Mark Muldoon went to Pop Brixton on the opening weekend and reviews it for us here
So what is Pop Brixton? Definitely not a new Boxpark, the owners are very keen to argue that. Pop Brixton offers food, drink, shopping, and creative/events space. It’s a ‘pioneering new space in the heart of Brixton’ according to the fluffy official website blurb. And indeed, what could be more pioneering than recycling shipping containers into a new creative retail environment? These are clearly unchartered waters London finds itself in, not comparable to, say, that time in 2011 when Boxpark opened a new creative retail environment made from recycled shipping containers in Shoreditch. Or when The Artworks opened, offering ‘a new creative hub of street food & drink, local, creative & media businesses’ in recycled shipping containers in Elephant & Castle. Or even Boxpark Croydon, which touts its ‘vibrant commercial, retail and leisure destination’ made from – we are promised – recycled shipping containers. A harsh critic may be tempted to suggest that the only genuinely pioneering thing about Pop Brixton is how insistent the owners are that it not be called the new Boxpark. The rest of us, meanwhile, should probably consider the repercussions of this new world of Boxparks we live in. This is England’s path now. Gothic – Renaissance – Brutalism – Boxparks.
Boxpark Brixton – sorry, Pop Brixton – opened 5pm, Friday May 29, perfectly timed for the end of office hours, and perfectly situated between my office and the pub. I was only too happy, therefore, to fit in a visit on my way between the two. The official Twitter account had other ideas however, screaming an IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT that due to what I’d personally describe as not-exactly-monsoon levels of rain earlier in the day, the complex would be opening an hour later instead. We return instead hours later, not really realising that it’s already 11:50pm. You can only imagine our dismay as we found the party already over for the night.
The next day provides a whole new opportunity for adventuring in Pop Brixton. Their Twitter account helpfully advises they are opening at 9am. Then rather confusingly it changes its mind to 6pm. Then it has another change of heart and plumps for 2pm. Then 4pm. Then 2pm again until it eventually settles on a sixth-time-lucky opening hour of 4pm. Arriving, it’s apparent that if they are experiencing teething problems, a lack of customers isn’t one of them – the place is heaving. By 5pm, queues have formed for the women’s toilets. One wonders how they’ll cope by 10pm. This is the late twenties/early thirties Brixtonite set out in force. You’re never sure with such a crowd – many could of course have got Übers here from Clapham, but today everybody seems to be of quite tolerable nature, so you’d have to assume not.
It’s worth, at this point, looking into possible reasons why Pop Brixton may be considered a Commendable Community Project. In fact, it seems one can offer up a list: 200 new jobs in Brixton; Lambeth Council are providing the land at no cost; Pop are paying staff the living wage as well as ‘encouraging’ their tenants to do the same (I’m sure negotiations probably aren’t too tough, but let’s revel in the small victories); tenants have to volunteer an hour a week sharing skills with Brixton residents and businesses; there’s a training and events space available to locals for free; 85% of traders have at least at some point been based in Lambeth; twelve (living wage, again) apprentices from Lambeth College are helping build the thing; and there’s a tangible feeling that even at this early stage it’s a tightly-knit, good natured group of small traders.
Those small businesses that are relatively established are paying £800-2,500 rent a month, which is still quite a lot for small businesses, as this publication has pointed out in its front page story this month. Pop Brixton would reply that these rents will subsidise the 50%-or-less rents being offered to 8-10 new startups. But as we’ve already learned, Lambeth Council is giving Pop Brixton this enormous prime retail location for free. So, isn’t that enough to subsidise the startups? Maybe you can recall 2009, when Brixton started along its long course of regeneration/gentrification. Traders were offered vacant units in Brixton Village for free for three months, so why are startups paying up to 50% of the market value of rent, when Pop Brixton aren’t themselves paying any?
It’s interesting to wonder if Boxpark will birth any gifts to the larger world, like how Brixton Village gave us Honest Burger and Franco Manca. Does Brixton need more places for food and drink though? Pop Brixton argues ‘yes’. It calls to mind the ancient law that if somebody feels the need to state why something isn’t an issue, you might take it as an indicator to start considering whether or not it is an issue. Pop Brixton say that they will draw additional people to Brixton, and that the new outlets will complement those already established.
It’s an undeniably pretty place to linger. Furnishings are rough ply-wood – bound to give somebody a splinter at some point. There are many food options, of course. Pachos (£6) from Baba G’s are the highlight of opening weekend – nachos swapped for mini popadoms and covered in mint cumin raitha, coriander salsa, chilli pickles and fresh mango pulp. I ask a bystander to choose between never getting to eat Pachos or nachos ever again. She firmly says she’s coming out to bat for Team Pachos. And she’s absolutely right.
Elsewhere, at Donostia Social Club,a chorizo & piquillo peppers pintxo (small Spanish snack, all £3) doesn’t bring much invention to the table but works because of chorizo’s obvious infallibility as an ingredient in any sandwich ever. Their braised Iberico pork cheek with butter bean purée & herb oil falls just short of being memorable. The Jollof Spiced Fried Chicken from Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen has a wonderful texture – knobbly and extra crunchy, like a savoury Toffee Crisp bar. As a result, the relative lack of flavour (and under-supply of shito mayo) was upsetting. Miss P’s BBQ may be better off skipped for now, as they don’t start offering their well-regarded cajan catfish option for another week. If, meanwhile, the multiple outlets of spice have all become a bit much for you, head for Yumitub, where they might make some of their winningly creamy Bailey’s ice cream to order, right in front of your eyes.
The number of food markets in Brixton is now accelerating at an insane pace. We make a third and final trip to Pop Brixton (like any epic, this has three acts – drunk, hungover, drinking again) on Saturday evening. There was no need to be concerned about the impending toilet crisis: the complex is actually noticeably quieter than during the day. There was also time to take stock and see how Brixton’s other food markets are holding up: Brixton Village was rammed as ever. Brixton Night Market in Windrush Square was almost at the point you’d describe as ‘steady business’ (you’ll have to let me know if their blisteringly loud DJ booth was putting you off too). Just a few weeks old itself, Granville Market Space (opposite Fish, Wings & Tings on Coldharbour Lane) felt like an unintentionally low-key affair.
As we leave late on Saturday evening, I get a splinter. It’s not enough to stop me recommending that you pay Pop Brixton a visit, though. I’d like to let you know what time they’re opening, but I’m afraid you’re on your own there.
Mark Muldoon is on Twitter, and Instagram.