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Southwark’s social cleansing vehicle begins steamrolling through Peckham

Southwark Council’s social cleansing agenda is not just limited to council estates. Businesses in Peckham are undergoing closure and demolition too, as Southwark Council begin to clear local traders from the area ahead of their plans to regenerate the Peckham Rye train station and surrounding areas.

Having spent ten years taking my two daughters to have their hair plaited at the Afro-Caribbean hairdresser shops on Blenheim Grove, today we arrive to find the parade of shops boarded up.

My 8-year old daughter Tianna looks confused. "Where is Auntie?" She asks, referring to Azi, our long-time hairdresser. Azi is always there on a Sunday.

Azi is sat waiting on a chair on the pavement opposite. "Come with me" Azi says and leads us to a small salon around the corner. "What happened?" I ask, as Azi beckons Tianna to sit down and begins unplaiting her hair, gathering a comb and a pot of hair cream from a huge pile of bags stacked up in the corner which contain all the stock from her former shop.

Azi stops and looks at me, "you know what has happened, they don’t want us Africans here anymore, they want us gone." 

"What about the new shopping centre?" I asked, referring to the new 'Peckham Palms' development on Bournemouth Road where Southwark Council had promised to relocate the hairdressers.

"That centre is not open yet, it won’t be open for a long time, yet they close us down a few days ago and we don’t have anywhere to go" Azi replies. "We got this new space now just for two months, after that we don’t know what will happen to us, the stress these people put on us, it’s not right. How do they expect us to live?"

Azi, who lives on the Aylesbury estate, explains how she is facing eviction and demolition of both her home and her workplace. "First my housing officer says I will have to leave my house in a few months time, I have to bid, it’s so stressful, I come here to take my mind off that, now look what happens. What do these people think they are doing?"

Two women enter the shop, Margaret and Gertrude. "Where have you been? We’ve been looking for you?!" They exclaim to Azi, pleased to have finally found her amidst all the confusion.

Margaret and Gertrude had a boutique clothing shop that has also now been boarded up. They explain to me that they weren’t prepared to be closed down. "We told the man from Southwark Council that we can't just pack up and leave like that, he said if we don’t get out then they will just change the locks, in the end that’s what they did - we still had some of our stock inside, we have nowhere to go" Gertrude explains.

"We thought that the council would be moving us to another unit but now they've told us we have to put together a business pitch, put our names down on a list and then they’ll interview us to decide which of us gets one of the new units eventually, but they have nothing ready for us now, and in the meantime we are losing money every day. They offered us just £500 for loss of earnings, in the end we had to try and find our own new shop, we can't afford to stop trading, we are going to be renting a shop on the high street, but it’s £1000 a week rent, we will just be working to pay the landlord."

Southwark Council had implied that the new units would be ready for the traders to move into before they begin closing down the shops on Blenheim Grove, but this doesn’t appear to be the case.

As Azi continues skillfully plaiting Tianna’s hair, I ask Gertrude and Margaret what their plans are. "We need legal advice and we need to protest this" Gertrude says, "the whole community needs to stick together because we are all going through this. We've been here for years, but Southwark Council don’t care, they will keep all their posh coffee shops but they don’t care about the rest of us. They told us they would relocate us within the area and that hasn’t happened, and every time we try to get in touch with them to complain, we can't get through to the right person or they just make excuses, there’s no one for us to talk to about this. There is very little in writing, they used to come by and have a chat with us or we would hear about the plans from the neighbouring shops."

"They are killing people" Margaret interjects, "the mental burden they put on people is enough to stress them out to that point, and the council just don’t care".

There has been some tension in Peckham over the past few years, as young creative hipsters move into the area, bringing gentrification with them, as outlined in this article.

Gertrude, who lives in Elephant and Castle speaks about her struggles at home. "We don't really know what's happening in Elephant. They have the temporary units at the box park but they are so tiny and it's not the kind of place that's suitable for us, our business is here in Peckham, but the same thing is happening here."

"Coffee shops, coffee shops, how many coffee shops do they want?" Azi jokes, referring to the rise in independent tea rooms and coffee bars in Peckham over recent years. "All those coffee shops are safe, they are keeping those. But us, no, they want us gone. We don't even know how much the rent will be in one these new shops, even if we get one at what's it called?"

"Peckham Palms?" I reply

"Peckham Palms, yes. Why do they call it that?" Azi asked.

As Tianna and I leave the salon, she passes the boarded up shops where she's been going for as long as she can remember. "Will Auntie get her shop back?" she asks sadly. "I don't know" I reply.

Somehow I couldn't picture Azi in the new units, at least not as she once was, happily calling to us from her little shop and beckoning us inside. The plans for the regeneration of the area include a garden roof terrace and a space for 'community groups to meet alongside affordable work space for entrepreneurs and start up businesses.'

 Southwark Council appear to be keen on creating a new Peckham, one that neatly packages 'culture' down a side road in the 'Peckham Palms' centre.  All whilst making minimal concessions for the members of the community who've been living and working here for decades. Maximising and capitalising on the art-wash gentrification programme, whilst the areas newest inhabitants may be blissfully unaware of the social cleansing taking place.

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