Peckham does not gentrify gently. Most inner London neighbourhoods on the seemingly inexorable journey from scary to chichi manage a few intervening years of comfortable bohemianism. We don’t have the time. Instead, everything jumps straight from one set of urban cliches to another. When my local laundrette closed the other summer, it was immediately repainted in sleek dark grey and reopened as a shop with three lines of business: hot sauce, craft beer and vinyl records.
For all that, until about five years ago, Peckham’s gentrification was a neatly contained phenomenon: bewilderingly fast, but restricted to such tightly defined areas that even the dimmest estate agent could outline them in felt tip.
West of Peckham Rye station, there was Bellenden Road, which had bollards designed by Antony Gormley, an Indian restaurant praised in the Guardian, and a bookshop where a literary prizewinner worked the till. East of the station, there was some gentrification of the scruffier sort: a warehouse full of artists’ studios and pentecostal microchurches; a half-disused supermarket car park that hosted a summer exhibition mostly famous for its rooftop bar. Mainly, however, there was Rye Lane, which had Morrisons, Greggs, West African butchers with a sideline in international money transfers, and an incredible profusion of pound shops.
On Rye Lane, when the riots came, Poundland was looted and Greggs was burned to its shell. Bellenden Road remained quiet, looters perhaps being less interested in promising first novels and designer tea–towels. But once the rioters went home, leaving a legacy of discouraged chains, sudden vacancies and fresh grant money, the gentrifiers finally arrived on Rye Lane.
One of the West African butchers’ shops is now a videogame bar, where along with your craft beer you can buy American coins to feed into vintage arcade machines. (Rather hopefully, given the geekiness of its clientele, it has kept the ‘meat market’ sign.) A shop previously dedicated to international phone calls is now a cafe with DJ decks, a cute nickname for its avocado on toast and an evening cocktail menu. Hipster chains are beginning to follow. By the station, where once there was an African restaurant and a printer specialising in leaflets for those pentecostal microchurches, there is now a branch of Honest Burger. The last old man’s pub on Rye Lane was called the Hope, and had a picture of Pandora opening her box on its sign: it became a branch of Paddy Power about five years ago. Now there is a new Hope operated by Antic pubs, the canny stealth chain responsible for turning Deptford job centre into a bar called the Job Centre. The old Hope had a meat raffle; the new one has a vinyl-only evening and guest street-food vendors. There’s clearly a market for it, because Antic has just renovated a derelict decorators’ shop on the middle of Rye Lane into a second and much larger pub with the implausible name of John the Unicorn.
Some old institutions are adapting. Canavan’s, Rye Lane’s tatty pool hall, has acquired an advertising board that looks as if it may have earned credits towards a graphic-design MA and a selection of increasingly recherché club nights: you recently missed ‘Slow Bounce’, ping-pong and dancing from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. This approach has done well enough that Vice magazine protests about the threat of flats being built within noise-complaint distance. The Peckham Liberal Club, a working-men’s club with a striking neoclassical frontage, has gained a Twitter account and a surge of new members.
Southwark council is having more of a job keeping up. Its masterplan for the area had identified the old car park as an underutilised resource ripe for redevelopment, only to find its rooftop bar featured in inflight magazines the world over. They have now handed the site for the next few years to the people who created Pop Brixton, a much-denounced collection of mid-priced restaurants in shipping containers, on a promise of making parking spaces into artists’ studios.
Given the amount of money sloshing around, however, it seems certain that big redevelopments are coming. If you don’t like this new Peckham, there’ll be another one along in a minute.