The Portobello Road Community20 minute read

The Portobello Road Community, as a palimpsest

This paper demonstrates how the Portobello Road Community: its people and its spaces (from the period of the 1950- 2016) can be characterised as a palimpsest. In its simplest term, a palimpsest is something that has been altered over time but still bears visible traces of its earlier form.

Using the discourse on ‘home and belonging’, I will discuss the evident legacy of the past – in community values of attachment to home and their subsequent efforts to preserve the authenticity of the area. I will also analyse the alterations to the community: the decline of the ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic’ Portobello, the developments in gentrification and the way that resistance to these changes has differed in nature. The conflicting conservative and progressive movements have created a very interesting dynamic that reflects key statements about London’s social, political and economic environments. I will conclude by determining whether this palimpsest can be compared to a cycle; a pattern of social change shaped by a battle to become the dominant culture.


Methods

The media fascination with Portobello Road has created a village mentality of distrusting the newcomer. As a result, I was regularly questioned about what my credentials are and participants were often unwilling to provide me with data. Thus, to an extent, my population sample is limited in size and representation. Yet, this visible fear of the media does provide some evidence that the unique, welcoming identity that Portobello is so famous for, is fading. The closed-off identities that have developed are reflected in figures 1 and 2: the physical reinforcements of protection over place. In compensating for this limitation, secondary data is employed; accessing a wide supply of participants from the current and past environments. I have employed the Market Place Documentary (1965), interviews from Julian Mash’s Portobello Road: lives of a neighbourhood (2011) and extracts from Phillips and Phillips, Notting Hill in the Sixties (1991). In terms of primary data, I have interviewed: 15 community members in informal, on-street interviews about change on Portobello Road; 2 in-depth, formal interviews with residents about their personal values;20 short-interviews with members of public to understand the perceptions of Portobello Road and a survey of estate agents in the area to gain an idea of the preferences of new residents. I found it particularly useful to film and photograph in order to study the area more analytically once away from the crowds that usually occupy Portobello Road. Using these means, I was able to recognise details like street signs and visible forms of disparity.


Home and belonging: sense of place change.

Fig 1 Portobello
Figure 1

It is essential to understand what has not changed in Portobello Road; there is a profound history and presence of attachment to authenticity of place. Portobello Road is unique: not only have changes occurred at alarmingly fast rates, but the way that the community has become hardened; passionately united in resisting the newcomer, new business or change to a tradition is a rare one. In order to investigate how the community has developed this way, I will explore the concepts of; Jane Jacobs (1961), Sharon Zukin (1989) and Manuel Castells (2004).

Fig 2 Portobello
Figure 2

The literature surrounding home and belonging generally suggests that ‘home’ projects ideas of permanence, security and care. These three elements create a sensitive concept – a potential cause for the defensiveness expressed over home in Portobello. Additionally, this protective behaviour can be explained by Castells’ (2004) theory, which states that home has a strong connection to our identities. Moreover, when the area is altered, the community will react sensitively because of this personal link. Therefore, with the community’s identities and sense of security affected, they are left mourning loss and anticipating further unwanted modification.

Although Portobello Road has a very unique identity, Zukin’s (1989) theory explains how the community have reacted predictably to changing environments. Authenticity is a continuous process:  it is the expectation that the buildings that are here today will be here tomorrow, as a result, a city loses its soul when this continuity is broken (Zukin, 1989). From my informal interviews with the residents and market stallholders on the road (Figure 3), it becomes clear that this community places great value on authenticity.

Figure  3: Interview Extracts: The Portobello Road Community, January 2016

“We just don’t want it to look like Bond Street. People here don’t try to make money, people try to make a living; stay independent” – Market Stallholder

“Portobello Road started out as a village. Stallholders are the most authentic things here. The backbone. I am the 4th generation of my family”- Market Stall Holder

We have to respect all our differences. People should be learning from the community, rather than putting it in peril. It is a pinnacle of human achievement. It happens periodically and it gets lost. Let us keep it. It has a much, much higher value than just capital” – Resident

These interviews project strong themes of attachment to authenticity of home. This group desire to maintain place is rather unique in an ever-changing London; consequently, this group have established a standard that is quite out of synch with elsewhere in the city, conceivably stuck in a bubble of time and space. The uniqueness is supported by my interview series that studied the public of London’s perceptions of Portobello.  Whilst some considered these community principles as refreshing images of a “modest”, “unpretentious”, “humble society”, most regarded these values as “hopeless” and “doomed to fail”. Therefore, in terms of changes for the future, the current public disagreement suggests that in the future there will be significant conflict and struggle over space before the community take a path of transformative or restorative development, depending on the outcome of the conflict.

More specifically, changes in Portobello have impacted street life and street contact (Jacobs, 1989), this arguably becomes a key influence in creating resistance in the community. Jacobs (1989) explains the ‘trust’ in a city: produced over time through consistent network activity and communication. In terms of Portobello, The Market place documentary (1965) evidences the ideals of Jacobs’ ‘trust’; it presents remarkable footage of a street bursting with communication. Indeed the atmosphere of the market is not what it once was, with a loss in diversity of cultures and the global brands taking over the high street. Therefore, it is not surprising that the community resent and resist change. In agreement with Jacobs, Heideger (1993) presents the idea of ‘dwelling’: to be active in responding to and working with places. Heideger (1993) implies that newcomers who neglect the opportunity to ‘dwell’ pose threat to a community sense of belonging. My street interviews suggest that many older residents regard newcomers as part of separate ‘gated communities’, failing to integrate and contribute to the locality positively. Further, a market stallholder commented on their reduction in cliental since many new residents prefer to use Ocado deliveries. The dramatic clash in preference and use of space is so clearly demonstrated in Figure 4: the market is presented, with the flats of new residents who use Ocado directly behind the grocery stall. The photo indicates that the divisions in way of life are very much engrained in these community groups, so much so that it would be difficult to achieve integration for the sense of place in Portobello.

Figure 4 Portobello
Figure 4

Hall (2007) suggests that strength and unity in a community is sourced from having a commonality. In Portobello Road this commonality was historically poverty and struggle; many older residents have held on to this part of their character. My interview with an older resident (figure 5) reflects that there is often a kind of pride felt in identifying with this period of struggle.

Figure 5

Not only did whites and blacks meet here but gays, lesbians and others in a unique blend. Marriage and the closed family unit was and still is sneered at. But neither was it entirely liberating. In fact, liberation was the exception not the rule.”- Resident

In relation to Hall’s ideas (2007), it can be suggested that this common sense of ‘trying to get by’ created a community identity that meant any ‘outsiders’ without the familiarity of this struggle were naturally resented and pushed out. Furthermore, Hall’s (2007) second theory; that identity is more strongly connected to a shared negative view of a subject is also very relevant. Figure 5 demonstrates a connection to the dislike of gentrification and suburban values, highlighting the disapproval of marriage and closed family units. In fact, since the 1958 race riots and the anti-immigration campaigns, Portobello Road’s community have maintained active in political involvement; fighting against influences they dislike. Today, the community fear a loss of ‘human biodiversity’, a takeover of global brands and an economic disparity to result in the exclusion of the lower-income groups. Moreover, the strong attachments to home have in many ways barely tainted.


Resistance and Conflict of space

As discussed, because of the strong attachment to authenticity of home and place, Portobello has a long history of clashes and resistance. This conflict over use of place and representational space (Lefebvre, 1991) is summarised clearly in the answers to my question in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Interview Extracts: Question: How would you describe Portobello Road? Participants: The Portobello Community (February 2016)

“ The Tabarnacel used to be a derelict building, everyone used to go and paint the place, but now you can only go if you have lots of money to go for breakfast. They’re pushing out the very small minority in Portobello, like the mangrove steel band.”- Past resident 

“When I was setting up my stall, some opened a window and shouted, “Excuse me could you please not make so much noise. Me and my girlfriend can’t sleep.” I said, mate, this is still Portobello road market- if you don’t want noise I suggest you bugger off to Berkeley Square”- Market stallholder 

“Rich people were always here; but before they wanted to live here. Now with the gated communities, it becomes clear they don’t want to be part of this community.”- Resident

The community have not lost their commitment to community politics; whilst figure 6 demonstrates the community’s passion and preparedness to speak on the matter, the extension of this conflict is also represented in the riots and protest against use of space. It is interesting to investigate why the struggle of place develops to this extent: Fuchs (2012) draws attention to the role of social media in uniting and initiating large-scale protest. There is also a great power in social media in activating community participation. Certainly, the Save Portobello campaign has gained ground and power through social media; it has attracted an audience of both wider London and global online users. When we take a look at Portobello in the 1950s, the Notting Hill Riots developed from a similar clash of beliefs. After this state of physical struggle, a ‘hippy culture’ was created that brought politics to the foreground; here, Portobello Road became the canvas for street art that attacked the status quo. Hence, although the nature of the fight for place differs significantly from the 1950s to the 21st century, similarities are evident. For example, similar to the way that social media is currently employed as a tool of promotion, groups such as the King Mob pro-situationalist created a media fascination with art and grew the group’s argument for use of space considerably.

Nevertheless, the tools of social media, art or organised physical activity cannot be deemed wholly responsible for the growth of resistance, and they should not abstract from the often-important societal causes of changes and events (Cohen, 1979). Indeed, the societal causes of resistance in Portobello are broad and vary considerably over time. Therefore, as well as considering: the tools of social media, art and the influence of attachment to home as a societal cause of resistance- I am also going to discuss the impact of boundary making in Portobello, and subsequently, the ways in which boundary making is evident within the process of gentrification.

Figure 7 Basing Street Notting Hill
Figure 7- Basing Street, Notting Hill, London, c.1974
Figure 8- Telford Road, Notting Hill Gate
Figure 8- Telford Road, Notting Hill Gate, London, c.1974

Boundary Making and Gentrification

Group resistance in Portobello is sourced, partially from the nature of boundary making or ‘territoriality’. These concepts involve controlling an area, its people and things (Sack 1986). Portobello road is a space of uncommon ground, with unequal power levels and assumed identities, therefore the dynamics of boundary making are significant and frequent. In attempt to control the area, groups of the community have united, mostly in resistance to change. An example of these groups is the Save Portobello campaign: the campaign has brought individuals together, building tight relations that are secured by their emotional sense of place. In turn, the commitment to a group and its people strengthens the theme of resistance in Portobello.

I am going to focus on the current societal conflict over control of space in Portobello Road- Gentrification: the extent of it and its impacts. Portobello Road has a history of resenting the newcomer or ‘uninvited guest’. In the latter half of the 20th century, before Portobello became a welcoming area of “human biodiversity”, any race or culture that differed from the white British individual were resented and deemed the cause of change to Portobello. Today, in the 21st century, Portobello repeats its history of creating another ‘outsider’- this time in the shape of the gentrifier. Portobello Road’s gentrification makes a direct connection to the explanation of Ruth Glass’s gentrification in London (1964), which focuses on the threat to authenticity. Indeed, in Portobello, gentrification is perceived as a hand-in-hand mechanism with the destruction of the authentic market and the lower-income groups of the community. Many agree that the market holders are the ‘backbone of the community’, ‘the most authentic thing here ’(Figure 3), therefore a certain vanity and thinness is perceived in gentrification. Whilst others in favour of gentrification, resent the concepts presented in Figure 9: the physical forms that the ‘authenticity’ of Portobello is often associated with.

Figure 9

Graffiti bizarre and splendid. An indefinable edge to it adds a spice of danger.” “In the sub-divided house there is a black trumpeter, an ever-aspiring novelist, a prostitute, an understanding dyke who liked to dress up in military uniform and her cat.” (Ruth Rendell, Portobello Road, 2008).

Richard Curtis summarises the road in three aspects: “Bad hair cuts, bad tattoos, all the fruit and veg in the world.” (Notting Hill, Curtis, 1999).

In relation to Figure 9, the gentrifiers want to transform this Portobello that many regard as mis-matched, disorganised and hopeless. Similarly, Petit (2008) suggests that the disregard for the value of the market by gentrifiers is sourced from the negative connotations of “antique junk” that has been criticised for tapping into its former reputation for slum landlords, racial tensions and nasty cops (Petit, 2008). Thus, a community of gentrifiers have manifested from the pressure and embarrassment of the stigma connected to Portobello Road.

The exact reasons for the invasion of the gentrifiers are broad: a survey of the Estate Agents of Portobello Road (February 2016) found that approximately 60% of residents move to the area seeking to maximise their personal wealth by investing in undervalued property and increasing its value. Therefore, in agreement with some of Smith’s (1979) concepts, it can be seen that many newcomers are driven by economic logic. In a interview with a resident of 35 years, it was found that many of his previous neighbours were pushed out of the community due to rising rent prices; they moved to areas of Wembley, Croydon and Lewisham. In turn, from these individual examples, connections can be drawn to Smith’s (1979) back to the city movement of capital: Smith predicts that gentrification will result in the poor inheriting the old declining suburbs in a cruelly ironic continuation of the filtering process (Smith, 1979). At present, the disparity of wealth in the Portobello area certainly projects the kind of future that Smith envisages (see figure 10).

Figure 10

10: Video- Portobello Road, the presence of disparity, tourism and degradation of authenticity. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hd8AFtgYXOY

In terms of future trends, the presence of suburban values of newcomers is often a key indication of their desire to gentrify the area. Indeed, when new resident couple Charlotte and Joel were interviewed and asked to write down their top 10 hopes from living in Portobello road; ‘make a family’, ‘stability’, ‘success’, ‘plant some pots on the exterior of the house’ and ‘have dinner parties’ were the few suburban values they highlighted. The future image of Portobello Road is implied here; the growth of suburban values infer a growth of gentrification.

We can see how gentrification on Portobello Road has developed and why it is receiving so much resistance by linking two theories. Firstly, the Poleyian approach of consumer behaviour that is shaped by capitalism (Bourdieu, 1984), and secondly, Zukin’s (2010) work on social media and the influence of online discursive investors that use their elite social status (Piskorsi 2014) to impact gentrification. The health cafes of the Portobello area-Farm Girl, Nama Foods, Artisan and Clean and Lean- have been described by many as key sites of gentrification. Furthermore, they have been promoted by bloggers and social media accounts many times since their year of opening. These ‘foodies’ have achieved powerful platforms for marketing all kinds of consumer goods and services (Van Dijck, 2013); their media coverage has contributed notably in changing the image of the Portobello neighbourhood. In directly influencing gentrification, this coverage has worked to attract the ‘affluent, adventurous consumer’ (Zukin, 2010). The argument for the damaging effects of gentrification is visible here; when these high-income consumers are brought to Portobello to experience a select segment of its gentrified cafes or its ‘blue door’ spots (the famous door from the 1999 Notting Hill film), visitors regularly fail to explore the area beyond this site and a selective viewing of the community is formed. This limited viewing is captured by Julian Mash; (Julian used to work in the Travel bookshop on Portobello Road, before it closed down) he writes of how the people ‘experienced everything digitally, barely looking up. So desperate in their quest to find the blue door that they were unwittingly honing in on one of the vital elements at play; the desire for the authentic experience’ (Mash, 2011, page 18). Therefore, this source supports the notion that only the sites connected to social media or film exposure benefit from the middle-class capital, whilst the rest of the area is neglected.

In conclusion, the strong presence of opposition to change,particularly gentrification, is stemmed from several underlying factors: a desire to control boundaries of space; the negative impact of social media and online promotion by social elites and the influx of suburban values threatening Portobello’s authenticity.


Conclusion

Portobello Road, as an area of London is unique because of the presence of a resistant force against change. This force opposes change to the area and works to preserve authenticity. Further, it has been active since at least the mid 1950s, and even today, whilst London is seemingly ever changing and growing, Portobello Road remains distinctly different. Thus, the very existence of this resistant community acts as a point of continuity in Portobello and, however much the area is modified, there maintains values of traditions and authenticity: a special attachment to home.

Nevertheless, when we compare the continuity in Portobello Road to the strength of change and development in the area, it seems this ‘city village’ and its traditional values, face a state of struggle against the capitalist global city of London. With changes such as: the social and economic capital of newcomers; the influence of gentrification and the digital age introducing several conflicting desires for space and boundaries, it becomes clear that there is little hope for those in the community who identify so strongly with the Portobello that once was. Additionally, the very nature of these resistant groups, has also changed since the 1950s. Today, these groups act in a more organised fashion and are less physically expressive and violent, perhaps due to a greater administrative control.

Further, in terms of the future, my research and analysis predicts a great deal more physical and social change in Portobello. It seems that the sense of opposition against change is diminishing just as fast as developments and change are growing. Portobello currently follows the path of Ruth Glass’s gentrification (1964) and the traditional values of place and home are lessening.  Although, nothing is certain, it seems almost impossible for this minority of resisters of change to make a loud enough protest to prevent change made by forces of high social and economic capital.

In conclusion, it is interesting to observe the true nature of change in Portobello. When we take a step back and notice the social history of Portobello, we can see many repetitions; in fact, a cycle of change seems to be produced. In every period, Portobello associates itself with a particular identity; this identity is then impacted with the influx of a new culture and the community battles to create the next mainstream acceptance of place- this cycle has resumed. Today, with the changing economy bringing in middle-classes to the area, the ‘white bankers’ have labelled an antagonist, and the fights for and against change are in flow. In following the cycle, the pattern suggests a new era of identity is due, perhaps a middle-ground, that values the gentrified coffee shops and the informal Portobello Road market, or a complete transition away from the authentic concept of the bohemian Portobello towards a gentrified community.

Nevertheless, Portobello Road as a palimpsest: its history, present and future, represents a complicated collection of social dynamics. The palimpsest tells us that although London, as a global, capitalist city is developing drastically, there still remain some impressive community identities that are able to resist the culture of a homogenous London.


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