We find ourselves in a strange limbo somewhere between ‘Austerity Britain’ and Brexit. How might one look upon and describe Wood Green High Road, its retail culture and its vernacular aesthetics at this particular moment? What does this mean for my project The Brand Nobody Knows?
In recent weeks my focus has been on looking at the buoyancy of Wood Green’s economy and the creativity and entrepreneurship of the street’s lower-end retail whilst charting the disappearance of traditional high street brands such as M&S, Dorothy Perkins, and soon BHS. It seems however, that the super-diversity of London – and specifically that of Wood Green (as opposed to the West End for example) is becoming increasingly central in this work. Super-diversity can be described as “a condition in cities where diversity may mean over one hundred nationalities, but also a diversity of legal statuses, of socioeconomic conditions and a greater diversity in how people choose to live and define themselves” (Cities of Migration, 2012). Last month Britain voted to leave the EU following a problematic Brexit campaign that played on citizens’ fears of immigration. If we value the part that migration plays in our lives (either as migrants ourselves or as beneficiaries of the richness migrants bring to society) then we must, of course, resist the notion of migration as problematic. In the light of Brexit it feels more important than ever to pursue my exploration of the vernacular aesthetics of Wood Green’s High Road that have been shaped by super-diversity.
The position I take in this research is akin to that which LSE researcher Suzanne Hall sets out in her paper Migrant Urbanisms: Ordinary Cities and Everyday Resistance. She writes that ‘[t]hinking about ordinary spaces and everyday life opens up ways of understanding complex global processes of urbanisation and migration” (2015, p. 854). She describes migration as a “participatory rather than an invasive process of change” and explains that it is “integral to ongoing processes of societal change and diversification, rather than as the exception to it.” (2015, p. 854). Hall writes about the ordinary city in opposition to the global city characterized by the corporate elites of the financial, creative and other industries. In this study I locate Wood Green as an ordinary city in part to refuse “the categories of economic hierarchy in a global order, and with it the relegation of seemingly less prominent or less valuable cities and citizens” (2015, p. 856).
How do migrants and non-migrants make and re-make Wood Green? Hall describes ordinary streets as places of overlapping urbanism and urban collage. Wood Green High Road is a place of “trade and exchange, where a diversity of proprietors and customers intersect. Individual allegiances and affinities locate, both through a coalescence of intercultural city-making and/or a side-by-side retention of cultural distinctions” (Hall, 2015, p. 858). Wood Green High Road is not an example of a ghetto or ethnic enclave, it is a commercial metropolitan centre of outer London that caters to a super-diverse clientèle and is serviced by a super-diverse work force.
As mentioned in a previous post Wood Green’s retail space vacancy rate is much lower than the national average, 5.92% compared with 12.3% in July 2014 (Haringey.gov.uk, 2016, p.32). Whilst shops close frequently, the sites are not empty for long. However this is not because is is an easy environment for retailers to operate in. Many shops have become multiple occupancy retailers such as the Factory Outlet recently opened in the former Marks and Spencer site (see images above). Here there are multiple till points for multiple businesses comprising low-cost fashion, furniture, toys, shoes, accessories, luggage and the ubiquitous mobile phone counter. The usual trappings of high street retail, such as branded shopping bags, receipts, signage and an online presence do not exist. Hall describes these “collage arrangements” as “closer in nature to a market or bazaar, but within the given street structure” (2015, p 859).
The much smaller single fronted shop at No. 87 (see image above from February 2016) is similarly divided into different retail sections. At the rear handbags and shoes, behind a glass counter on the left mobile phones and other electrical goods. Half of the exterior signage is given over to an advertisement for low cost, pay-as-you-go international mobile telecommunications company Lycamobile, the rest to the retailer ‘KMK Mobile Phones’ along with a list of services offered (mobile repairs, unlocking etc.) and photographs of products sold. In a super-diverse street such as this canny business owners understand that language barriers exist and pictorial messages mean more than carefully constructed brand images. The handbags and shoes retailer operating from inside the shop is not represented on the exterior signage. On revisiting this shop last week (July 2016) the handbag retailer was gone with a to let sign in its place. The proprietor told me about the difficulties of meeting the high rent and how he needs to sublet this space in order to be profitable. In her paper Super-diverse street: a ‘trans-ethnography’ across migrant localities, Hall describes these subdivided shops as ‘mutualism’ where “arrangements of economic and cultural coexistence have emerged” (2013, p. 32). She explains how these ‘mutualisms’ enable proprietors, such as Koram at KMK Mobile Phones, to respond swiftly to emerging market trends as well as to mitigate negative economic shifts. In addition Hall found that “the impulse to subdivide, mix and remake these shop interiors is not simply driven by mercantile interests; it is also driven by cultural ones,” that these shop interiors also provide a “home-away-from home” (2013, p. 33).
At no. 83, the exterior sign is for JK Mobile Phone & Computer Specialist but the shop now sells women’s clothing and jewellery. Advertising signage for Lebara can still be seen on the frontage although Lebara products can no longer be purchased in store. Fashion shop Rumours displays ‘closing down’ and ‘everything must go’ signs in its windows – from its opening day. In February 2016 this shop was called WOW. Permanence is not valued and cannot be sustained in this economy not unlike pop-up shops in London’s rather more hipster locations. In this ordinary, and resolutely ‘un-hip’ street, stores bear the names and traces of their previous incarnations inside and out. Multiple businesses in the street offer the same services but rarely differentiate themselves with developed branding strategies. In super-diverse streets in ordinary parts of this city, where migrant populations live, work and shop the nature of the high street is changing, diversifying and adapting to new conditions and challenges. My position documenting this urban retail vernacular is neither to mock or to celebrate, but to capture and make visible this particular moment, in all its overlapping messiness and complicated richness.
Hall, S. (2015) ‘Migrant urbanisms: ordinary cities and everyday resistance’ in Sociology, Vol. 49(5) 853-869
Hall, S (2013) ‘Super-diverse street: a ‘trans-ethnography’ across migrant localities’ in Ethic and Racial Studies, 38:1, 22-37
Haringey.gov.uk (2016) Wood Green area action plan: issues and options report, Available at http://www.haringey.gov.uk/sites/haringeygovuk/files/issues_and_options_part_1.pdf (Accessed 7 July 2016)
Cities of Migration (2012) ‘Conversations in Migration’ Cities of Migration, Available at http://citiesofmigration.ca/ezine_stories/sarah-spencer-super-diversity-and-the-city/ (Accessed 7 July 2016)