthy, of course.
(And goodbye, Boris.)
Today, June 30th 2016, (the day
of ‘termination’ for arch London ‘moderniser’, Tory would-be leader and dangerous clown Boris Johnson) I went to talk to Robin Smith of Berwick Street Traders, an organisation (soon to be a society) formed by this elfin ex-adman and brand development expert, who now runs the Berwick Street campaign to
save the market from extinction. Or, more precisely, corporatisation.
It was a slightly sombre affair initially. Robin, who runs a farmers market-style dairy stall, told me that today was his ‘termination day’. (His four-month contract with Westminster Council was up. But temporarily, this is ‘on hold’.) This phrase reverberated in my mind. But Robin warmed to his numerous themes, and here’s a summation of what
he said to me.
“Berwick Street market is about 300 years old, officially dating back to 1778. Local traders, some Huguenots included, started it when the goods in their shops spilled out onto trestles in the street.”
“Like many of the London markets at the time, it featured famous, well- frequented brothels”, very different kinds of ‘stews’ than those found there today in the various street food stalls heavily patronised by the surviving film, video, advertising and media companies in the area.
“There were other, similar markets nearby, in Haymarket for example and Broadwick Street market. Though Broadwick Street never really took off.”
How we got here.
Berwick Street market has thrived in all its free and easy manifestations, populated in turn by the successive waves of migrants to London over the intervening centuries till right now. Russian Jews, Italian and French immigrants up to the 20th Century, and, since the Second World War, Middle Eastern, African and Asian stallholders manned the stalls.
The surrounding shops, studios and production companies that line the street (or is it really a market?) added extra colour.
But now, the majority of the stallholders hold the hereditary leases that the councillors can’t do anything about; yet. If the developers and their front men get their way, these will be changed to enable one-year terminations. That way, there’ll be a vacant, ‘free’ space for the likes of Groupe Geraud to do with as they wish. Short term four-month licences are now given to recent stallholders, despite the fact that some have been here for up to ten years.
“And they are being ‘terminated’ as we speak. This relentless process is leaving the market gradually emptier and emptier…” continues Robin.
And what awaits us.
Berwick Street Market is now a
slightly sad but heroic vestige of its former self, surrounded by the looming superstructure and pneumatic drill clatter of rapidly developing high rise flats. All being readied for the buy to leave merchants and moneyed foreigners who will shortly add this area to their portfolios in Singapore, Hong Kong and
They will luxuriate, if they ever bother coming to London, in flats that were once council flats, now nearly emptied
of their original inhabitants like Jeffrey Barnard, who once lived in the tower block you can see in the photographs, directly behind the stalls. The new ‘apartments’ are all well on their way to being ready for their new rich owners.
Dame Shirley Porter would have been delighted. And Boris, presumably, would be too, were he not now twirling at the end of a rope on a political gibbet he didn’t realise he wasactually building for himself.
Vive La Resistance, Soho style!
But the Berwick Street traders are resisting execution, as only Londoners can. Unified by the threat to their livelihood, “rents are going up threefold at a stroke” and with Robin Smith in command of the petition to save the market, the likes of long-term fruit, veg and flower stallholders Beefy, Micky, Mark (‘they’ll only get me out of here with a bullet in my brain’) and Jim are determined, if they go down at all, to go down fighting.
“35,000 signatures on our petition, and brilliant support from The Guardian, The Evening
Standard, London Radio Live and West End News” says Robin.
“Another good thing about all of this is that all the traders have come together. This place is a microcosm of today’s London. “People don’t realise that before this year, Westminster Council were supportive of our self-generated plans for a truly local market in Berwick Street. One that serves this square mile, Soho, with fresh food, fresh fruit and veg, fresh meat, locally sourced when possible, and the possibility of being a showcase for independent producers worldwide. “With a programme to help local young people from St Barnabas find work and get a training in the market too. They were enthusiastic about all of it, until this year. Then it all went quiet.
“That’s when the notices of termination started coming in. In March 2016, four months ago, we were all given notice of a ‘consultation period’ ending in June. Like now! “The councillors, one I could name is Daniel Astaire, said that they needed the market ‘to respond’. Well, we have responded. This is our response.”
I strolled away from Robin, spoke to a few of the remaining stallholders, when I asked them to smile for the camera, and reflected on one of the main points that Robin made in his brief chat with me.
“Soho is all about conversation. If we lose the market, if we lose the conversation that makes this place and city what it is, then we lose Soho. If we’re driven out by rents that only loss-leading corporations can afford, we’re sunk.”
I wonder if the cream of the crop of the Tory councillors who run Westminster, as well as their developer mates, are listening to this conversation now?