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What was the defining moment in Peckham’s transformation from neglected south-east London district to go-to destination for young creatives? When the fashion bible Vogue declared the area London’s cultural epicentre? When Chanel hosted an exhibition in a local industrial park last year?
For Russell Porter, co-owner of the Montpelier pub, a party at the rooftop café Frank’s in 2014 sticks in his memory. “There must have been thousands of people in the streets. We had to explain to our neighbours that it wasn’t us, that it was the bar in the car park. And they were like, ‘What bar in the car park?’ Local people didn’t know it was there.”
It was around this time, recalls Porter, that the Montpelier went from being a pub serving just three or four locals to something far livelier. “People would come down from east [London] and ask what was good,” he says. “It became obvious that something really exciting was happening.”
People have been coming down “from east” ever since, lured by improved transport links on the overground line (7.5 million entries and exits were recorded at Peckham Rye station in 2015/16, 50 per cent up on the previous year) and the comparative affordability of the area. This has been a key factor in attracting young people south of the river from Hackney, which is now defined more by property millionaires than hipsters.
When Bash Redford needed a permanent space to turn his Shoreditch pop-up pizzeria into an Italian supper club three years ago, he too upped sticks and moved south, to the industrial complex Copeland Park. “I lived in Shoreditch, had a business in Shoreditch, but I couldn’t afford to buy there,” he says.
Redford’s Forza Win has been a success: so much so, in fact, that another branch is opening next year on Rye Lane — a Peckham location that’s much in demand. “We were bidding against Shoreditch House, just to give you a bit of context,” he says.
With even east London’s institutions now scouting south of the Thames, the shift seems decisive. Mike Palan is among those who quit Dalston for Peckham in 2016 and believes there is a noticeable difference between the two places. “Dalston is trendy but it didn’t seem particularly creative,” he explains. “Peckham’s got the art schools, so it seems like creatives come from here rather than Dalston, where people arrive [from elsewhere].”
Located between Goldsmiths to the east and Camberwell College of Art to the west, Peckham has indeed long been home to art students, creatives and entrepreneurs short on cash and space. And it hopes to protect its artistic side, even as the creative scene drives the area’s ongoing gentrification.
At Bold Tendencies, the not-for-profit arts organisation that has been Peckham’s biggest attraction since it took over a local multi-storey car park a decade ago (and built Frank’s Café), founder Hannah Barry is determined to pass its success on to others in the form of community initiatives, drawing future artists and curators to the area. “We don’t take that responsibility lightly,” she says.
Last year’s Chanel show in the Bussey Building, created by designer Es Devlin
The baton is being picked up by others too. Spread over seven floors beneath Bold Tendencies, a separate cultural hub is nearing completion: Peckham Levels will contain artists’ studios, workspaces, restaurants and numerous other amenities. It is targeted at a creative community that often finds itself priced out of places to work, and three-quarters of the tenants will be from the local area. One is the Montpelier’s Russell Porter, who is opening a live-music venue there, called Ghost Notes. “I’ve never known something as tangible and exciting as what is happening now,” he says.
Yet Porter acknowledges that the excitement is tempered by a sense that some of these changes have moved too far, too fast. While Peckham Levels is a solution for the hard-pressed right now, it is only a temporary one.
“The original [artists] who had studios around here and were here for the community and the vibe, most of them have moved on,” says Porter. People who grew up in the area can no longer afford to live here. Even recent arrivals are struggling. “The people who were priced out of Shoreditch came here, and now we’re about to be priced out again,” adds Redford. “I’m not sure Peckham is able to sustain the amount of stuff that’s opening here.”
Like east London before it, Peckham is seeing the flip side of its popularity. Rapid increases in land value. Franchises and developers snapping up spaces vacated by independent businesses. Once its lease expires in 2021, Peckham Levels is earmarked for new apartments.
Where to soak up the atmosphere
This bright-yellow corner shop on Peckham High Street hides a café serving excellent, cheap Middle Eastern food. You’ll struggle to find a seat at the mismatched tables without booking, but it’s worth a visit just to buy the baklava.
Very nouveau Peckham, this shop on leafy (read expensive) Bellenden Road sells natural wine and artisan everything else.
Peckhamplex is a rare delight — a reasonably priced cinema. The air conditioning might be subpar, the crowds vocal, but the standard ticket is £4.99 and has been for years.
Main photograph: Getty Images