Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
They split the costs and share the benefits of their small, expensive space.
Rye Lane is a busy half-mile stretch in South London’s Peckham neighborhood. African supermarkets, Chinese restaurants, Halal butchers, and Kurdish Internet cafes are among the many multicultural businesses lining this colorful strip. Two-thirds of the retail units there are occupied by immigrants, hailing from 20-some countries around the world.
Traditionally, Peckham housed large shares of low- to middle-income residents. But property values have been creeping up and local community leaders are worried about—you guessed it—gentrification. In response to rising rents, immigrant retailers have been improvising with ways to keep their increasingly scarce and expensive space affordable.
“Our research shows that migrant retail is highly adaptive and experimental, but that this experimentation often emerges out of being in marginal places,” Suzanne Hall, an urban sociologist at the London School of Economics, writes via email. Hall and her colleagues have studied how immigrants who work in this neighborhood transform their environment to meet their changing needs—often using techniques and tricks from their countries of origin. The research is part of a multifaceted research project called “Ordinary Streets.”
Immigrants often live and work in areas of the city that aren’t all that rich or strictly monitored, Hall says. In these neighborhoods, it’s sometimes easier than it might be elsewhere to start small low-risk ventures, like pop-up stalls and bazaar-type street markets and negotiate for more space when business expands. This is how Rye Lane retailer Akbar Khan went from selling household items on a small table outside a building to running full-fledged store in three years.
”It worked very well for me,” he says in a short film that is a part of the project. “Within six months or eight months, I managed to ask the landlord to give me more space.”
As land values rise in Peckham, more sections of a property are sublet to different retailers, with the rent distributed among them. One shop, for example, may have a magazine vendor outside, a mobile phone vendor taking up a small counter by the door, a cloth store against one wall, and a barber shop against the other. Halls calls this approach “urban mutualism.”
“It is tactical,” she says, “but is also a very pragmatic way of working around resource constraints and high land values.” Here’s how she explains the significance of this kind of space-sharing, again via email:
Although this is a response to the market, what results is much more than that. A cross-racial, cross-gender, cross-ethnicity tight occupation of space, where business practices overlap and learning and sharing occur.
Along with costs and responsibilities, the benefits are also shared in an “urban mutualism” system. One advantage is more eyes on the shelves; a customer coming in for a haircut, for example, may also buy a magazine to read. More broadly, this type of retail environment leads to fascinating cultural and linguistic exchanges, says Hall. Rye Lane’s immigrant entrepreneurs often speak up to four languages.
In next couple of years, Hall and her colleagues will be expanding their research to other super-diverse streets in immigrant-rich cities in the U.K. to understand better how “migrants locate, invest in and transform the economies and spaces.” Studying day-to-day urban and economic activity on these streets, says Hall, will help urban planners and architects design in a way that suits the habits, patterns, and needs of increasingly diverse neighborhoods in metropolitan cities around the world.