Commoning by Caring
The case of Seven Sisters Market
MSc City Design & Social Science
Approaching a neighbourhood market with scientist aspirations, seeking to unravel its functioning and unstable becoming in the midst of the daily dynamics of its urban context, might well start off by a critical dissection of its socioeconomic and employment structures in order to formulate a measuring of the economic value that the market delivers to the area. Yet, the threats posed by plans in place for urban redevelopment of the borough serve as an appeal to push the investigation beyond the visible surface of its economic part, in search of other beneficial outcomes (or values) that could make the scales drop in favour of those struggling for their right to stay.
It is in this pathway of researching, where one quickly comes to realize two important constraints to face. On the one hand, the inherent limitations of the classical approaches to economic studies focused for so long on an exclusive part of the socioeconomic structure that obviates and invisibilizes all that exists outside the market relations. From such well-anchored perspectives, those other forms do not engender value according to the logic of capital. On the other, the short-sightedness of the political authorities, who so often neglect deliberately both the virtues and the needs of the communities they claim to represent and serve.
This research has deemed it necessary to pose a look at those spheres most concealed and hidden; an exploration of the submerged part of the iceberg representing the socioeconomic structure of a particular neighbourhood market in Tottenham (London). The aim is to achieve a deeper understanding of that body that enables an alternative analytical reconstruction, recognizing and integrating its so-frequently disregarded supporting base. Yet, having acknowledged the hurdles and posed the intentions, it must be noted as well that at this point the researcher has also assumed the risk of the ambivalence of a discourse, which will intermittently fluctuate between a purely scientific commitment (if such a stance can be taken) and a primarily politic claim.
Akin to a small town centre of the South American continent, Seven Sisters Market (SSM onwards) deploys a scenario of successive superimpositions of Antioquia-style architectural elements concealed in the interior of a former Edwardian department store and its adjacent terraced houses. Still today, an amalgam of multi-coloured furniture, regional decorations, goods spilt over the halls and varied construction materials, continues to shape a never-finishing setting where several family generations keep crafting their shops in the midst of active commercial activity. For twenty-eight years, SSM has provided a launching platform for small businesses. Together with food and goods, the market offers a range of services catering specifically to immigrant groups, primarily Latin-American, in need of legal advice, employment or accommodation.
Yet, a continued visit to the market starts to unveil a series of events, which also take place daily at this multi-cultural hub. In the early evenings, children of different ages appropriate the space with games and races, converting it at moments into their own self-made playground. Likewise, a group of mothers gather daily to watch TV and chat while they take care and breastfeed their babies. Twice a week, one could attend Gospel readings conducted by a priest, who provides religious and pastoral support. Recently, on Wednesdays, free soup has begun to be provided to those in need at Pueblito Paisa Café. Upon the mezzanines, English lessons are imparted to newcomers to the city. And so the list goes on. Over the years, the market has become a home, as traders and regular customers refer to it, or at least, a piece of that diffuse home with which migrant people build up their domesticity.
Not in vain, this particularity of the market is the outcome and also a reflection of a process of struggling, which has been headed by women.
SSM has been earmarked for redevelopment for over seven years, holding shopkeepers and employees in uncertain circumstances and hindering their chances to invest and thrive. In response, the traders in coalition with several neighbourhood associations and residents have carried out a long-range campaign to block the development project for Wards Corner building posed by Grainger Plc, a real-estate developer, and backed by Haringey Council through its regeneration plan for Tottenham. Over almost eight years, this effort of endurance and future projecting in common has strengthened a series of networks of sharing and mutual support among the shopkeepers and the other people involved. These actions have influenced the management and way of governance of the market itself. Arguably, caring has become a distinctive feature of SSM through which traders have created a framework of collaboration and doing together, that is to say commoning, that extends beyond the walls of the market to the neighbourhood and further.
The claim to look at caring as an essential component for economic development and human well-being has been an identity sign of the feminist movement. Back in the 70s, feminist activists and scholars asserted the imperative need to reconsider the role of the housewife and domestic work, highlighting the negligence and constraints of classical economics. Today, those challenges still in force have been enlarged by the new global dimension that the maintenance of life and its endangered sustainability have acquired (Pérez, 2014). The understanding of care, as argued by Schildberg (2014, p.2), is specific to a context, having different meanings in urban and rural areas and low-income or high-income countries. Nonetheless, what is common for every place is its persistent misrecognition and its general attribution to women. This invisibilisation of caring has been used by the capitalist market system in order to thrive and produce a surplus, expelling reproductive activities out from capitalist relations of production and relegating them to the private sphere. In so doing, the market economy has grown upon the expropriation of people´s commons, that is, the material and social conditions necessary for human life (Federici, 2012).
In the current widespread crisis of the last form of the market economy, namely neoliberalism, the claim and defence of the commons may play a relevant role not only as a material aspiration or mechanism of management but also as a political imaginary for a possible reconfiguration of the socioeconomic structure (Chatterton, 2010, p.627). This paper adds that, in asserting the commons (and the act of commoning), such transformation would place caring and reproduction at the core of the economy. In cities, where nowadays financial capitals fiercely reproduce through real-estate bubbles, the fight for the commons is opening up an arena of resistance and contestation against this devastating phenomenon. Likewise, the practice of commoning has already started to generate new economic and governance forms that displace the purely productivist and pro-growth logic of the hegemonic socio-economic system.
Yet, the multidimensional debates on caring and commoning have not yet succeeded in finding a linkage capable of enhancing their scope in the urban field. This research endeavours to build a bridge between the two, taking care practices as a catalyst of commoning in the city. The aim is to reflect on the causes, outcomes and potentials of this combined perspective in ongoing processes of urban regeneration. The case of SSM may well cast some light in this regard. The market in question currently finds itself in a situation of administrative impasse, where the various forces seem to have reached a technical draw. The tentative inspection of the base of the iceberg, which depicts this neighbourhood market, attempts also to bring into view what, it is argued, has been not only a successful tool of struggle and resistance but also a constitutive principle of urban fabric generation from the grassroots and against the predation of the financial capitals.