On the Peckham Peace Wall

This comes out of an essay I wrote for The Occupied Times “Social Cleansing in Southwark: The Urban Frontier”, I wrote a fair bit more on the horrible Peckham Peace Wall in a draft and I thought some people might be interested. It might make more sense in the context of the original essay.

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Peckham has, in the past decade, been consistently sold as “edgy” and “vibrant” as if these were natural properties, rather than a dubious distortion of, as Raymond Williams would have it, a culture that is always made, often in conditions of and against oppression.

Much of the artistic production coming out of Peckham is similarly rooted in the sense that the culture of Peckham’s inhabitants is exotic and natural rather than social and produced. This is the case both in art forms that enclose this “vibrant” culture and sell it on and in art forms that treat pre-gentrification Peckham as a cultural wasteland, whereby, as Southwark Notes observes, “a dubious set of supposed cultural often accompanies the imposition of ‘culture’ into local areas in the form of public art as if we have not been making our own culture for hundreds of years here.” In “The Fine Art of Gentrification”, Deutsche and Ryan describe how in 1980s New York, “the unprecedented commodification of art engendered an equally ubiquitous aestheticisation of culture…graffiti came off trains and into galleries”.

Notable here for its occlusion of cultural production and contestation is the Peckham Peace Wall, a public artwork in response to the 2011 London events outside the library. The work is derived from messages on post-it notes that were stuck to a burnt-out Poundland, which have now been transformed into a permanent artwork. The now imitation post-it notes consist of bland or twee expressions of local patriotism, occasional vaguely social democratic pleas for more jobs and for the government to care more about Peckham, and, more commonly revanchism, either of a “nice” sort, “the police are human too, have respect for them”, or, often of a more vicious sort, “bring back national service”. It must be stressed, of course, that the immediate cause of the events was the murder of Mark Duggan by the police, a murder that could have happened as easily in Peckham, that the events were “about” racist policing not “about” jobs and, above all, that the demand that black Londoners respect a police force that harasses them, beats them and kills them is obscene.

Limited edition prints of imitation post-it notes, signed by the “artist” are also available for £68. The Peace Wall is typical of the art produced by gentrification. Firstly, only certain sentiments are admitted to the work, creating a homogenous local patriotism of “real” inhabitants of Peckham against those involved in the events so contestation is hidden and those with absolutely reasonable grievances against the police excluded from the community brought into existence by the work. There is in the Peace Wall, in a way similar to the “broom army”, as anatomised by Joe Kennedy, a polarising “niceness” of civic sense and public spiritedness, the community, opposed to the politically meaningless violence and “avarice of the lumpenproletariat”  Secondly, the sentiments of the peace wall are presented as natural not already cultural, which is further testament to their authenticity, an impression which is supplemented by the (often false) naiveté of a lot of the pictures and handwriting within the work so cultural production is hidden. This allows the artists to pose as the producers of the work, with the original post-it notes treated as a natural resource.

It would be important to contrast the implications for gentrification of the London events of 1981/85, which created and solidified, as Neil Smith argues in The New Urban Frontier, “anti-gentrification lines”, that prevented, for a while, the rent gap leading to gentrification in much of South London, with the 2011 events. The events of 2011 have not served to limit gentrification, if anything they may have accelerated it, this is partially a mark of the success of firstly police led pacifications, and secondly the processes of gentrification and social cleansing which followed this. Smith details the history of the police strategies around gentrification in the 1980s, “the frontier emerges in London as what became known as the “frontline”. Following riots between police and Afro-Caribbean, South Asian, and white youths in London (and other British cities) through the 1980s, a territorial line emerged in several neighborhoods. These front-lines, such as All Saints Road in Kensington and Chelsea or those in Notting Hill or Brixton, were simultaneously defences against police incursions in the 1970s and at the same time strategic “beachheads” established by the police. They also quickly became antigentrification lines in the 1980s. Sir Kenneth Newman, former Metropolitan Police commissioner, launched the police dimension of this frontline strategy in the early 1980s, and explained its purpose in a lecture to the right-wing European Atlantic Group. Citing the “growth of multi-ethnic communities” which were responsible for producing a “deprived underclass,” Newman anticipated “crime and disorder,” and identified eleven “symbolic locations” in London, including the frontlines, where special tactics would be required. For each location, “there was a contingency plan to enable the police swiftly to occupy the area and exert control”.

In the wake of police-led pacification and destruction of estates there is, of course, the urban renaissance, in Peckham the Sterling Prize winning library and “town square” on the site of the “notorious” (and it must always be described as notorious, as if nobody ever made a life there or was happy there) North Peckham Estate. An “iconic” building to create “civic pride” (as if nobody had any pride in Peckham before Alsop) and destigmatise an area in the eyes of the rich and timidly adventurous is the ideal location for the Peckham Peace Wall, which conjures up a community pacified enough not to scare the timid but still “vibrant” enough to offer edge and for artists to enclose.

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