Today I took myself, my phone and a bag of nibbles (a girl needs to eat after all) and, in aid of Empty Shops Day, walked around my neighbourhood taking photos of – well, as the title of the day may suggest – empty shops. There was a bit of added fun in there as I only moved to Lewisham – South East London – three weeks ago (obviously I had to leave Streatham – in South West London – just before it turned into a political hotspot). Lewisham, or to be more specific Forest Hill, isn’t entirely an unknown quantity for me – I lived here for seven months when I first moved to London. So I was intrigued to see what has (or hasn’t) happened to the area in the time I’ve been away.
First the good news – there was a cute coffee shop in what had formerly been an empty shop at the bottom of my old street.
And – well, that was that. None of the other shops that had been empty back in 2008 had been occupied. And there was now a whole new bunch of empty shops to go with them. Empty breeds empty – after all why would you choose to open a shop in an area that is pretty much deserted?
It seemed even more acute to me after attending Brixton Village’s first late night opening the previous week. I think everyone involved in the #BrixVill project knows this is still a work in progress but if I think back to the space merely six months ago it’s difficult to comprehend how much has changed. As well as some of the start-ups continuing after the rent-free period has finished there are new businesses that started independently of the project. There’s a real buzz about the place. And I’m incredibly proud that Write By Numbers got to be part of the story (as much as I blushed hideously when Lovely Julia introduced me to one of the new shop keepers as being from the theatre company who were instrumental in getting people into the market for the first time, I’m intensely proud that we – and the other brilliant, crazy, hilarious art projects that occupied the market over the course of the three months – made a difference).
In two days time I’m going to be voting for people who are going to have to take responsibility for what has happened to Forest Hill’s shops. As I see it nothing short of something on the scale of Brixton Village will do. It doesn’t need to be the same plan – but it does need to be as audacious, to take risks, to look to the surrounding area, to see that trade and arts and communities are all bound up. Empty shops speak loud for a community. What we do with them speaks louder about who we are – and who we’d like to be.
The odd thing in my walk was that the area with the biggest concentration was, without doubt, Forest Hill – an area notoriously full of reasonably comfortable commuters. Where do they shop? Sainsburys aside, not in Forest Hill that is clear. If this decline isn’t halted what will Forest Hill be in ten years time? A notch on the East London line with a fabulous museum, a lot of flat conversions and a population who spend their money in chain stores in central London.
I think as a theatre maker I react to all this space with the awe of endless possibility. What I could do with just one of those spaces. What we could enable other people to do. All the ideas and experiences it could generate – not just for me, but for others too. The arts matter in lots of ways but I think the Empty Shops movement shows how they have a real, direct effect on communities. Waiting for what Friday morning will bring, that’s the challenge we all face.