Fears about the gentrification of East Street Market are valid – but they must not impede the change that is so sorely needed.
The first thing to understand is that Walworth has arguably been subject to faster demographic change than anywhere in Southwark and, therefore, London.
At the end of Walworth Road, in Elephant and Castle, there used to be the Heygate Estate, with 1,200 council homes. In 2014, demolition began to make way for Elephant Park – a development with just 100 social rent homes.
Southwards, there’s the Aylesbury redevelopment. When it was completed in 1977, it had roughly 2,700 social rent homes. The new scheme will have just 1,600 council homes, with many others being sold to wealthy buyers on the private market. This is at the heart of East Street’s conundrum. Many of its most reliable customers, who were willing to barter and haggle for the best prices of fruit and veg, no longer live in Southwark.
So Walworth is left with a choice. On the one hand, the market can remain in stasis, steadily becoming a relic of a bygone age. Or it can be pragmatic, and gradually adapt to the area’s changing socio-economic character. That’s not to say the market doesn’t still play an important role in the local economy. Many people still rely on it for staples and have little interest in organic cheese, or handcrafted tea towels.
Fortunately, it’s possible to cater to both demographics. Why not have affordable clothes stalls alongside street food pop-ups? The empty pitches where stalls should stand suggest there’s room for everyone. The clunky and unsympathetic way some regeneration has been carried out in Southwark has understandably made people suspicious of state-backed community upheaval. Hopefully, East Street Market can get this tricky balancing act right.