The end of London’s Latin quarter?

Story highlights

London's largest Latin clusters at risk of displacement

Traders have mobilized a popular campaign to save much-loved market

CNN  — 

On Saturday nights, Lita Kaguawajigashi invites a singer to perform for lively crowds at her restaurant the Pueblito Paisa.

“When people pass they think they are in Colombia,” she laughs.

It is easy to get that impression at the Seven Sisters market in North London, home to one of the two largest Latin American business clusters in the city.

The indoor market is a dense labyrinth of cafes, hair salons and financial traders, where the music reverberates, the aromas are tempting and young children hurtle along the corridors.

But there is tension mixed into the party atmosphere. The site was recently served with a Compulsory Purchase Order by Haringey Council, ahead of planned development that would see the market demolished.

Five years on from the devastating riots that tore through the neighborhood, the council is determined to transform one of the city’s most deprived boroughs into an affluent commercial hub. A £65 million ($79 million) scheme with development giant Grainger plc would see 196 apartments and several chain stores take the place of the market.

The council claims this would bring new jobs and increased revenue to the area, but the existing occupants and their many supporters argue that something priceless would be lost.

Chef Fabian prepares a dish at the Seven Sisters market in North London.

Community campaign

The first Latin Americans arrived at the market around the turn of the century, and recall an area blighted by crime.

“There was a lot of violence and drugs inside the market,” says Victoria Alvarez, one of the earliest arrivals who runs a money exchange. “We wanted to create a better environment for our children.”

Latin Americans gradually secured the majority of the market and cultivated a family-friendly atmosphere. But a shadow fell over the community in 2008 when Grainger was granted planning permission for the site, with the occupants to be evicted.

The community organized to fight the decision, and found support from committed local activists. They formed the Ward’s Corner Community Coalition, named after a department store that stood on the site a century ago.

The campaign won friends and yielded memorable moments along the way, from a human chain around the block to a car park carnival. The traders enlisted heritage groups and solicitors, and achieved some notable successes.

The human chain in 2008.

In 2010, the High Court of Appeal quashed Grainger’s planning permission for its impact on ethnic minority communities, and the council’s planning office rejected a second application from the developers a year later.

The campaigners have produced their own modernization plan for the site that would retain the market and renovate the locally-listed Ward’s Corner building, with provision for new businesses, co-working and cultural spaces.

“We are proposing to retain and improve what we have, because what we have is special,” says local architect Abigail Stevenson, who designed the plan. “We would restore the whole block to its former architectural glory.

In a moment of elation, the community plan was granted planning permission.

But at the third attempt, so too was the Grainger plan (UK law allows multiple permissions to be granted for the same site), moving development a step closer.

Children of market traders enjoy an art class.

Economic growth, social support

The traders argue that the market makes important economic and social contributions to the area. Many of the Latin American businesses have achieved steady growth, employ local people and buy from local suppliers.

“Maybe we don’t speak the language perfectly but we know what we’re doing,” says Alvarez. “When the financial crisis came the market was not affected because we know how to live with a little…when I walk around the market I feel so proud because each shop now has two or three employees and they are doing well.”

The market also functions as a social support network for the Latin American community. Recent arrivals in London come here looking for work or a place to stay, help with legal issues, language skills, or how to use an Oyster card.

Hernando Reyes met his wife at the market and says it is critical to preserving their identity in a foreign land.

“It is very valuable and important for the community,” he says. “If the market closes a lot of us will be without direction, with nowhere to meet and remember our old times in Colombia, or pass our culture to the children.”

Hernando Reyes met his wife at the market.

New home?

The London Mayor at the time, Boris Johnson, struck a deal with the developers to provide space for the traders at a new market site with discounted rent for the first three months.

Haringey councillor Alan Strickland, Cabinet Member for Housing, Regeneration and Planning, maintains that the future of the market is secure.

“Ensuring there is a new and long-term market is key to our plan,” says Strickland. “A package of measures including financial assistance to help traders relocate to the new market and discounted rents for existing stallholders has been agreed.”

The proposed relocation site is the ground floor of a new high-rise tower that Grainger is building nearby, and Development Director David Walters says the company is working closely with the community to manage the transition.

He stresses the benefits the two projects will bring the area, with around 300 new homes, 800 jobs and over £100 million ($122 million) of investment.

But traders say that Grainger is refusing to share key details of the new site, such as the size of units and how many traders will be allowed to operate there. There are also fears that rent rises after the discount period would force many businesses to close. Grainger did not comment on a CNN request for clarification on these points.

Another issue is the period between demolishing the old market and opening the new one. Grainger have committed to provide an interim site but few details are available, and the uncertainty spells trouble for the traders.

“Markets like this have to be continuous and you have to nurture them,” says Andrew Boff, a member of the Planning Committee at the London Assembly. “Footfall disappears for many people as soon as you move a market.

Colombian singer warms up before a concert.

Wider struggle

The battle for Seven Sisters is part of a wider struggle for respect and recognition.

Latin Americans are one of the fastest-growing minorities in London – the population has trebled since 2000 – but are only now gaining recognition as a distinct ethnic group. The community is disproportionately represented in low-paid and insecure work.

The only other large Latin cluster in London is also under threat. There are around 100 Latin businesses in the Elephant and Castle district, which is being transformed through a £3 billion ($3.65 billion) development.

The Latin Elephant group is campaigning to ensure that Latin businesses are beneficiaries rather than victims of these plans, arguing that they have played a key role in revitalizing a once-shabby area.

El Costenito Ecuadorean cafe in Elephant and Castle.

“Ideally we could develop the business cluster and have it formally recognized as a Latin quarter,” says Latin Elephant chair Dr. Patria Roman-Velazquez, who also acknowledges a “nightmare” scenario where the existing businesses are replaced.

Roman-Velazquez believes that prospects for the community depend on building the capacity of Latin businesses, as well as gaining influence at policy level, and mobilizing community engagement.

'Gloria's Salon' in the Latin Elephant cluster.

To the end

While the looming threat of eviction is spreading anxiety at Seven Sisters market, the community is preparing for a fresh round of hostilities.

Campaigners are barraging the council with objections, which they hope will lead to a public inquiry and a possibly definitive rejection of the Grainger plan. They also intend to apply increasing pressure on the new Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, and could even take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Alvarez estimates she has spent over £20,000 ($24,300) on legal fees fighting the case over the past nine years, taking a second job to fund the campaign.

“We are all tired now,” she says. “But we are resilient and we are going to fight until the end.”

For the people that have devoted so much to build the community, and the fight to preserve it, there is no other option.