Brixton Market, WTF?

Unless, like long-time Deserter associate, Half-life, you’ve been in ‘re-hab’ for a few years, you’ll know that Granville Arcade, SW9, has been given a new name. It’s now called ‘Brixton Village, what the fuck?’

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In 2008 Granville Arcade, along with adjacent sister site, Market Row, narrowly avoided being turned into shit flats by its new owners and the leaky, peeling, half-empty arcade was revived by pop-up cafes and restaurants. Charged little or no rent for short leases, entrepreneurs were able to turn their dreams into falafels for minimal outlay. Both buildings were listed in 2010, cementing a remarkable transformation from destitution to destination.

Now it’s rammed every evening with young’uns (and increasingly, during the day, with wasters like us) sitting about, sighing and hoovering up mostly excellent food at mostly reasonable prices.

Half-life used to wander through it regularly in the ’90s whenever he was lending some weed to friends in return for a non-refundable deposit, so it was fun to take him round it now and to hear his simple questions:

‘Cocktails? Pulled pork? Crêpes?… Pissing wi-fi?’

And then there is Champagne + Fromage, a smart deli-cum-wine bar that was simply too much for some who picketed it when it opened. Now, I’m sure the people behind it are lovely, and that the food and wine is delicious, but as Half-life asked, ‘If they aren’t cunts, why did they call it Champagne + Fromage?’. I was stumped.

We ate lunch at Franco Manca (pizzas half the price of Pizza Express and marginally better), tasted a few wines and gave ourselves up to a good revel. He was aghast that he had to go outside the covered area to smoke (‘I am outside’) but generally approved of the changes.

And why wouldn’t he? As it stands, the markets are a kaleidoscopic mash-up of the old and the new, the practical and the specialist, with ramshackle food and drink places ox-cheek by pork-jowel with stalls selling real hair or Jesus dead on a stick. It’s a wonderful balance of original stalls and funky new eateries and coffee bars.

Hair today, gone tomorrow?
Hair today, gone tomorrow?

But it is a balance that needs care and attention. The newer elements of the market are bringing in a new, mostly young, mostly middle-class crowd and it’s this mix with the previous clientele that makes for a unique atmosphere – it’s quintessential Brixton. There is, however, something of a disconnection between the sets of market-users and traders. No-one, for example, seems to do their fish shop and then go for a cocktail, or finishes off their Honest Burger and then thinks to buy a bag of yams and a plastic bucket. And I’ve certainly never seen anyone load up on latin groceries at Faiz and then kick back with some bubbles at Champagne + Fromage – and these last two are bang opposite each other, just feet apart.

And so, if there is little or no natural sharing of the footfall, then the onus is on the planners to maintain this balance, to understand that the magic is created by the mixture of traders and the mixture of customers. But the market is privately owned and so somewhere there will be a be-suited twot with a face like a spreadsheet looking to cut costs and increase revenues.

The concern is that the market continues to ‘gentrify’ at the expense of the established stalls, and already there are stories of lumpy rent and service-charge increases which some are struggling to pay.

The natural conclusion of unfettered gentrification is places like Mayfair or Chelsea. Easy enough on the eye, perhaps, but populated – if at all – by that most efficient vacuumer of atmosphere, the dull rich. Suddenly, there’s either nothing to do, or you have to do it with people who have had their souls removed by money. This is why you are unable to have any fun in 5-star hotels or in first class travel. We were almost relieved when a toothless tramp asked us for 40p ‘for some crack’.

For now, Brixton Market is a must-hang, lose-an-afternoon oasis and long may it remain so. But as soon as there are more Champagne + Fromages than grocers, it will be adieu.

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Further reading:

Brixton Market Wikipedia entry

Jay Rayner’s review of the food in The Guardian, October 2011

Richard Godwin in The Evening Standard, January 2013

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