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Pop-up shops and the decay of social provisions

30 Jun

As if you didn’t need another reason to hate hipsters . Especially the London hipsters.

The decomposition of social provision is being given a “trendy” spin by the new trend of “pop-up” shops in London which take over disused buildings for a very short period after established shops and social provisions have closed down. According to the article:

Recessions don’t usually create distinctive new spaces. The “new” capital skyline now under construction is mostly made up of buildings shelved during the first phase of the Great Recession, and at this rate London as it “should” have been in 2010 won’t be finished for some years yet – something even more true of the cancelled skyscrapers of Leeds or Manchester.

Yet there is one obvious offspring of the collapse of the old model: the pop-up. The japery of the term – oh, look, what used to be a wasteland has now got an organic hot dog company on it! – makes clear the sort of thing we’re dealing with, part of the mental regression of a generation elsewhere bent on reviving cupcakes. Pop-ups are fun! A railway yard with boutique shops! A “shopping village” on a council estate! An arthouse cinema in an abandoned petrol station! A burger bar in an Asian women’s advice centre! (The last of these, recently opened in Hackney as “The Advisory”, is surely one of the most offensive: the decay of social provision given a fun, ironic spin.)

Pop-ups, which in the UK are tellingly mostly London-based, purport to be an example of doing things differently. Rather than another chain store, luxury apartment block or more trading floors, a pop-up scheme will, in theory, produce some kind of a social space – a cinema or a gallery, usually more esoteric than the average restaurant or bar.

Some of these are functions that would once have been taken on through squatting – and sometimes still are, as at Open House, a social centre recently and precariously opened in London’s Elephant & Castle, an area torn apart by rampant gentrification, where estates are flogged off to developers with zero commitment to public housing and the aforementioned “shopping village” is located in a derelict estate. In this bitterly contested environment, Open House has been genuinely trying to resist this process and think of non-temporary alternatives to the current malaise – but unlike a pop-up vintage clothes shop, it’s unlikely it would have received planning permission.

Unlike squats, which aim to hold on to spaces for as long as possible, pop-ups are, by their very definition, temporary. They’re urban placeholders, there to fill the space until the market picks up – which in London is starting to occur in the most terrifying, nothing-has-been-learned way, discounting the idea that pop-ups have a tangible, permanent effect.

Rather than the Great Recession appearing as a series of gaping, rotting scars in the urban fabric, which would at least have the virtue of honesty, it is creating a series of spatial gap years, where people have a bit of fun and learn a few skills which they can eventually put to more usual profit-making service.

I have some thoughts on this. One of them is that for some people this casualisation of business might be a way to try and get around business rates etc if they don’t have enough start-up capital to succeed, so casualisation might be affecting the small business owning classes and the aspiring small business owners in the same way that it is affecting temporary workers, tenants and all other aspects of society. Of course it means that anyone who works for them is in an even more precarious position than they are, and anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot of these shops are using “volunteers” from the job centre or people can afford to work for free anyway.

However, for a lot of them they DO have enough capital to start a proper business should they wish to and this “pop up” business is a way of them testing the water – of course it also has the effect of increasing gentrification, pricing people out of their own areas in the same time as making a load of hipsters think about how ironic and cool the whole thing is. A lot of people see no problem with gentrification … as long as they can afford what these shops are selling. What did that Palestinian carpenter say. “Man cannot live on cupcakes, chorizo and cranberry flatbreads and organic soaps alone”. It’s great if youve got money to spend, not so much if you’re on the dole or trying to feed your family.