Rye Lane as a site of consumption24 minute read


The site I have chosen for my palimpsest project is Rye Lane(RL) located in the London borough of Southwark. It is through this site that I intend to explore the theme of consumption. Consumption is traditionally understood as the “purchase, use and reuse of goods” (Campbell,1995:104). However, in this essay I intend to go beyond this basic understanding, acknowledging consumption as not only the use and purchase of goods and services but also as a practice through which we can understand place, history and belonging (Hodges and Wiggins, 2013). The aim of this project is to explore the “involuted” (Dillion,2005:244) nature of consumption in RL where the past remerges and informs the present as well as how RL itself is treated as a palimpsest by the local and residents through imposing policy agendas and new consumption infrastructure inscribe new belonging and histories.

This essay will begin with a background review. This will include a historical overview of RL and the function my theme within this site, an introduction to the concept of palimpsest and De Quincy’s use of palimpsest as a metaphor, a literature review examining the themes and conceptual frameworks I will employ in throughout this essay and a methodology. Following this I will begin my analysis. In this essay I will first discuss the role of RL’s past socio-economic conditions and its history of migration in shaping the consumption we see today. Next, this essay will examine the role of ‘entrepreneurial’ local governments who in their pursuit of profit have transformed RL’s consumption infrastructure at the expense of longer established, local orientated retail. Third, I will explore the “social function” (Hamlet et al,2008:104) of consumption, particularly focusing on the way in which RL is mobilized by different communities in various ways to establish different ideas of belonging. Lastly, I will look at the recent Peckham Levels(PL) development and interrogate its role amidst current socio-economic transformations taking place across RL.

This essay will conclude that through consumption in RL place, belonging and history are contested and that the current transformation occurring within its consumption infrastructure displaces and undermines RL’s longer established migrant and working-class communities.

Background review

Introducing the site: Rye Lane and Peckham Levels

In the eighteenth-century Peckham was a small village located on the outskirts of an expanding London. At the periphery of the city Peckham served as one of the last stops for traders before completing their journey. RL, which at the time was named ‘south street’ hosted an array of commercial  services.  By  the  nineteenth  century  RL  had  established  itself  as  a  major  shopping destination, even rivalling Oxford Street. Hailed as the ‘golden mile’ (Puri, 2017) the high street attracted two major department stores: Jones and Higgins and Holdron’s department store opening in 1867 and 1882 respectively. However, the closure of Holdron’s in 1949 triggered a period of economic and ultimately social decline. Since this decline the image of RL as a site of consumption has been sustained by media portrayals of the area such as Only fools on horses and Desmond’s. It is this persistent history and representation of RL as a commercial centre that has motivated me to explore consumption as the central theme of this project.

Today, RL’s identity as a site of consumption remains. Figure 1 shows a mural which depicts RL to be an amalgamation of mixed retail services for a mixed set of users. This mural reflects the diversity of the retail present in RL which is predominantly small, independent and ethnic owned.


Figure 1: Mural on Rye Lane today
Figure 1: Mural on RL showing various consumption opportunities including hair shops, fruit stalls, butchers and discount stores.


Peckham Levels(PL) is a new development born from the public-private partnership(PPP) between Southwark Council and private company, Makeshift. Together they have redeveloped a formerly abandoned car park on RL into a cultural “hub”(Landon,2018) for small businesses, creatives and the wider community. As the newest addition to RLs consumption infrastructure I seek to gain insight into the emerging consumption infrastructure in RL and examine the role of PL in resolving the tension between more established and emerging modes of consumption as the wider area undergoes gentrification.

Applying palimpsest

The Oxford English dictionary defines palimpsest as “a parchment or other writing-material written upon twice, the original writing having been erased or rubbed out to make place for the second”. This refers to the physical process by which there is erasure through the creation of a new layer or inscription. However, this definition is incomplete, failing to acknowledge that often the residue of previous layers is present even after erasure and the imposition of a new layer. It is from this that De Quincy “inaugurated”(Dillon, 2005:243) the use of palimpsest as a metaphor. The layering of parchment and writing signifying layers of history, meaning and memory that re-emerge overtime despite attempts of erasure. In this project I seek to apply these understandings of palimpsest as both a metaphor and material reality to the urban context of RL, specifically its consumption infrastructure. I will employ both approaches in order to capture the high streets material and social transformation over time. RL can be understood as an urban palimpsest where shops and services that are no longer considered valuable, which is often synonymised with profitable are erased and replaced. Moreover, as a metaphor palimpsest will be used to explore the involuted nature of RL as a site where various histories, identities and claims to belonging are found and amalgamate, not being permanently erased but informing the present and future of the high street.

Literature review

Today cities are characterised by the transnational movement of goods and people(Hodges and Wiggins,2013). However, much of the literature exploring consumption, belonging and place focuses on rural contexts(Ryan 2009). This project seeks to explore such phenomena in an urban setting. To do this I have drawn on Savage et al(2010) proposition of elective belonging which posits that belonging is not a passive consequence of location of proximity but an intentional process based on “aesthetic and ethical relationship[s]  to place”(Savage et al  2010:117).  I have also drawn  from Watt’s(2009) idea of selective belonging which pertains middle class residents disassociating from the aspects of their neighbourhoods that they deem undesirable. According to Jackson and Butler(2015) Peckham’s middle-class residents partake in both approaches to belonging. In this project I propose consumption as a medium through which such residents are able to actively ‘do’ place and establish belonging by either disaffiliating or engaging with particular modes of consumption. Further, I extend these approaches of belonging beyond middle class communities to the migrant and working-class communities also found in RL. Cook and Crang(1996) highlight the important role of consumption for migrant communities in helping reconcile their displacement in a new country. The consumption of foods, goods and services is a domain through which diaspora communities are able forge new cultural identities as well as maintain and renew old ones. In this essay I will explore the tensions that have arisen between the various modes of consumption that are used to establish belonging.

According to Harvey’s entrepreneurial governance(1989) under fiscal austerity urban governments have shifted from managerial intervention and instead are focused on entrepreneurial pursuits. This shift is characterised by: public-private partnerships, stimulating consumption and large developments. These initiatives accelerate gentrification and are done with the desire to attract the creative classes who are considered to be the most profitable, thus valuable consumer base. This project recognises that contemporary changes in consumption and the state-led gentrification seen today is being done under the motivation of attracting the middle and creative classes as consumers.

In Peckham gentrification has created socioeconomic segregation between the older working-class, often migrant residents and newer middle-class residents. Jackson and Butler(2015) describe this relationship as “social tectonics”(2350) where these distinct social groups exist parallel but separate from each other. In the context of Peckham, RL is the “faultline”(Jackson and Butler,2015:2358) where these groups collide. The consequence of this collision has implications for the various modes of consumption seen in RL and in turn the various claims to belonging that are established.


Anticipating the complexity of the social world I have employed mixed methods throughout this project(Seale,2004). To understand the commercial and retail changes in RL I have looked at various planning documents and proposals. From these I have gained insight to the motivations of the local government behind past changes and that which has been proposed for the future. To avoid being inundated by large quantities of information I have chosen three documents to focus on: The New Southwark Plan(ongoing), Revitalise: Peckham and Nunhead Area Action Plan(2012) and the RL Peckham Conservation Area Appraisal(2011).

I have also completed participant and non-participant observations over the period of a month. In these I focused on the type of retail available, what goods and services were on offer and who was engaging with these various opportunities for consumption. From this I was able to gain insight to consumption in RL. However, as these were not taken over an extended period I was unable to witness the “full richness of the lived day”(Holmes and Bloxham,2007:2) thus it will be difficult for me to develop general assumptions and fully understand RLs role as a place of everyday consumption. Consequently, it is essential that I use other methods and literature to support my observations.

Lammers and Badia(2004) critique observations as being “inherently”(2) subjective relying on the researcher to make judgements based on preconceptions. As someone who is not a part of the local community it is important that I recognise my outsider status and the misconceptions I may bring to my research doing what I can to prevent them from  dictating or skewing my research and its conclusions.


Super-diversity in practice

RL’s consumption infrastructure has evolved to be dominated by an array of small, independent retailers. Hall(2011)(2015) correlates this trend with international migration and the high ethnic minority populations which follow. This is supported by census data which shows the Peckham ward in which RL is located to have a foreign-born population of 42%(Hall,2015)(figure 2).

Figure two, a map of retailers' country of origin.
Figure 2: A map showing the country of origin of various independent retail owners in RL (Hall,2011).

Barrett et al(1996) highlight ethnic minority entrepreneurialism as a common feature of contemporary western capitalism. Met with limited opportunities migrants are often driven to self-employment including independent retail. This exemplifies the palimpsestuous way in which RL has been and is continuously transformed by global processes such as migration which inscribe new modes of consumption(Hall,2011). It is successive waves of migration that have been palimpsestic and consolidated overtime to alter the consumption infrastructure of RL to what we see today. This history is also seen through the goods and services available for consumption. From these, the influence and presence of African, Asian, and Caribbean migrant communities is explicit. Figures 3 and 4 show some of the shops I came across in my observations selling culturally specific goods and offering a variety of services that specifically cater to migrant needs.

figure three, a shop offering money transfer
Figure 3: A shop offering money transfer to Nigeria and Ghana and a Chinese supermarket also offering Jamaican and African food (Taken by author, 2018).


figure four, a bakery specializing in Afro-Caribbean, English and Continental bread
Figure 4: A bakery specializing in Afro-Caribbean, English and Continental bread next to a shop offering ‘trans connection services’ including money transfer, flights and international calls.(Taken by author, 2018)

 Figure 4: A Bakery specializing in Afro-Caribbean, English and Continental bread next to a shop offering ‘trans connection services’ including money transfer, flights and international calls.(Taken by author, 2018)

 Such niche consumption opportunities are a manifestation of Vertovec’s(2007) super-diversity. The presence of this phenomenon is often praised by academics, developers and the media who highlight RL’s “strong [and] colourful character”(Brown,2015). However, the concentration of such shops and services in RL was not a natural or spontaneous process. Peckham’s prominence as a socially and ethnically mixed area and the congregation of such retail in RL was “historically assisted”(Hall,2015:30) by social and economic shifts. During the second half of the twentieth Century Peckham underwent industrial decline and subsequent population and economic decline, this led to the closure of Holdron’s department store in 1949 which then triggered a period of commercial decline. It is from this context that international migrants were able to move into the area. This decline and the increasing stigma attached to working-class and migrant communities meant that RL was rejected by corporate capital. And it was this neglect that made the area an opportunity for migrant entrepreneurs to establish small, independent businesses that specifically catered to the needs of such communities who were underserved by supermarkets and department stores. It is important to recognise this past as “a series of oppressions and displacements”(Dillon, 2005:254). RL emerged as a micro-economy of mixed use for mixed users out of necessity, because of stigma, economic decline and exclusion. RL’s consumption infrastructure was and remains pivotal to the “struggle and vying for territory and existence”(Dillon, 2005:254) of migrant and working-class communities.

The imposition of entrepreneurial agendas

RL can be seen as an urban palimpsest on which small, independent working class and ethnic oriented retail is erased and replaced. Despite being successful “[on] its own terms”(Hall,2015:30) the regeneration plans of the Southwark Council do not include such retail in their future ‘visions’ of RL. As if haunted by RL’s past as the ‘golden mile’ authorities are committed to resurrecting large format, chain retail at the expense and ultimate erasure of longer established small and independent retail. Plans to transform the present consumption infrastructure for more profitable opportunities are symptoms of entrepreneurial governance which seeks to cater to the middle and creative classes as more profitable and valued consumers(Harvey,1989). The erasure of ethnic and working-class orientated independent retail is explicit in the 2012 Revitalise: Peckham and Nunhead Area Action Plan. This proposes redevelopment at the northern end of RL to introduce restaurants, cafes and chain shops. Presently, this area is dominated by retail that serves the consumption needs of Peckham’s working-class and ethnic minority communities(figure 5).

figure five, Northern Rye Lane. Khan's bargain, a discount shop
Figure 5: Northern RL – Khan’s bargain a discount shop offering low priced everyday household items, next to Holdrons arcade which hosts 20 small retail units. (Taken by Author, 2018)


Contrastingly, the same plan promotes the retention of small and independent retail at the southern end of RL which has recently become populated with galleries, cocktail bars and other consumption opportunities related to “hipster urbanism”(Hubbard,2016:2). This shows the erasure of ethnic and working class-oriented retail in favour of “hipster-run business”(Hubbard,2016:2) that serve the newer middle class and creative communities. Figure 6 shows this erasure in progress with ‘Norman’s International mini super market’ being replaced by BATCH a new cocktail bar.

figure six, the southern end of Rye Lane
Figure 6: The southern end of RL(Photo taken by author, 2018)

 Sharing the small and independent business ethos of more established consumption ‘hipster run businesses’ have the potential to be the “last bastion”(Hubbard,2016:2) against corporate-state led gentrification. However, often these businesses become embedded into the gentrification infrastructure and weaponised to encourage exclusive consumption, displacing longer established businesses and customers(Håkansson(2017). The profit-based judgements made by Southwark council have rendered the micro-economies of RL “invisible”(Hall, 2015:862) erasing their existence and altering RL’s consumption infrastructure.

Consumption and belonging

RL is not simply a place of consumption as the purchase or use of goods and services. Its range of shops orientated towards the needs of Peckham’s migrant and working-class communities perform a “social function beyond the basic supply of goods”(Hamlett et al,2008:104). Hunt describes RL as an “alternative to white [middle class] London”(Hunt,2017:10), a translocal site through which migrants create a “community of strangers”(Ahmed, 1999:340) related only by their status as ‘others’(Hunt,2017). Newer middle-class residents also establish belonging through distinction and consumption, engaging in Watt’s(2009) ‘selective belonging’. Such residents edit the Peckham area, erasing or disengaging from aspects that are unappealing. The exclusionary nature of this process can explicitly be seen with middle-class residents self-constructing their neighbourhood’s identity and belonging to Peckham in opposition and juxtaposed to RL’s consumption infrastructure and the ethnic and working-class communities it serves. One resident commenting “Peckham is something, and Peckham Rye is something else!”(Benson and Jackson, 2012:779). Here belonging is established through disengaging from RL and its traditional consumption infrastructure often in favour of emerging and exclusive middle-class consumption opportunities. The tension between such identities is described as “social tectonics”(Jackson and Butler,2015:2350), as these communities exist parallel but separate from each other. In this context RL is the “faultline”(Jackson and Butler,2015:2358) where these groups collide. Yet this collision is more complex than the outright erasure which is seen with selective belonging. Middle class residents also employ elective belonging, where RL is integrated into their narratives of belonging serving a symbolic function in providing reassurance that Peckham is yet to be ‘fully’ gentrified and still retains some “edge”(Jackson and Butler,2015:2359). Both approaches to belonging demonstrate the central role of RL and its consumption in informing contemporary identities.

These approaches are also seen with the editing and mobilisation of particular histories. As new identities of and in relation to RL are formed the past is not completely erased, instead residents mobilise history to inform their contemporary identities. This is done by middle class residents who omit Peckham’s more recent history of social deprivation and gang-related violence instead favouring and focusing on aspects of the areas past that appeal to them such as Peckham’s former identity as a middle-class neighbourhood in the nineteenth century or RL’s art deco architecture(Jackson and Butler,2014). These residents seek to use their symbolic capital to promote more appealing versions of history and inscribe Peckham with a new stigma free identity. However, this new layer of identity is simply a veneer. As an “involuted palimpsest” (Dillon,2005:255) there is no singular history or identity that can be ascribed to RL. Instead the various identities which emerge from consumption and engagement with history exist and compete with one another. Middle class disengagement from more established modes of consumption as a part of their place making along with gentrification has undermined RLs more established working class and ethnic orientated consumption infrastructure. This is seen in figure 7 which shows a typically working class orientated service, a laundrette isolated amongst middle class serving consumption. As a medium through which residents can engage in unofficial practises of belonging this loss of shops and services is significant, compromising migrant and working class belonging in RL and once again displacing and excluding these communities.

Figure seven, the soap box, a laundrette
Figure 7: The soap box, a laundrette next to pedler a ‘Stylish neighbourhood eatery’ and BATCH (previously a mini supermarket – see figure 6) a cocktail bar.


 Peckham Levels and the future of consumption

Peckham Levels is a palimpsestuous site. Its former use as a car park and subsequent abandonment in 1983 after the closure of various anchor stores2 reveals RLs history of commercial decline. The involuted nature of PL can further be seen with its current function as a ‘meanwhile’ space, keeping the multi-storey site “warm”(Tonkiss,2013:318) whilst the New Southwark Plan is finalised, and a permanent development is decided. Though temporary, PL will have long term implications. As a meanwhile space it is being used to assess the economic potential of the Peckham area, thus its success or failure will set the terms for RLs future modes of consumption, consumer base and identity(Tonkiss,2013).

Currently the wider Peckham area is at a crossroads between preserving more established modes of consumption and embracing the emerging middle-class consumption infrastructure. PL is the most recent layer within this and is attempting to reconcile these tensions. As a meanwhile space and the foundation of future development this endeavour is of great significant. PL is promoted as a space “for everyone, working class to middle class, all races, all ages… where all these people can feel celebrated and included”(Strick,2018). Attempts to accommodate the more established local community were seen from PL inception where local residents were given priority in the allocation of work and business units and continued with all members required to commit to one hour of community service each week. These initiatives help combat the idea that PL is a part of and complicit in the emergence of exclusionary consumption in RL. This legitimises PL as an institution that serves and is accessible to all of RL’s communities. Despite these attempts however, PL falls short. With the majority of units on offer for £250 per month and only 10 units available at a discounted price it is unlikely that these spaces are attainable to the more established residents of such a historically deprived area. Moreover, many of the services on offer in PL are far removed from the rest of RL’s consumption infrastructure and show a clear orientation towards Peckham’s growing creative and middle-class communities(figure 8). However, ultimately as a PPP PL is a part of Southwark councils entrepreneurial agenda thus its ultimate goal is profit and to appeal to the creative classes. This is explicitly seen with PL inclusion of co-working spaces which cater to the flexible work demands of the creative class who are their target consumers(figure 9). Despite attempts to be inclusive of the longer established community and reconcile competing modes of consumption the pursuit of profit means that PL has prioritised Peckham’s newer middle and creative class and the modes of consumption they engage with. In “cement[ing]”(Sheppard,2017) RL as cultural hub PL has laid the foundations for exclusionary consumption in RL.

Figure eight, co-working space
Figure 8: Co-working space in PL (Photo from: http://uk.businessinsider.com/from-drugs-den-to-creative- space-peckhams-notorious-car-park-has-been-turned-into- a-hipster-hangout-2017-12)


figure nine, event advert
Figure 9: Event advert in PL (Taken by author,2018).


As this transformation occurs elements of RL’s past consumption remain. However, their survival is contingent on the ability of these more established modes of consumption to assimilate into the new and emerging middle-class consumption infrastructure. This was seen with the saving of the independent cinema PeckhamPlex. Faced with proposals of demolition it was only after public petition and the finalisation of the PL redevelopment that the cinema was saved and declared an ‘Asset of Community Value’. PeckhamPlex low prices catered to RL’s more established community whilst its status as an independent institution meant that it also appealed to “Hipster film lovers”(Simpson,2017). This contingency on RL’s future consumption infrastructure and consumer base is involuted, embodying the complex relationship between the past, present and future seen through palimpsest.


This essay has used the idea of palimpsest to demonstrate the involuted nature of consumption. This has been shown through looking at RL’s current consumption infrastructure which revealed a history of migration, economic decline and social exclusion. The involuted nature of consumption was further explored in the role of PL as a temporary, meanwhile space having long term and permeant implications for the future of RL. The contingency of more established modes of consumption on the emerging middle-class consumption infrastructure in the future shows the inextricable link between the past, present and future which makes belonging and place-making a contested process. This volatility is expected in RL’s future where the domination of middle-class consumption and middle- class practises of place making will transform RL’s consumption infrastructure and subsequently undermine the belonging of migrant and working-class communities.

Further, this essay has presented RL as an urban palimpsest on which various parties have imposed their agendas. In this I have explored the economic and material impacts of Southwark Council’s entrepreneurial agenda which promotes the transformation of RL’s consumption infrastructure and has introduced middle class and ‘hipster’ consumption opportunities at the expense of the more established migrant and working-class orientated modes of consumption. This essay has also recognised the various histories that combine to make RL, exploring the ways in which specific histories within this amalgamation are mobilised by groups to inscribe and impose specific identities and ideas of belonging.

The idea of palimpsest has been useful exploring the importance of consumption as a medium through which individuals are able to engage in practises of belonging and the way in which past, present and future changes in consumption mutually reinforce belonging. For RL this means middle class communities altering consumption and establishing belonging at the expense of working-class and migrant communities.

Anastasia Lewis


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