Change, Continuity and Representation on Rye Lane through Palimpsest21 minute read

I use the metaphor of palimpsest to look at representation on Rye Lane. Through an ethnographic study I focus on change and continuity at 135 Rye Lane, and how the contemporary space is one embedded in historical and spatial relations, governed by contemporary hierarchies of belonging. Drawing on Lefebvre’s notion of representational space (1991), firstly I analyse how architectural layering of 135 represents the past, and relate this to Peckham’s changing demographic over time, commenting on what this suggests about who had the power to author space over time using Bourdieu’s notions of economic and cultural capital (1986). Secondly I use Dillon’s work queering the palimpsest to consider multiple narratives in the writing of this space. Coupling this with Suzanne Hall’s trans-ethnography (2015), I discuss the mediating modes of social regulation conditioning spaces of representation at a range of scales. My final section conceives the space as one that represents. Using sensory approach I argue the past evokes a ghostly presence, particularly the plant nursery that existed the 1660s, and draw parallels between this and contemporary modes of consumption to contend posit that the present is saturated with illegible traces from the past (Edensor, 2008, p. 331), which are refabricated in a contemporary context and have a haunting presence over Rye Lane today. This project presents 135 Rye Lane is a queer, palimpsestuous constellation of spatial, and temporal relations reflecting historical change and continuity, haunted by the past, and contemporarily governed by racial hierarchies of belonging.

Background to Peckham and 135 Rye Lane, a brief summary of Historic area assessment (Smith & Roethe, 2009)

Rye Lane is represents change and continuity. Peckham – phonetically ‘Peak’ ‘Hill’, transformed from a rural hamlet to a London suburb between the 17th and 19th centuries. This was particularly facilitated by increasing transport links to the central city, and an exponentially increasing population. Between 1900- 1950 Peckham shared a residential and commercial character (LSE, 1933), the period characterised by general stability. The latter half of the century was plagued with decline as older populations moved out while younger, primarily immigrant groups moved in. Industrial decline reduced spending power, and Peckham became run down and abandoned (Smith & Roethe, 2009, p. 20). Rye Lane, however, continued to thrive as a shopping centre through adaption and changing retail realities. The 1988 report ‘Revitalizing the Heart of Peckham’ sought specialisation in ethnic and bargain shopping, while more contemporary development has involved the construction of Peckham Square. 135 Rye Lane was a plant nursery until the 1890s. In 1924 the site was acquired by Holdron’s department store, and refashioned in 1935. Today the space is occupied by Khan’s Bargain.


Methodology

I conducted an ethnography in order engage with 135 Rye Lane as a spatial palimpsest, looking at the themes of representation, visibility, invisibility and modes of regulation. Ethnographies are most appropriate for enabling a critical engagement with representations and the messiness of the real world (Crang & Cook, 2007).

I visited Rye Lane on three occasions to conduct my research, on each, noting observations in a field diary. Between my first and second visit I drew a timeline of Peckham, using Historic England’s assessment of the area (Smith & Roethe, 2009), to give myself context of the space. Smell was formative in my research experience, so I included sensual commentary in my field diary as mode of representation. I took photos, which enriched my analysis, having evoked additional thoughts and reflections off-site. These provide a rich source of analysis of thinking about palimpsest architecturally too. Space is produced and reproduced continuously (Massey, 2005), and so to meaningfully engage critically with modes of representation, multiple visits were required.


135 Rye Lane as a site of representation

The exterior façade of 135 Rye Lane can be read through the metaphor of palimpsest, and inform us about representation.

Khan's Bargain
Figure 1

The contemporary stained yellow building reflects Peckham as a commercial shopping centre (Smith & Roethe, 2009), having been acquired in the piecemeal development of the department store, Holdron’s, and its ‘alternating strips of buff-glazed terracotta and metal-framed windows with vertical features to either end’ (Smith & Roethe, 2009, p. 39) remain (figure 1). Fragments of a faded name at the top is still visible (figure 2). This vacancy and erasure signifies an absence of what the store used to be, illustrative of how the site as a palimpsest is layered, having been written and effaced (Dillon, 2005).

Figure 2 top of Khan's Bargain faded name
Figure 2

The ‘Khan’s Bargain’ store sign, is a contemporary addition, illustrative of the site as ‘composed of different temporal elements, featuring signs objects and vaguer traces that rebuke the tendencies to move on and forget’ (Edensor, 2008, p. 313). The exterior façade presents an assemblage of different elements (Dwyer, et al., 2012, p. 84), a collage of spatial juxtapositions hosting temporal intersectionality’s scolded on the landscape (Edensor, 2008).

I argue it reflects the areas changing relationship to the city with the process of suburbanisation, and concomitant demographic shifts. Embedded in this is a representation of who had power to inscribe their mark on space, which I analyse through Bourdieu’s concepts of economic and cultural capital (1986).

Representation of the past

Holdron’s architecture, faded sign, and its discursive reproduction in ‘Holdron’s Arcade’, represent the affluent middle classes in Peckham, whose burgeoning presence coincided with the area became ‘swallowed into the metropolis’ (Dyos, 1966, p. 193).

Suburbanisation was intimately tied to the development of department stores. Small enterprises were in decline, and mass retail space was organized and managed to maintain Rye Lane’s status as the ‘Oxford Street of the south’ (BBC, 2017). 135

Figure 3 found in (Smith & Roethe, 2009, p. 39)
Figure 3 found in (Smith & Roethe, 2009, p. 39)

Holdron’s was produced and reproduced by the spending power suburban population, who were on average wealthier than the rest of London (Smith & Roethe, 2009). Eulogized in the local press as ‘exhilarating to look at’ and ‘clean’ in its ‘modernistic beauty… designed throughout as to have an almost irresistible appeal’ (Smith & Roethe, 2009, p. 40), the store was inclusive only to those who could afford it, Holdron’s served a functional purpose for the affluent, and their power is reflected in the store’s architectural legacy which remains with an ‘air of faded grandeur’ (Edensor, 2008, p. 314).

As well their economic capital, 135 Rye Lane today reflects the tastes of this burgeoning suburban middle class. In 1935 T.P. Bennett produced four schemes for a comprehensive redevelopment of Holdron’s, and shoppers voted on their preferred design. The chosen design (figure 3) included a marquise, curved glass and concrete roof today is the material foundation on through which customers of Khan’s Bargain engage. They traverse through the space authored not just by the economic capital of, but tastes and cultural capital of those with power to write the space at the time.

Representation of the contemporary

135 Rye Lane also represents contemporary social relations and organisation in Peckham. Sandwiched between Khan’s Bargain and Holdron’s Arcade, the sign reads ‘BECA Educational Mosque’ (figure 4).

This reflects a recording of the site from its past (Cherry, 2006), on one hand representing Peckham’s superdiversity (Vertovec, 2007) and indicative of the ‘complex geographies of migration, settlement, mobility, transnational networks and diasporic material cultures’ (Dwyer, et al., 2012, p. 77) that produce space on Rye Lane. The sign visibilizes and vocalizes the 12.9% Muslim population of Peckham (Qpzm, 2017), reflecting Peckham’s appropriation by successive waves of immigrants (LSE Cities, 2013) and hybridity of 135 Rye Lane as a landscape shaped by multiple processes (Dwyer, et al., 2012, p. 79). Not only is Islam spatially represented, it is signified on the street, making a symbolic statement about who has legitimate place of belonging on Rye Lane.

However, a queer approach to palimpsest encourages us to think about texts constituting palimpsest as not separately layered, they are ‘entwined and encoded in each other’ (Benstock, 1994, p. 350) (Dillon, 2005). Spaces are constituted by multiple narratives, and an alternative palimpsestuous reading may suggest something very different.

Figure 4 and 5
Figure 4 and 5

Being ‘on the second floor’, the sign also reflects symbolic relegation of this place of worship to the run-down second floor of a bargain store, a backwards spatial manifestation of Back et al.’s ‘hierarchies of belonging’ (2012) and in line with many other Mosques that are hidden or concealed, governed by surveillance and fear. The building is tethered, unkempt and falling into disrepair. This contrasts, for example, the Baptist Chapel at 82 Rye Lane, the first designated building on Rye Lane to be listed in 1972 (Smith & Roethe, 2009, p. 70) (figure 5), a sign of the increasing nonconformity of the prospering middle classes in 1819 that ‘valued respectability above all else’ (p. 10), and their representation in social space as celebrated and preserved, while Muslim faith space as consigned to mixed use and multiple occupancy (Hall, 2015).

These readings are indicative of both the ‘hidden and overt features of super-diversity’ (Hall, 2015, p. 23), and the impossibility of narrating any singular totalizing discourse on space (Edensor, 2008). Using the metaphor of queer palimpsest shows 135 Rye Lane as a complex interwoven set of narratives that construct place through constellations of social relations (Massey, 1994), and these can be simultaneously overlapping, complementary and contradictory.

Figure 8 and 7
Figure 8 and 7
Figure 6 - Holdrons Arcade
Figure 6

Politics of visibility and invisibility

Representation on Rye Lane is complicated by the politics of visibility and invisibility. The sign for Holdron’s Arcade, like Khan’s exterior façade, represents and the past and the contemporary. Its name maintains a material connection to the past, leaving a haunting of the ‘idealistic visions of planners, promoters and entrepreneurs’ (Edensor, 2008, p. 314) in 1935. This contrasts its distinctively modern appearance, newer and shinier than Khan’s and seemingly more upmarket – ‘sadly’ replacing the old sign, ‘much loved by the local population’ (Londonist, 2015). The modern sign speaks contemporary gentrifiers, pointing to ‘Health Food’ and ‘Vegan’ shops, reflecting Peckham’s contemporary heterogeneity, which is reinforced on the interior which advertises superfoods like Lucuma (figure 8), exclusive in its appeal to those with particular economic and cultural capital (Moore, 2013). There is continuity and change to this – a sense of Deja vu with the suburban middle classes of the 19th century who previously authors produced this space through their consumption habits.

Importantly, I argue this visibility – articulated in the sign – has the power to simultaneously invisibilise others. I observed disconnect between the spatial representation within Holdron’s Arcade, and what was materially advertised outside.

Inside the narrow alley of Holdron’s Arcade (figure 9), I observed a small Sierra Leonean retail space selling a miscellaneous mix of exotic goods, makeshift in appearance, nestled between galleries and music studios – unspectacular and unobtrusive. There was a freezer selling frozen grated Cassava, which caught my eye, and fridge was stocked with Supermalt Beer, common along Rye Lane (Wood, 2015). The store would not fit into an objective, neat retail category, and is not represented in any of the naming on the front sign, despite a distinct spatial presence. It is also not reflected on the Arcade’s website (Copeland Park & Bussey Building, 2017).

As such, we cannot just read material aspects of space as a palimpsest as wholly representative of what is there. What gets visibilised is mediated by social and political relations, for example by Southwark council in who is considered a legitimate occupant of the space. The store I encountered has a material, physical representation, but this is not translated to visibility on the public street. The relational visibility of the other stores marked on the sign contribute to its relative invisibility. This highlights the need to interrogate and account for the politics of visibility and representation and their relationship to one another, for a critical and reflective engagement with palimpsest as a metaphor.

Figure 9 - Inside Holdrons Arcade
Figure 9

Local, national and global modes of regulation

Local modes of governance and regulation

The above discussion of visibility and invisibility links with Suzanne Hall’s work on Rye Lane and local modes of regulation and governance. Analysing Southwark Councils 2012 redevelopment Plan for Rye Lane, a working document at the time, ‘it was as if the economic and cultural diversity of the street as it exists [was] somehow invisible to those undertaking the planning exercise’, she points to an ‘mismatch between lived realities within diverse, comparatively deprived, yet economically active inner-city locations and authorized processes of displacement or regeneration’ (2015, p. 23), documented elsewhere by Zukin (2010)

Drawing on this, I explore how representation on 135 Rye Lane is, and always has been, mediated by modes of social regulation at intersecting local, national and global scales.

Locally, Peckham has not grown naturally or organically, and Southwark council has been a powerful actor in conditioning how space is produced on Rye Lane. The redevelopment of Holdron’s in 1935 was part of a wider modernizing scheme, facilitating change and adaption in order to maintain continuity in its status as a shopping centre, while Khan’s is reflective of the council’s later efforts to specialize in ethnic and bargain shopping (Smith & Roethe, 2009, p. 20). The fashioning of Holdron’s Arcade today is another means of maintaining this status.

There is a theme of privileging those with economic capital, paralleling the role of Islington Council as authors in the production and reproduction of the space of Exmouth Market (Whitelegg, 2002). Each of these projects proposed by Southwark Council have been authorized processes of change, exercises of power – dispotifs’, assembled and deployed by governmental technologies (Foucault, 1977), that have paradoxically served a purpose of continuity in Rye Lane’s commercial status.

National and global modes of regulation

I also discern national and global modes of regulation embedded in 135 Rye Lane, particularly through drawing on Hall’s trans-ethnographic methodology, and Dillon’s queering of the palimpsest.

Adopting Hall’s street scale perspective of the ‘collective’ city (Hall, 2015), Khan’s Bargain represents the multicultural nature of Peckham, alluding to mass migration following the collapse of the empire, and global changes in political relations facilitating the movement from people from all over the world to the UK. As a bargain store, the peeling building is indicative of the political positioning of migrants in society at the bottom of London’s Migrant Division of Labour (Wills, et al., 2009). The building embodies the historical contrast between the middle classes in the early 20th century, when 81% of Peckham was London-born (Smith & Roethe, 2009), compared to a population of 48% Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups (Southwark Council, 2015), with 1/3rd of proprietors on Rye Lane speaking over 4 languages (Hall, 2015), while also the in the most 10% deprived regions in the UK (Hall, 2015), and 12th most deprived Borough in London (Southwark Council, 2015). This speaks the overrepresentation of migrants in low paid work, an inability to move up employment ladders (May, et al., 2008) fuelled by hiring queues, racialized stereotypes in a globalized neo-liberal context and ordering of humanity (Back, et al., 2012, p. 139).

At a micro scale of the ‘intimate’ city (Hall, 2015), Khan’s reflects the rotating membership of the migrants in the UK (Castles & Kosack, 1973, p. 463). Mr Khan has ‘constantly adapted the business… to serve the changing community of Peckham, so the shop stocks ingredients sought out by the African communities, those from the Middle East and also, increasingly, Europe’ (Londonist, 2015). This is demonstrative of the rapidly changing demographic, dependent on opening and closing of the UK’ semi-permeable borders (Wills, et al., 2009).

Consequently, we can use metaphor of palimpsest to discern intersecting global regimes of regulation that produce space, at a range of spatial scales and how the social relations through which they operate are embedded in the site.


135 as a site that represents

Finally, 135 Rye Lane is a space that represents in the present, haunting the contemporary. Prior to Holdron’s department store, 135 Rye Lane was occupied by Blenheim plant nursery. This forged part of Peckham’s prominent position in the market gardening industry from the early 16th century, supplying the city with fresh fruit and vegetables (Smith & Roethe, 2009, p. 8), facilitated by mix of social, spatial and geographical relations: easy access to markets, cheap labour, and pumped Thames Water. Orchards and gardens in Peckham were renowned for ‘rare and exotic fruit’ (Smith & Roethe, 2009, p. 5).

I argue Rye Lane is haunted by this past, there is a reappearance of this underlying script (Dillon, 2005) materially through the naming of Melon Road, and at more abstract level of affective, sensual haunting that is more amorphous and slippery (Edensor, 2008, p. 314).

Rye Lane is saturated with vendors selling exotic fruit and vegetables, including Khan’s. Their sight and smell is distinctive, forging an abstract connect to market gardening past through sensual recollection. As such, the activities and dispositions of Peckham’s predecessors are felt through illegible traces echoed in contemporary spaces of consumption. Past relations are regulated and replayed through contemporary social organisation and migration. As Wood comments ‘there is food everywhere: bald yams, ripe plantains, hard avocados in armadillo shells’ (Wood, 2015). The exotic presence on Rye Lane is a phantom never dies, it remains always to come back and to come back (Derrida, 1994, p. 99).

This is parallel to the haunting presence of Peckham as a 17th century site of cattle trading. The recent renaming of the Kentish Drovers at 77 Peckham High Street (Smith & Roethe, 2009) phonetically relates to this industry, while the ubiquity of butchers forges a more ghostly connection. Rye Lane is dotted with butchers (figure 10): its smell pungent, haunting, and for someone not accustomed, inescapable. I did not observe one British-run butchers on the road. As with exotic fruit and vegetable retail, abstract connections with the past are replayed through a contemporary context of migration and political modes of social regulation. Hauntings are shaped and refabricated, rendering certain groups (for example Afghan owners, or their Nigerian customers), and the past (history of cattle trading, as part of a through route to Smithfield’s Market) (Smith & Roethe, 2009), as visible on Rye Lane. Smells are representative of the past and simultaneously produce the present, haunting contemporary everyday journeys on the road and connecting with the superdiverse amalgamation of people (Hall, 2015) that transcend its space.

Figure 10 (Google Maps, 2017)
Figure 10 (Google Maps, 2017)

Reflexivity

A palimpsestuous reading involves an invention process of creating relations – where there may, or should, be none (Dillon, 2005). I conducted this fieldwork from an embedded position, bringing my own experiences, thoughts, opinions and senses to the site. My interpretation and academic analysis of it cannot be separated from this. The process of reading representation is dyadic, my engagement with 135 Rye Lane was shaped by my positionality and multiple conscious and subconscious decisions over how and what to engage with.

My encounter with the West African store in Holdron’s Arcade illustrates this. I particularly noticed the Cassava, having eaten this frequently in Africa, and it cast my attention to the store. In Holdron’s Arcade there was also a sign for ‘Peckham Jewellers’. Thoughts about visibility and representation meant this sign caught my eye, and as a result I took a photo of it (figure 11). Many of the points I have made about visibility and representation in relation to the West African store apply to this Jewellers, for example it is also not represented on the outside sign. But, fact that I was drawn into that which I had a connection to (the object of the cassava), whereas my lack of instinctive personal connection with the jewellers restricted by engagement with it – subconsciously leading me to just take a photo – a brief, technologically mediated exchange – has shaped how this palimpsestuous reading and how I have constructed an account of representation on 135 Rye Lane. While my points in this essay are not invalidated by this, it is important to be aware of, and turns this ‘mere subjectivity’ of any researcher into ‘rigorous subjectivity’ (Crang & Cook, 2007).

Figure 11
Figure 11

Conclusion

In conclusion, have looked at themes of representation, visibility, invisibility and modes of regulation in Peckham. I have used an ethnographic study to conduct a palimpsestuous reading of the space of 135 Rye Lane. Drawing on Lefebvre, I have argued 135 Rye Lane to be is a space of representation of the past and of the contemporary, and a space which represents through haunting. The physical exterior of Khan’s reflects the past of the building as Holdron’s department store, reflecting the changing spatial relationship of Peckham to London in the 19th and 20th centuries as its suburban character was consolidated. Holdron’s department store also tells us about the affluence and representation of those consuming this space, I frame this through Bourdieu’s notion of economic and cultural capital, both which are differentially signified in 135 Rye Lane today. I have also elaborated on Dillon’s discussion of palimpsest as a queer structure, to comment on what the store tells us about modes of regulation of the space, from the local to the national and global level, particularly drawing on literature on ‘African London’ and Back et al.’s hierarchies of belonging. Through this we can see the site as representative of ordering of humanity in a neoliberal context (Back, et al., 2012). Finally, 135 Rye Lane is a space which represents. Blenheim plant nursery and Peckham’s cattle trading history have a haunting presence on Rye Lane today, reworked through contemporary forms social of regulation and modes of consumption, and most affectively felt through their profound olfactory smells. Palimpsests are important for their figurative power and theoretical adaptability (Dillon, 2005, p. 260). This project has reflexivity theoretically interrogated not just what is represented by 135 Rye Lane, but the processes that have shaped how these have come to be represented and what relations are simultaneously concealed. I have provided a coherent narrative, linking seemingly objective material representations together with the sensual and immaterial. While beyond the breadth of this paper, this research lends itself to challenging representations in the context of unequal power relationships, and contributing to fairer modes of representation in public space in the future.


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Appendix

Timeline of Peckham’s history used in fieldwork (click to enlarge)

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