Sounds about white: Afro-Caribbean hair salons kicked out of existing premises to make way for gentrification

The boarded up salons on Blenheim Grove, visible from Rye Lane (Image: Georgi Honnor Photography)

After the redevelopment of Peckham Rye Station and the immediate surrounding area was first suggested over ten years ago, Southwark Council, in conjunction with Network Rail and the Greater London Authority have received £5.2m from the Mayor’s Regeneration Fund to “transform the narrow, dimly lit passageways that lead to the station into a generous, vibrant public square”. After planning permission was granted back in March 2016 and the local authority’s application for a compulsory purchase order was successful a number of local businesses were relocated to make way for the development.

The existing walkway that leads to the station has been identified as “creating a poor impression” of the area (Image: Georgi Honnor Photography)
The Grade II listed station building that, under the regeneration project is set to be enhanced and “celebrated by its new surroundings” (Image: Georgi Honnor Photography)

Having recently been listed as the 11th coolest neighbourhood in the world, according to Time Out’s annual ranking, this rapidly gentrifying area of south east London has quickly become London’s hippest neighbourhood. With significant investment in regeneration and its now flourishing cultural sector, Peckham’s reputation, once blighted by an image of social deprivation has experienced a complete turnaround. But gentrification, as a complex and dynamic process that involves the entire social and economic transformation of places is nothing to be celebrated by the majority of Peckham’s existing community. 

Since Ruth Glass coined the term in 1964, gentrification has gathered both critical and popular attention, obtaining a largely negative image associated with driving urban inequality, displacement and social exclusion; and Peckham offers a textbook example of such consequences. After Southwark Council famously demolished five of Peckham’s most notorious estates in one of the council’s biggest regeneration projects to date changes have continued apace. But it would appear to some that “Southwark’s social cleansing agenda is no longer limited to council estates”.

Whilst the use of compulsory purchase orders will always be fraught with tensions having both winners and losers, there is something more deeply concerning about the demolition and associated relocation of the existing businesses along Blenheim Grove that runs adjacent to the station. Whilst the bank, dentist and café have all been offered premises in the new square development, the Afro- Caribbean hair salons that Blenheim Grove became renowned for have been relocated to one of Peckham’s backstreets in a new converted garage space known as Peckham Palms.

The Peckham Palms development is neatly tucked away in one of the backstreets just off of Rye Lane (Image: Georgi Honnor Photography)
The building that is set to become home to over 30 hair and beauty stylists is on a 20-year lease from Southwark Council (Image: Georgi Honnor Photography)

Despite Southwark Council’s attempt to ensure that the existing beauty businesses benefited from the regeneration project  by constructing Peckham Palms to “support local black enterprise”, a number of the business owners were unhappy with the move. 

“They don’t want us here”, one of the hairdressers told me as she sat combing through some hair extensions on a chair outside her now boarded up salon in the late summer of 2018. She went on to explain how the businesses on Blenheim Grove rely heavily on the high footfall to and from the station to attract clients and sell products before outlining her shared concerns of how the relocation would totally destroy that setup. She later informed me of how the move to Peckham Palms would not be as straightforward as she had initially thought, proceeding to tell me how Southwark Council were asking existing business owners to put together a pitch and attend interviews if they were wishing to be considered for a commercial unit in the new development. 

A computer generated image of how the completed development is expected to look (Image: Copyright Southwark Council)

With Southwark Council highlighting how the station’s immediate surroundings “create a poor first impression of the town centre”, as they plan to “bring the area to life” by “opening up the station area for new community uses” they reinforce the idea that only certain types of people and work are valued in the creative city. In the case of the station square redevelopment, Southwark Council completely disregard the inherent creativity and entrepreneurialism of the hair stylists of Blenheim Grove, as they favour the creation of creative workspace for freelancers and artists. Extending sociologist Erving Goffman’s stage metaphor, the project in effect creates both a frontstage and a backstage for Peckham where the council, by moving the salons to a more concealed location have essentially ‘written out’ those who tell a different story to the one which they are trying to promote. With Peckham’s new front stage (due for completion in spring 2022) hoped to bring further investment into the area and the Palms on just a 20-year lease, we can question how in an age where economic gain is often prioritised over anything else, if Peckham’s famous hair stylists are really here to stay. 

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