London’s social spaces are haunted by the ghosts of businesses that perished, perhaps as far back as the 1950s but most recently when Covid-19 tore through the capital. The pandemic, the worsening physical retail market and the cost of living crisis have all taken their toll.
But London is a resilient city and its residents have always valued social spaces. The High Streets For All report in 2017 found that the majority of visitors to high streets were vulnerable parties such as elderly residents, immigrants or unemployed people. They found that these social spaces fostered “everyday diversity”, allowing people of all backgrounds a place to take part in vital cultural exchange and connection.
Yet, the traditional high street has changed. We now look to our own neighbourhood for these interactions. Here, there are social spaces emerging that are created by both private and public entities that serve the interests of the people; that offer enriching experiences, reach out to those that need support and invigorate the community around them.
One such example was created by Chrissy Ryan, inspired by her belief that reading is “a social act, not a solitary one”. It is this mantra that gave rise to BookBar, which invites customers to purchase books, but also to sit, read, have a glass of wine or a coffee and talk.
With an ethos more akin to a bustling community space than a traditional bookshop, Ryan and her staff try to create an enlivening space. “Retail spaces are often awkwardly quiet, but we foster a kind of buzzy atmosphere in which one can strike up a conversation,” Ryan says. “I might be talking to someone about a certain book or upcoming guest speaker and someone else will join in, suddenly everyone is interacting and the space is one of connection and positivity.”
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Importantly, this is also a space where one can feel safe, as she explains: “People – particularly younger women – come here on their own and read, and tell me that they feel secure and comfortable to do so.”
This effort to create a welcoming social space has as much to do with Ryan’s knowledge of the area as her passion for books. Having lived near Blackstock Road for around a decade, she is part of the vibrant community that exists there, noting the demographic of young adults and students that her business especially appeals to. (The High Streets For All report also found library services to be one of the best and most valued aspects of a high street.)
BookBar also collaborates with other local businesses and organisations, including a florist with which they released a book and bouquet set for Valentine’s Day, and a book donation programme in a local primary school. The business’s work has also resulted in local people being able to meet popular authors. Ryan recalls one of her proudest moments being literary figure Hanya Yanagihara coming to promote her book To Paradise. Ryan has also hosted the likes of Shon Faye and Monica Ali.
Cooking and community on Lower Clapton
Two and a half miles east of Finsbury Park is Lower Clapton Road, another hub for London’s cosmopolitan populace, and one that has felt the sting of increasing gentrification.
Dubbed one of Britain’s deadliest roads by the Independent in the early ’00s, the area is far from where it once was, but a lot of this transformation has ultimately been to the detriment of its local residents. Average house prices have increased considerably over the past 30 years, arguably pricing out many who worked and lived in the area. Those who were able to remain have battled with heightened rent prices.
However, there are still those who wish to bring a sense of community to Lower Clapton Road. “My hope is for people to feel welcome and always find something they love to eat,” says Valentina Fois. Those are the dual forces that drive Lele’s, a vegan bakery created by Fois, which was named after her father – whose passing instilled in her the desire to turn her dream into a reality.
As well as keeping the local residents fed and caffeinated, Lele’s has also run a host of free cooking classes for the community. “Through my own experiences with therapy, I’m aware of how important it is to share a space where you feel safe and can learn new things, get stimulated and involved in something positive,” says Fois.
Not only did the classmates learn together, but they also enjoyed the spoils of their efforts by eating their creations in a shared meal. These cooking classes took place pre-pandemic and, unfortunately – as Valentina was running the classes out of her own pocket – they had to come to an end after a short run.
But thanks to a grant from Hackney Council as part of the Hackney High Streets and Town Centres Fund, the classes have reconvened. “[The council] loved the idea of a cooking class that can unite the community,” Fois explains. The sessions cover a range of culinary skills, from quick nutritious snacks to the basics of fermentation.
But what of London’s streets, parks and playgrounds?
Though some seek refuge to step off the city streets, what progress is being made in outdoor urban areas to bring the community together and continue the efforts to redefine social spaces?
Yinka Ilori grew up on a council estate in Islington, so understands the value of shared spaces, and has been applying his own unique brand of vibrant art and design to the canvas of London for years now. He recalls some of his strongest memories of London being travelling around Piccadilly Circus, “in awe of the giant screens and impressed by the scale, technology and vivid graphics”.
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Vividness is a focal point of his work. Take Creative Courts, a project that saw a vibrant basketball court placed in the very heart of Canary Wharf. Ilori’s sports menagerie is a half-art piece-half-sports arena, inviting anyone in the community to shoot hoops or appreciate a prismatic formulation of colour and shape.
Elsewhere, outside of the shroud of big business, 8.5 miles east of this business hub, lies Flamboyance of Flamingos, a project that saw Ilori transform the disused playground in Dagenham’s Parsloes Park into a bright and inviting play area that reflected the community around it.
“I worked with local residents on a series of creative workshops to hear their stories. These stories are what inspired the design of the playground, the colours and the structures we created,” Ilori says, explaining the significance of flamingos, as a few of the birds inhabited the park in the 1920s.
You can also see Ilori’s trademark art style on streets and overpasses all around London. This side of his work places his colourful style “where people think art doesn’t usually belong”, allowing those passing through the city’s streets to experience something rejuvenating that may often be enclosed in a museum or gallery space.
Though always eye-catching, one of the fondest consequences of his work for him is how a lot of it blends into the London he knows and loves: “I created an installation in Mayfair called ‘In Plants We Trust’ that was a shrine to plants and designed with coloured steps. Local skateboarders started using the steps to practice tricks, which I thought was amazing.”
Shops and spaces that lend an ear, inspire connection and offer safety and warmth in a city increasingly suffering from wealth disparity and a lack of social cohesion can make a difference. Social spaces like these are vital if London is to be a place where people and communities flourish.