​how do we preserve one of london's most diverse areas from corporate gentrification?

Seven Sisters has quietly remained one of North East London's forgotten gems, a culturally diverse oasis dictated by community rather than corporate profit and with it, creatives have flocked. But how do we fend off its incoming gentrification?

by Nellie Eden
24 February 2017, 10:20am

On Thursday the 4th of August 2011, after the shooting of an unarmed Mark Duggan, London burned for three days. As flames licked through the city, police helicopters hummed over Tottenham Hale retail park. Tottenham was the spark that lit the tinder box. What ensued was 55 arrests, along with the subsequent heavy-handed conviction of over a 1000 people on the back of evidence garnered from hours of CCTV footage. Conservative justice secretary Ken Clarke would then refer to rioters as members of a "feral underclass".

After witnessing scenes that mirrored the 1981 Brixton riots and Tottenham's own Broadwater Farm riot of 1985 - two of London's most pronounced scars - many were unsure of how Tottenham's local economy would recover. Newsagents looked like Hollywood action film sets and burnt out double decker buses were left deserted on the roadsides. Six years on, Tottenham is regaining its strength, fuelled by the energy and vitality of its multicultural population - alongside a new cohort of creatives and entrepreneurs seeking respite from the malaise that is the cost of Zone 1 London living.

To decree an area as "up and coming" is to undoubtedly ensure its place as "next" on the developer's long list of potential sites for sterile new builds and homogenous Boxpark retailers. It sets into motion a game of hipster-whispers: "I heard Leytonstone might be the new Walthamstow…" and sounds the death knell for a location's cultural (and economic) equilibrium. But, for now, Tottenham's Seven Sisters (despite the much-gentrified neighbouring postcodes of Islington and Finsbury Park) tenaciously retains its idiosyncrasies and brutalist charm while also playing host to this new pack of designers, photographers, painters and artists in it's now famous warehouse spaces. But this may be under threat...

Not talking about the inevitable gentrification of Seven Sisters is unlikely to stop the area from changing, if anything, talking about it might open the conversation about how best to save some of the area's treasured institutions. Tottenham has been bourgeois before. Until the late 19th century, the town was made green by the presence of the River Lea, Bruce Castle Park and Tottenham Marshes, with well-sized Victorian homes. This was before railways ushered in swathes of blue-collar workers along with housing they could afford and cemented the look and feel of Seven Sisters as lower-middle class. But Claire Kober, the leader of Haringey council, talking to The Guardian in 2015, declared that Tottenham has "suffered structural economic decline since the 70s". 

The area though, has benefitted from the diversity that comes with affordable rents and a relatively central location, with the 2011 census showing that in Tottenham, ethnic groups were pretty evenly split, especially in relation to other areas of London - with 22.3% White British residents, alongside 26.7% Black, 10.7% Asian and 12.6% identifying as Other/Mixed, bringing with it a wealth of new entrepreneurs and talent across art, fashion and music.

Right now the local creative output is thriving, and it's not as if Tottenham's creative scene has needed a leg up from any outsiders. Local alumni from the area include Adele and Skepta, who last year collaborated with Levi's to establish a youth music centre for the area's schoolchildren at The Selby Centre in Tottenham. But the list of local boys and girls done good include Wiley, Wretch 32, Chip, Meridian Dan and JME; who've all put the area's grime scene on the map.

If, right now at least, the area doesn't look markedly different, that might soon change. As part of Haringey Council's massive Tottenham regeneration project (listed in detail on their website) Seven Sisters is reduced to an appendage: "a gateway to Tottenham". If you were to exit Seven Sisters station today and glance back over your shoulder you'd be met with Ward's Corner - an Edwardian fronted building that straddles the station. Its main attraction is an indoor market that for a long time been a meeting place and hub for Seven Sisters' Hispanic community, crammed full with independent shops and food outlets. Grainger PLC (Grainger) are the contractors who will be developing Ward's Corner if the plans go ahead. Their building plans extend to South Tottenham Customer Service Centre, Apex House, where they will build new homes with a promise of "39%" of said housing to be "affordable."

There is a digital rendering of what that Ward's Corner might come to be replaced with on Grainger's website. You've definitely seen it before. It's a bland, beige, concrete high-street with huge generic glass shop frontages and poorly euphemised chain restaurants like 'Pasta Express' and 'Costa Café'. The plans, even in blueprint stages look threatening and have understandably sparked concern about rising business rates and collapse of subsidised social housing, which in a borough like Haringey, would spell disaster. Last year Haringey's council member for housing and regeneration, Alan Strickland, visited Cannes for the property trade fair MIPIM in order to sell Tottenham-based development opportunities to investors.

While the planning permission on Ward's Corner has been suspended, the future remains murky. Yet there have been clear indicators that the emerging creative communities and the cultures that have been pillars of the community can live side-by-side. Last month Martine Rose, who's been a Tottenham resident for ten years, invited the whole of fashion week to the indoor market for her autumn/winter 17 show. Food vendors handed out Colombian delicacies and the Money Exchange remained open as FKA Twigs got comfortable with other guests on mismatched chairs that weaved through the barbers and nail shops. It was an event that did not deny the market's Latin American culture, but instead wholeheartedly embraced it. Martine's troop of models slalomed around the market to the sound of Latin drums as business carried on very much as usual.

Other designers have been similarly drawn to the area for some time and much like Martine have deftly assimilated into Seven Sisters' existing infrastructure, respecting the area's character and quietly making use of the large work spaces available. Charlie Casely-Hayford is one of those designers. "I grew up spending a lot of time as a kid in my parent's design studio in Shoreditch 25 years ago" he explained. "It had always been incredibly inspiring to us but a couple of years ago we felt the vibe had almost completely dissipated so we were looking for a new energy and Seven Sisters seem to fill that gap. The high road feels like Kingsland Road did when I was in my early teens."

Charlie, like most renters, is making use of Tottenham's spaciousness: "The studio is a converted warehouse - one big room." Fashion East's Mimi Wade rents a similar space with designers Marta Jakubowski and Per Götesson in a neighbouring block to Charlie. Both agree there's a special quality particular to the area: "We love the tranquillity and the isolation," Charlie said, and Mimi concurred. "I don't bump into anyone I know and that gives me the space and quietness I need to concentrate. There is just the right amount of distance from the hustle and bustle of the city centre to be able to focus my mind." Charlie's thoughts on what Seven Sisters might look like in five years are "a sea of new-build flats." Mimi though can only hope that the area stays the same.

Being young, creative, and living in London feels a bit like being trapped in a Catch 22 situation. Many don't have the financial resources to set up shop in already homogenised, over-priced areas, so are forced out into poorer, less stable communities. But it's not fair to suggest that these young people are culpable for any regenerative plans the council may have. Most, like Martine, contribute more to the area than they take, and do it respectfully.

Pasquale Daniel a designer from Archway who grew up in North London, is similarly conflicted. "I've seen my dad, who's a mechanic, reap the rewards of gentrification - he had an arch on Morning Lane when he worked as a mechanic. It got bought out by National Rail and now it's part of Hackney's new outlet park, and Nike and Stone Island have shops there," he shrugs. "What bothers me about gentrification is the next stages really. The exclusion of locals, the destruction of estates to make way for unaffordable new builds, local businesses folding. I'm all for local people and broke creatives needing cheaper spaces to work. I'm both of those things in North London. It's just when the corporations roll in, that's when someone like my mum, who doesn't own her council flat, has to worry."

Seven Sisters is home to new independent businesses that are physical examples of how to embellish a neighbourhood without tarnishing it, that are as frequented by locals as they are by newcomers. Marta is a fan of Polish restaurant Lite Bite, and Charlie and Mimi are regulars at the Sicilian pizza joint Loven. Then there's Craving coffee, Beavertown brewery and Styx, for starters. To group all new developments as "hipster" is to lazily dismiss the potential positive change that freedom of movement and expression can spring. Take Chicken Town, a not-for-profit restaurant in Tottenham Green. Local young adults have been recruited to work as staff and receive mentoring that might otherwise bypassed them.

Deano Jo is a Seven Sisters loyalist. A north London local who is opening night club and brewery, Five Miles (named because of its distance from the city) in Seven Sisters next month with Luke Smith, Mark Hislop, and Mark Shaffer with whom he co-runs Dalston's The Alibi "I was born and raised in north London and spent a lot of time in Seven Sisters and Turnpike Lane as a teenager, so I've got a soft spot for the area. I used to go to The Swan (RIP) every week for hardcore shows". Deano is a regular customer at both the area's old and new establishments. "I love the Latin Village market; all the old pubs, all the new breweries. I go to Craving Coffee every day. Get an Arepa from Quentinha Portuguesa and a Guinness from Mannions Prince Arthur pub." Deano hopes, like Mimi, Charlie, Marta and others, that his contribution to the community will be nothing but positive. "I hope we can add something new to the long-list of greatness here already."

Moving somewhere with lower living costs is not illegal, but has some cannibalism in its rationale. Findings from the Valuation Office Agency suggested rent in Haringey is rising at dizzying rates (the £230 gap between average rents in Hackney and Haringey in 2011 is now around £88). In 2014 Haringey's Assembly Member Joanne McCartney even backed calls for an investigation into the unsustainable rent hikes. For now, the somewhat lower rents are still understandably attracting people. Studios double up as bedrooms and three spitting-distant tube stations on the Piccadilly and Victoria are a pull.

For most, London is becoming too expensive for to survive in. Creatives, business owners and entrepreneurs alike can boost economies at grassroots levels and shape the future of the next generation to come - making an area a more pleasurable and diverse place to live. While Haringey Council's regeneration scheme seems to be bringing some positive change in the area - statistics suggest that from March 2011 to March 2016, employment rates have risen from 56.7% to 68.7%-there's a counter argument to be paid attention to. In a report released last March by the Runnymede Trust findings suggested substantial ethnic inequalities meant Haringey ranked second in all of London's 32 boroughs for the most racially led discrepancies in regards to employment and housing.

Alan Strickland, Cabinet Member for Housing, Regeneration and Planning of Haringey Council had this to say. "We have exciting plans for Seven Sisters. This area is the gateway to Tottenham and we're committed to transforming it into a focal point for the community, including quality retail space and nearly 200 new homes.

"Ensuring there is a long-term Seven Sisters market is central to our plans, which is why we've arranged a package of measures including financial assistances to help traders relocate to the new market. Together with the developer, Grainger, we're meeting with existing traders to discuss relocation to the improved Seven Sisters Market."

As long as developers and local governments glibly talk about postcodes as "gateways" the sacrament of local institutions are in danger. In moderation newness is essential for a neighbourhood's vitality and can help ensure a neighbourhood's cultural and fiscal prosperity for future generations. It would seem the majority of creatives now setting up shop in Seven Sisters are as fearful for the area's loss of character as longstanding locals. The question is whether the pitfalls of regeneration can ever be fully avoided? For now, Ward's Corner and the wider Seven Sisters' hangs in the balance.


Text Nellie Eden

seven sisters