Chatting Creativity & Thriving – With Independent Worthing

Part 2 of 2

That G-Word

Last post, I was chatting with Sophie Morgan-Gilder and Graeme Roche (Part One here) about their lockdown-incepted initiative, Independent Worthing, and about some continuities and changes in the town. We began to touch on gentrification – something that’s been a subject of intense academic analysis and widespread media scrutiny.

Sohpie and Graeme – passionate about small, local, independents

Sociologists have mostly posed gentrification as a purely negative process, as, for example, in this tracking of different modes of resistance to non-inclusive changes in London’s Heygate Estate at Elephant & Castle from Lees & Mara; and very occasionally – as in this 2016 piece by Master’s student Taylor-Beck (page 90) – as a more ambivalent process, which could bring jobs and prosperity, and avoid displacement – if affordable housing were to accompany development. That’s a pretty enormous ‘if’, of course.

Some interesting recent work from three social geographers, published in 2021, carefully disentangles the class and ethnicity nexus as part of its broader investigation into gentrification. This in-depth study concludes, from empirical study of UK population movements over the past 20 years, that the rise of buy-to-rent and the decline of social housing is skewing Uk’s gentrification processes in certain directions and is giving rise to patterns (influxes of middle-class migrants, ethnic segregation) which are reminiscent of the USA. Paccoud, Niesseron and Mace conclude:

In a sense, the United Kingdom’s urban super-diversity is hostage to the process of property wealth concentration signaled by the return of the Private Rented Sector. Middle-class private renters (both White British and Not White British) are only cannon fodder for a broader process of buy-to-let gentrification they have no control over.

The rise of buy-to-rent and the decline of social housing is skewing UK’s gentrification process towards residential patterns more similar to USA society

Sophie and Graeme, who between them have lived over the course of their respective lives in middle-class suburbs, alternative communes, houseboats, inner-London and small towns – and who have family spread globally – have witnessed many different moments and styles of gentrification. In WoBy’s interview with them, they were keen to point out that, while there is a familiar shared trajectory to the gentrification and regeneration process, there can be many missed opportunities to intervene and shape the (inevitable) process of change in positive and inclusive ways.

Graeme is mostly positive, but does plead for mindful change:

Obviously, there’s a gentrification process going on in Worthing, and it can feel like right now, we’re in the good part of that – interesting things happening, small independent traders thriving and all that – but we need to think too about property prices, affordable housing and things.

All Change! (Always)

Sophie tells us that she’s managed to let go of her anguish about the mahussive and off-scale Sliced Bread Building right on the seafront. Bayside apartments does look like a badly-stacked Kingsmill, it’s true).

Bayside, Worthing

Her new symbol for undesirable change is the Bandstand. The Bandstand is my new metaphor, she laughs.

Ah yes, I’ve heard many folks around here complain about that and yearn for the old structure.

This whole thing left me, at first, very confused.

The Bandstand itself, of course, was itself an edgy and stylish innovation in its day. Built in 1897, demolished and totally remodelled in 1926. I’m sure there was plenty of complaint about, firstly, this 1897 intrusion into the shoreline and later, its demolition and remodelling. But the Bandstand is still there and even functional.

Worthing Lido – confusingly, not a swmming pool, but a bandstand and kids’ rides

A bit of head-scratching and research turns up that the lost structure referred to by many longtime locals, like Sophie, as the ‘Bandstand’ was not the Lido Bandstand – but the town centre concrete faux-neoclassical structure that was also popularly known throughout the 90s as as the ‘rotunda’ – official name Montague Pavilion.

Montague Pavilion aka The Rotunda aka the Fake Bandstand

This structure gave way in 2016 to an open space for sitting – and for events. Like lots of residents, Sophie doesn’t like the new space much. She is echoing many when she complains about the new design, with its architectural intimations of open sea and boats,

Get rid of those sails, they don’t shelter you. They’re not adding anything.

Looking at the old Rotunda, I find that I prefer the open space, even if it does feel a bit derivative (Portsmouth, Southampton, Cardiff, Newcastle – you’ll see this kind of stuff on waterfronts all over).

As I dig through Worthing’s layers of development, improvement, destruction, and change – always change – I feel like the only sensible place to stand with all this is either with the Buddhists and the wisdom that we have to accept that everything is always in change and flux – or with the archaeologists and their very long view of history (take your pick).

What we have in the town centre is a postmodern memory of a very recent concrete copy of a 1920s rebuilt version of an original 1980s structure.

Because it turns out that this tiny pavilion was itself a copy of the grander Bandstand concept. So what we have now in the town centre, with the small space covered by a sail and envisaged as a mini-stage and open-air events venue, is then a postmodern memory of a very recent concrete copy of a 1920s rebuilt version of an original 1890s structure? My head’s spinning. Every new generation’s ‘tradition’ was a previous generation’s newfangled abomination.

I’m witnessing in our conversation Sophie’s ambivalence about change. She embraces Worthing’s recent upsurge in small creative independent makers, but is wary of mega-development.

Evolution, Not Revolution

Graeme supports Sophie’s analysis that we’re in evolution rather than revolution and that we shouldn’t imagine that Worthing has simply transformed in the past 5 years. He notes that,

I’ve seen a fair bit of change in a short time, but Sophie has been here 34 years, so she sees all this more as a slow drawn-out process of change.

Anyway, change can be good, can be bad – but the thing is, you can’t stop it. London’s an example – it’s been the case forever there that people come in, start things up, move along. Neighbourhoods change.

Even watery fluid neighbourhoods change, they point out. While Sophie remembers that her parents lived and raised some of her older siblings for a while in the longstanding Shoreham houseboats area, Graeme talks about his, more recent, time exposed to narrowboat culture when he worked in the City area. Every day I walked 11 miles into work, along the canals. I loved it – it was the most relaxed I’ve ever been. It was the best thing ever. You’re right in the city and then there’s this hidden world with a different pace and ethos.

We start up a discussion that I’ve heard before, (from anthropologist and boat-dweller Helen Underhill). This revolves around how boating in Uk is undergoing a change, as new people (and a new kind of people) begin to take up the ‘liveabord lifestyle’. There are 18k members on London’s FB boaters’ group alone. Graeme, Sohpie and I grimace and grin at stories about some moments in the complicated dance of change, as culture clash, mutual suspicion and attempts at co-operation and community-building take place on Britain’s waterways.

Helen Underhill is an anthropologist of water and is part of boaters’ neighbourhoods and communities – which are also gentrifying

Sophie comments on Graeme’s generalised optimism about our will and capacity to intervene in processes of managed change that, You’ve maybe also got a bit of a romantic view.

She elaborates. My brother, in San Francisco, has seen all this in the most extreme ways. His 2 kids were born and raised there, but now none of them can afford to live there – Google and Silicon Valley destroyed the heart of it.

Sophie, with family spread all over the world, is rooted firmly in Worthing but has visited many different countries and holds a global perspective. She and Graeme tell me about Byron Bay, in Australia where things began well, with a refusal of corporates, lots of independent businesses, a height restriction on buildings and a low-rise beachfront skyline.

They protected their identity.

Then, of course (for reasons which analysts put down to a host of factors including Instagram, Air B n B, NIMBYism, and the usual plain old cycle of development and gentrification that we witness all over the world) Byron Bay became a hell. This Guardian article runs over some of the recent history and, as usual, the question of affordable housing and its lack stands at the centre. This echoes Sophie and Graham’s fears around current developments in Worthing.

The sliced bread building is the bad side of gentrification.

The couple are clear in their minds that processes of change are double-edged, and that there could be such a thing as a ‘good’ gentrification, where old and new come together. This would require thoughtful planning, low rise development and support to existing communities for the transition. This support would include affordable housing and affordable rents for small independent businesses.

Room for Everybody

As we chat more about Worthing’s imagined futures, we agree that different businesses offering the same generic product – say, bakeries – have different clientele and that there should and could be room for everybody. Bakeries offering cheap but decent sliced white and ones that sell posh seeded sourdough could co-exist.

Sophie tells me that over lockdown and the change boom, she’s witnessed that,

Our local independents have been tested to the limit in their abilities to change and adapt. Some don’t adapt, some close down. I want to help the ones who are struggling, help them adapt to the new markets.

On the other hand, as Graeme points out,

What’s became apparent is that, as much as you want to help, the ‘lead a horse to water …’ saying is sadly true.

Sophie reflects that, On balance, we’re doing ok here. The fighters are surviving and they are engaging with change and new ways to build and bring business.

Independent Worthing: working to support local independents

But right now,

There’s not enough hours in the day. We want to support all the independents, all around Worthing, not just the centre of town but also in the neighbourhoods. We want to get out to the pockets.

I wonder if it would even matter if the town centre emptied out and we all began to live hyper-locally?

This fires me up a bit. I love Goring and Ferring and often go there for errands. I sometimes even wonder if it would really matter if the town centre emptied out and we all began to live hyper-locally. My time spent in Italy in India has shown me ways of living which are very rooted in community and in neighbourhood, and where major purchases or entertainment might happen uptown, but all weekly and daily shops and socialising are done right within a quick walking distance.

Thinking about neighbourhoods, I go on to ask about the boundaries of ‘Worthing’ (the Greater Worthing concept as I think of it) – a question that WoBy blog also plays with. Is Angmering under our umbrella? What about Bognor? Anybody got one of those amusing LA sweatshirts yet from local trader Poetic Bisons?

Sophie and Graham’s approach is sensibly practice-based and pragmatic, rather than abstract-cartographic. They tell me that Worthing is the biggest town for people in Storrington or Ashhurst; that good independents based in Arundel or Pulborough who reach into Worthing are also welcome for inclusion in the Directory and for the FB write-ups and shout-outs. Hello, Jacob’s Bagels, popping up all over the place and making people happy! Who knew that we have vegan natural hair colourist in East Preston, at Toni Todd hairdresser? And what about Spring Gardens nursery on the A24, who do pop-up meal nights? The pair go on to mention many more small traders beyond the Worthing Central area. I’d not heard of many of them. We all need to get out more, for sure. (And now we can! Afternoon out in Rustington, anyone? By bike or public transport, if we can, though, please)

The issue of boundaries and inclusion, then, is not really contentious … there are some unique businesses that we don’t have super-locally, so we do spread a bit wide.

Independent Worthing does have a careful process.

We review all requests to be part of Independent Worthing and we chat to them, check them out. We have a team of 4 to help check things out. It’s not just a boundary or black and white thing. Having Jaki and Jus to help is great.

There’s also been a bit of connectivity and synergy, as

The Worthing Herald has joined the group; so there’s crossovers and things happening. And other established groups are demonstrating friendliness.

This is great. Together, we help each other thrive.

Sustainable, local, ethical one-stop shopping?

We change topic, as I’m keen to move into talking about markets, before we finish. I realise that the couple are also closely involved in Worthing’s makers and markets scene.

Graeme tells me that, We’ve been talking for a long time about supporting markets. We go around, we see exactly the kinds of businesses that we’re trying to support.

One of the most interesting things happening here is the growth of several small local markets, like the Great Little Farmers’ Market Community Interest Company (a non-profit social business). This fluid little collection of local traders pops up all over the place.

Independent Worthing is also part of the shift towards a more fluid and less costly approach to trading, via markets. Graeme takes up the story of how the very first Worthing Artisan Maker’s and Produce Market, held on 1st July, came together, marking Independent Worthing’s entry into the pop-up market scene. There’s a second, bigger, market planned for September 19th and thoughts around doing something pre-Christmas, too.

Independent Worthing & the Brooksteed bring another market to us

We had a conversation with John, who is very fond of South Farm Road. He’s been very helpful. We collaborated with the Brooksteed and the South Farm Road Traders’ Group and we pulled it all together in 3 weeks.

There were several business there that have their own premises – or had them; some of them had lost premises during the lockdown. Doing the market helped them and gave us the chance to showcase producers who have an amazing product and needed a wider reach, but also businesses that had suffered during lockdown and needed to re-ignite their passion for what they do and get out there in front of customers.

Fresh produce on the pub forecourt

Yes, there’s been a lot of hidden loss over the past 18 months. Not only financial; confidence, enthusiasm and motivation has suffered. Of course. We tend to forget that aspect of it. What’s the point of creating, making and innovating if you have no audience or outlet? How easily this huge knock could turn into a depressive apathy or hopelessness. Sophie, as a mental health nurse, is very alive to the meta- aspects of being an independent and to the psychology of creating and sharing your work.

Sophie, as a mental health nurse, is very alive to the meta- aspects of being an independent and the psychology of creating and sharing

One stallholder had never ever done a market stall. She’d lost her support staff over lockdown and was now a one person business. She pulled up with loads of stock, was very nervous. She said – ‘I’ve brought too much, never mind, I can make less next week’. I went back later to her stall and she’d sold half her stock in the first hour and had sold out by the end.

The pair smile as they remember this moment. Must have been lovely.

As we round up, Sophie muses,

The thing is, Worthing is not really a big brand place; it really is the small businesses that keep it alive.

We all nod. Worthing folks are used to going to Brighton, Chichester, Portsmouth – or Croydon and Guildford – for big days out doing major shops. I know that in our house, Worthing is just not ever going to be the first stop when we think of a new sofa or a winter coat – but when we want quirky and interesting gifts and household things, we turn right to the Colonnade art centre or to small shops. For food and drink and fill-ups on our laundry liquids, then of course we get local. And for eating out – who wants to shlep out and home again from Brighton, when you can eat so well locally and get back afterwards with 15 mins on a cycle or less than a tenner for the taxi?

Even niche socialising happens here. WoBy house reaches into queer networks, and we’ve now got enough going on between Shoreham and Worthing that we hardly hit the village in Brighton these days. Cellar Arts Club has been hospitable to us, as to many other small groups and alternative scenes, and the local commmunity now host regular LGBTQ events there.

Upcoming LGBTQIA night out in Worthing at Cellar Arts

The Goose, Bar Next Door, The Factory, Bar 42 and The Libertine have put on masses of interesting music and events. (‘Big Night out in Worthing’ has to be another post. Must do that. Volunteers under 30 willing to do some extra research are very welcome. Please).

Sophie and Graeme are not sure about my ‘forget the chains, go hyper-local’ thought, suggesting that,

You probably can’t survive completely without those large businesses. You do need a mix. But instead of making the supermarket and the big brands the default, you could turn that around and make the small local independents the first place you go and look.

Sounds reasonable and feasible. I know I’ve been among those who have always seen themselves as time-poor and felt like I couldn’t do the life of the French or Italian homemaker, who mooches out every single morning for bread and the makings of that night’s dinner, spending an hour visiting different shops to assemble it all.

Like most of us in UK, WoBy’s busy household got hooked years ago on the convenience of a one-stop big shop. But we’re very aware that putting most of our money with the big chains really does not align with our desire to support small and local.

And the stories I read about the negative effects of supermarkets on all kinds of phenomena – soil quality, animal welfare, packaging waste, air and road miles, food standards, producer income, staff conditions, among many more – tell me that I need to make changes.

Lockdown was a hard reset. A bloody hard reset.

Lockdown was a forced hard reset. A bloody hard reset. Instead of returning to the old normal, maybe we could all have a think and see whether and where we can reduce our dependence on those megabuck sellers and offer more support to businesses whose owners actually live locally and are part of our community.

HISBE (How It Should Be): weaning us off the mega supermarkets and bad food practices

Doorstop deliveries of veg boxes, milk & mylk, and even beer have helped cut down the frequency of the supermarket visits and we’re not there every bloody week any more, thank goodness.

When I was a kid on a council estate in the 1960s and 1970s, and very few people had cars, my uncle was one of many who drove a van around, selling everything from fruit and veg to batteries and tea towels. A return to that kind of set-up might be welcome? (With an electric van of course). I know I’m saving money and eating better since the veg box started up, and I’m absolutely yearning for a local cleaning products refill delivery service. I’m overjoyed that Brighton’s HISBE has opened up here. There’s clearly space for us to close the gap between customer time-poorness and our desire to shop locally and sustainably. I expect and hope to see a lot more small, local, one-stop shopping opportunities as we move thoughtfully forward.

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