Stefan (right) and Adrian (left) in Green Onions
Stefan Finnis owns Green Onions Healthfood & Records on 6 Clifton Rise, New Cross, together with his business partner Adrian Ovari. Green Onions specialises in organic food, including a range of vegan and gluten-free foods, vinyl records, houseplants and garden essentials. The design of the shop has been carefully and lovingly thought through by Stefan and Adrian with the help of friends and family. For our conversation we sit in the corner of the shop by the window from where you can see across to the new development on the other side of the road. At first, Stefan and Adrian were planning to serve tea and coffee here but realised it would be too much work on top of everything else. Instead, they made this cosy corner for work meetings and chats like this one. As we chat and sip tea, I ask Stefan how he feels about the redevelopment plans in New Cross, and it is immediately clear from the response how strongly he feels about this:
“The regeneration of this area has an impact on all aspects of people’s lives, which is something the new communities that are coming in are less aware of. They just move into an area, wanting everything completely new, as though everybody can start anew at a whim. It ends up damaging for existing communities. We need a more gradual process of change! Change itself is not the issue, but how it happens and how it is being forced upon us, the way it is dictated and not negotiated, that is the issue. It feels very aggressive and it is designed by people who have little or no connection to the place they are changing. Money is the prime motivator now and decisions are influenced only by how much money can be made. The perverse idea that an area can be left to decline and suddenly go from degeneration to regeneration in a very short space of time doesn’t work. Good change can only happen over a long period of time and it can only work if people who are already in the area can stay to develop it rather than being moved on, because these people take with them everything an area such as New Cross is, leaving behind a shell.”
Stefan has experience with such processes and is very aware of the gap between the decision-makers and those on the ground. He used to be part of a bee-keeping project in Kennington Park, which needed to make way for a ventilation shaft in relation to the extension of the Northern Line. “It became very clear that, despite the consultations where developers and councillors acted as if they cared, decision-makers would always get what they wanted”, Stefan remembers. Stefan came to New Cross with this background, seeing history repeat itself in the early consultations about the redevelopment of Clifton Rise. “Three councillors attended one of the earlier meetings of the Achilles Residents Group, and the way they twisted and turned everything to their own advantage…the way they put down their arguments, it’s very clever. It felt so pre-planned and you could feel the mechanism to advance their own political careers. And basically, you’re up against people who are able to come into a room full of people without answering a single question. They appear to have an interest but they only come to get an idea of the opposition they’re facing. And you really get a sense of what you’re up against; there’s never going to be a fair outcome with people like that in the room. You do also feel that they are the ones sent from above to carry the message, but they’re also there for themselves, as this is how to establish their credentials as politicians. You feel there’s an agenda they know about, that there is a real plan that only they are privy to, and which they can’t let people know about, at any cost; they have to maintain a smokescreen. You’re dealing with people who are meant to represent the community, but you never feel this is what they’re doing. It’s a new generation of politicians being born in front of your eyes.”
We change the conversation to talk about the shop. Stefan explains how he and Adrian ended up in Clifton Rise, as this is a very important element of their business. “Adrian and I used to be involved in a shop called Dig this Nursery, situated between the former Hobgoblin pub (now The Rose pub) and the railway bridge, opposite New Cross Gate Station. The shop was a hybrid of healthfoods, plants and records, and we had a casual arrangement with the owner, who provided Adrian with a space to sell his records and offered me a workshop space in which to develop hand-made paper products, which I sold in the shop. The place became very important to the local community over a number of years, so when the Hobgoblin was sold on to new owners, the owner of Dig this Nursery was forced to move on. He relocated his shop to the site of Green Onions on Clifton Rise but moved out a few months later, leaving an empty space. We saw this as an opportunity to establish ourselves in our own business but we also wanted to keep something going that had been started: a place important to the local community. It takes time to establish something like a community space and it takes people time to get used to something new in their area, so we wanted continuity.”
As we chat, Ismail comes in and starts talking to Stefan. The two appear to know one another well, and they talk about the products Ismail is buying. Ismail comes in several times a week to buy herbs and other ingredients that are hard to find in the area. I introduce myself to him and ask him whether I can photograph him with Stefan. He immediately agrees and smiles at the camera. After I tell him where I was born, he recommends kombucha, a drink made of fermented tea which has similar health benefits to kefir, a drink he knows to be commonly consumed in Austria. He is clearly very knowledgeable about health foods. As I spend more time in the shop, I notice that many customers are regulars.
Stefan and Ismail
Stefan and Adrian rebuilt everything themselves, and for them Green Onions is more than just a shop. It is a space where people can meet and a space that can involve others such as the local artists and makers whose work is sold in the shop. “We wanted to make sure there was somewhere in the area that provides healthfoods, and one of the reasons we saw this as a good opportunity was that this particular location suits itself to our type of business”, Stefan explains. “Clifton Rise has a special energy; New Cross in itself has its own energy, but Clifton Rise is special. If New Cross has a centre, you could say it’s somewhere round here. It has something to do with how people move through the area, it’s a meeting of worlds, of historically richer and poorer communities; Clifton Rise is somewhere in the middle of those two.”
Stefan is aware that for some others their shop is a symptom of the gentrification in place, but he’s very clear that it’s necessary to keep in mind the processes involved in setting up such a business, particularly considering its history next to the Hobgoblin. “We were always very careful about the way we present a shop like this to people: we debated a lot about what to name it and it was important to avoid using words that would immediately exclude people.” Stefan and Adrian are well aware that their shop would be the first move of regeneration in this area but they did not anticipate the kind of regeneration that is happening now. “It’s a dilemma, because as a business we have to develop and with other businesses coming into the area we’ve had new customers too, but we did not see this kind of development coming. But in a sense our shop is also the antithesis of what is happening in the area. When we set up, there was this active intention, our philosophy if you will, that the shop would demonstrate a healthy community, a sense of continuity and of how you can do something on a budget through the use of existing materials that would otherwise have ended up in landfill. Most units in the shop are from recycled wood, prepared and installed by friends: the counter top is from an old night club, and the unit from a brand-new kitchen discarded in its original wrapping due to excessive overspending during the new development across the road.”
Ever since they found out about the plans to demolish all the shops on Clifton Rise, Stefan feels to be living in limbo. “It happened so soon after starting in 2015, although I guess we should have seen it coming.” Stefan has experienced something similar before, when he lived in Brixton, which he moved on from once it became more expensive. He now wonders whether he should stay with what they’ve built up in New Cross or whether to go somewhere where life feels more ‘normal’, having to take the risk of starting afresh. Many of his friends have already left London but he tries to keep positive: “I try to come back to my primary motivation which was an opportunity to take things to another level – to be self-sufficient…and deal with continual financial pressures. I do not want to see the energy that has been put into the shop go to waste. It also gave me purpose as I had found it difficult to put down roots in New Cross at first but now I feel more at home here. I live in one of the local housing communities and I have invested quite a lot into the life of that community as well.”
When I ask him what other motivations he has for keeping the shop going, he replies with: “People appreciate a shop like this in the area, it brings people together. I am proud because we employ three local people, and most of the artists and makers we work with live in the local area. If I want to measure the success of our business I can say that we have created jobs for ourselves and jobs for local people, and we are also giving local people the opportunity to put their work out there. One or two of the people whose work we sell have even gone on to bigger things since we opened the shop. The shop has provided them with a platform to establish themselves in the same way that we were given the opportunity in Dig this Nursery. That was a tradition Adrian and I agreed we should keep going, and this gives us a real sense of what you can do when working together; it’s a microcosm of how we see a healthy community functioning. If you take this away, you immediately feel the impact on other areas of life.”
This impact becomes clear when Stefan talks about the profound, life-changing impact closing the shop would have on his life, and listening to this gives me the goosebumps. “This will be a huge loss of something, of something I have invested a lot of energy in. It can’t be recreated. The end of this shop would be the beginning of the end of my life in London, it would be the final straw. It would be the end of a person living in London who has wanted to contribute and get actively involved in his local area and community. This loss of people who want to contribute is brain drain; it is a loss to London as a city and to the communities living in areas such as New Cross that make up the city. This process is threatening an organism, the diversity of the city, and people leaving is doing serious damage to areas.”
At this point, Stefan needed to get back to work, and as I was leaving, the shop was packed with customers from all different backgrounds in terms of age, gender, class and ethnicity. A woman expressed interest in the bags hanging at the front of the shop, bags I had been admiring when waiting for Stefan. She bought two bags and Stefan explained that the maker is a local artist who makes the bags herself at home. I buy the one that had caught my eye earlier and Stefan tells me that he met the artist, an elderly Jamaican lady, at an art fair and invited her to sell her bags in his shop. He sometimes visits her to have tea and a chat. Having witnessed the kind relationship Stefan has with his customers, I leave with a very warm feeling in my heart.