Gentrification game: Defending traditional markets

As a scruffy London market is granted listed status, Tom Mendelsohn looks at how stallholders across the country are resisting attempts to smarten them up

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The Independent Online

It's half past four on a thundery south London afternoon, but the stallholders and shoppers of Brixton Market's Granville Arcade barely notice. And if they're even aware that their livelihoods have just been saved from probable extinction, well, they aren't showing it. They're just getting on with the cheerful business of flogging their wares.

Be that as it may, this is an unequivocally major development in the life of ramshackle old Brixton Market: it's just been saved from major redevelopment. The culture minister Margaret Hodge has signed off on a declaration formally awarding the market Grade II Listing status – upending a previous decision made in 2008 to leave the whole complex unprotected.

The decision, made at the start of the month, represents a huge victory for the community in Brixton, finally raising the axe that had been hanging over the market for more than a decade, and thwarting developers' long-held plans to flatten the place and turn it into luxury flats.

But is this essentially scruffy network of stalls, with no striking architectural merit, really worthy of listed status?

The market, which is actually made up of three separate covered arcades, huge, vaulted structures which honeycomb the side streets of Brixton, was built in the 1920s and 1930s and was quickly adopted by London's exploding immigrant population. And, in fact, says a jubilant Ben Turnstall, the chair of the Friends of Brixton Market, "the listing was granted more on the basis of the market's cultural value than on the value of its buildings". Somewhat of a landmark cause for such a move.

What the decision will also do, though, is protect the market from a more insidious threat: that of gentrification. A natural by-product of redevelopment, it's a powerful economic force that can change the timbre of whole areas.

And it is not, according to Simon Carter, a local who has run Music Temple, a specialist reggae shop in Granville Arcade for many years, remotely desirable in this particular part of south London. "Gentrification would be a terrible thing for the market," he explains. "This is a crucial part of Brixton. I firmly believe markets are there for individuals, for helping the little guy who wants to start a business but can't afford the risks of opening a shop.

"If the area started developing, landlords could start raising the rent, until the only people who could afford the rates are corporate stores or boutique-style places. That's not why people come here: Brixton Market caters for local immigrant communities. It sells fish, veg and fabrics – stuff you can't find anywhere else. It needs to stay as base for local people."

He passionately believes that if chains get their foothold in the area, it would start a cycle of gentrification that would be an end to Brixton as we know it. "The original stallholders will always struggle to compete with the likes of Gap and Starbucks, and Brixton Market will go the way of Greenwich or Portobello Markets," he says.

Indeed, the same story has been played out at the world-famous Portobello Market, just eight miles away. Marion Gettleson, an antiques dealer who has known the area for half a century, says that 40 years ago, Notting Hill was much like Brixton: a down-at-heel but bustling immigrant community. Slowly, though, in the last few decades, things have changed almost beyond all recognition.

Gettleson is now unofficial spokesperson for a dynamic local campaign to save the market from a new phase of development. It is focusing on a new branch of the fashion retailer All Saints, which recently opened a massive new store on a prominent corner in the middle of the street. The store was once a labyrinthine hall full of hundreds of small-scale antiques sellers; now it's a big cavern full of designer goods. More than 30,000 people have joined a Facebook group to protest, and they may well just force All Saints to undo some of the changes it has made.

The campaign "just sprang up spontaneously", she says, and while it seems to be having some success in reversing the recent damage, the rot looks like it set in long ago. Portobello Road has its outlet of American Apparel with its façade a monochrome Lolita, photographed lying open-mouthed in a tiny spandex one-piece. There's Lush, a garishly upmarket cosmetics store, a Caffé Nero, the inevtiable Starbucks.

It's all very subtle, but locals say that the character of the area is slowly and inevitably draining away as rents rise. Marion points to one shop paying more than £100,000 in rent a year, another paying twice that.

Kirkgate Market in Leeds is also suffering rising rents which are forcing out its established traders – even as the people who run the place continue to enjoy healthy profits. A Friends group has sprung up there, too, with momentum building online.

Back in Brixton, the extent of the danger of gentrification is hard to gauge. Turnstall is trying to work with the landlords to maintain the status quo. "We welcome the efforts they're making to bring traders in empty lots in the markets. The buzz this creates brings more shoppers in and boosts the economy," he says. "It's a tricky balancing act though, because the buzz can also lead private owners with their eyes on the bottom line into rent rises. What we're trying to do is encourage them to be socially responsible.

"Markets need to be both commercially and socially successful for the health of the communities they serve. They need to be seen not as commodities, but as the centre of people's lives."