Alice Jones: It only takes a little imagination to bring a ghost town back to life


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The Independent Online

Two years ago, Granville Arcade, in the far reaches of Brixton market, was a ghost town.

A little at a remove from the bustling heart of fishmongers and grocery stalls around Electric Avenue, the chilly indoor avenues underneath the railway station stood largely empty and forlorn. Then, in the summer of 2009, Lambeth council, in association with Space Makers (a creative regeneration agency) and local businesses and communities, took matters in hand and offered up 20 empty stalls rent-free on a three-month trial to anyone with a good business idea. If the start-ups made a success of their first quarter, they might stay on a little longer and start paying rent: everyone's a winner.

The first people to move in, as always, were artists, who organised pop-up galleries, poetry readings and performances in the stalls. A coffee shop soon followed, then a delicatessen, then a florist, then a brunch café, then a burger bar, then a vintage clothes shop, then a Thai restaurant, then a cocktail-and-tapas bar... You get the picture. Within a year, all 20 stalls had been let to long-term tenants. The transformation has been astonishing and, for this resident, thrilling. This week, Brixton village was named by Time Out as London's top food and drink destination, which will, no doubt, make the long queues at the stalls even longer. Some may sniff about "gentrification" but nothing of the old market's spirit has been lost. No one has been moved on by these young upstarts: old market-traders and new coexist in buzzing, lucrative harmony.

Here, then, is an antidote to the doom and gloom currently enveloping the Great British High Street. Mary Portas's report for the Government, published this week, revealed that every day 20 shops close their doors for good, that in some towns as many as four in 10 shops stand empty, and that 50 per cent of spending now takes place away from the high street. Many of Portas's proposed remedies sound eminently sensible: a focus on town-centre development over life-sapping out-of-town malls, affordable parking, and a "buddy" system for large chains to mentor smaller shopkeepers.

And, while the red tape on all that is untangled, Brixton village provides thriving proof that even in the depths of recession, a little creative investment can go a very long way.