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Photograph: KarlaLizatheHunter
Photograph: KarlaLizatheHunter

What everyone can learn from the struggle to save London’s Latin Village

‘There’s all these little communities around London, and this is the Latin American one’

Angela Hui
Chiara Wilkinson
Written by
Angela Hui
&
Chiara Wilkinson
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We're closing off 2021 re-sharing some of our favourite pieces of the year. In October, we wrote about the campaign to save London's Latin Village. 

‘It’s like walking into a little vortex,’ says Stefanie Alvarez. ‘As soon as you step inside, you smell empanadas. There’s always music blaring – you’d have salsa on one side, reggaeton playing somewhere else. It’s a secret until you walk in: you don’t really know what to expect.’

Alvarez is talking about Latin Village. Known by some as the ‘Pueblito Paisa’, it occupies the ground floor of a former Edwardian department store in Seven Sisters Market, South Tottenham. During the 1970s, it began to accumulate a plethora of small Latin American businesses, offering culturally specific foods and products that were hard to find elsewhere in London. There were barbers, music shops, money transfer stores, convenience shops and cafés. But it was more than just a shopping destination: children ran around playing games, friends sipped beer and couples danced together as days turned to dusk. It was a nucleus, offering a vital source of friendship and mutual aid for Latinx people across London. 

‘I feel like it’s always been a place where you can come and enjoy your culture if you are specifically from a Latin American background,’ says Alvarez, who is the co-chair of Latin Village. ‘And there's not many places like that in London.’ But like many of the city’s more unusual spaces, it’s also spent years having to fight for survival. 

Couple dancing to Alejandra Santamaria performing at the Merca E
Photograph: Karla Lizethe Hunter

An unwinnable battle? 

Today, Latin Village stands as London’s only remaining Latin market, following the decision to demolish the Elephant & Castle shopping centre – home to another cluster of Latin American businesses – in 2019, to make way for a new high-rise retail space. Forty independent traders were left with no premises to relocate to. 

Until last month, Latin Village’s future looked equally dire. A multi-million-pound property developer, Grainger PLC, had plans to erect around 190 build-to-rent flats on the site – a development which included no affordable housing provision. The flats would have required the demolition of the historic Wards Corner building and market, taking with it this Latin American microcosm. 

Grainger had been eyeing up the site for nearly 20 years and received planning permission to develop the TfL-owned Wards Corner site from Haringey Council in 2012. But while they were busy plotting their development project, an alternative plan was in the works. A campaign group called Save Latin Village drew up a tentative community plan. It proposed that the Seven Sisters Market building would be managed entirely by traders and locals, and rather than shooting money offshore or into the pockets of property mammoths, while any profit from rent would be reinvested into the area. 

Before the plan could be implemented, locals needed to make sure the market wouldn’t be knocked down. Headed by Mirca Morera, they organised protests, raised legal funds and appealed against the compulsory purchase order for the market’s demolition at the Royal Courts of Justice. But their appeal was unsuccessful and it felt like Latin Village’s battle could not be won. That’s despite United Nations human rights experts warning in 2017 that the demolition would have a ‘deleterious impact on the dynamic cultural life of the diverse people in the area’.

Writing the next chapter

Then the unbelievable happened. On August 4 2021, Grainger PLC abandoned its multi-million-pound property plan, citing rising building costs and the strength of community opposition as reasons for pulling out. Years of campaigning had paid off. ‘The nightmare is over,’ says Victoria Alvarez, Stefanie’s mother and a Colombian trader at Latin Village. ‘I can’t put into words what it feels like for all of us.’ 

Still, today, Latin Village looks very different to how it did before the pandemic. It’s quiet and faded: passers-by oblivious to the once-bustling community inside. Only a small handful of traders at the front of Seven Sisters Market are still operating, with most businesses remaining shut because the centre urgently needs refurbishment. To tide them over, trading licensees received grants from TfL before the market closed in March 2020, and the Mayor of London recently signed a Mayoral decision asking TfL to provide further financial support. 

Now it’s crucial that the community plan is implemented so that Latin Village can fully reopen, safely and sustainably. It has started well: the plan has been granted planning approval and won support from Haringey Council, as well as backing from TfL. This is potentially a blueprint for a new kind of urban regeneration – where rents remain affordable, where social spaces are given priority and where traders are given a vital voice – change with people rather than cash at its heart.

Alvarez hopes that eventually the building will be properly restored and trading will be introduced to the two other floors which have been completely vacant for 40 years, so that Latin Village can grow rather than wither away.

Inside Latin Village
Photograph: Karla Lizethe Hunter

Overcoming obstacles

While they work to establish a longer-term solution, TfL is proposing a strategy to provide short-term and medium-term temporary market spaces. The short-term market could open by spring next year on the current site. But the community plan will take a long, long time to realise, with the medium-term site not estimated to open until 2023. 

And getting there will not be without its many challenges, as recent events underlined. According to traders, on September 25, TfL took possession of the indoor units to prepare for the creation of the short-term market, without any forewarning or prior consultation. The next night, some traders returned to occupy the space, and locals rallied outside. 

Meanwhile, a spokesperson from TfL said: ‘On September 25, one of our units, which our contractors had previously taken possession of, was reoccupied illegally. We are looking to take legal action to resecure the unit, but also continue to seek an agreement for the occupiers to leave peacefully as soon as possible. Both would allow critical health-and-safety works to commence, which is a crucial step in allowing us to enable the market to trade again safely as soon as possible.’ 

It will take sensitive collaboration between all parties to ensure the future of Latin Village. But as more and more pockets of London are eclipsed by soulless toytown flats, Latin Village’s continued strength will show similar campaigns that things aren’t always as hopeless as they may seem. 

‘There’s all these little subcultures and communities around London, and this is the Latin American one,’ says Alvarez. ‘The fact we've preserved it for future generations is definitely a big win. It shows that people genuinely can make a difference to where they live and have their say to influence what happens in that area.’ 

A series of public meetings have been scheduled for people to find out more about Latin Village’s future plans and to voice their concerns. You can find out more here 

Latin Village is at Seven Sisters Market, 233 High Rd, N15 5BT.

Find more neighbourhood London stories with our Love Local strand.

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