Shop Local: How run-down Calvert Avenue turned a corner and became so trendy
- Credit: Mike Brooke
Leila McAlister signed the lease in 2002 for her greengrocery shop in Calvert Avenue that had been empty 13 years because it was considered “unletable” and derelict.
Now this fashionable thoroughfare with Arnold Circus at one end and Shoreditch High Street at the other has turned the corner and is at the heart of the London’s heritage renaissance.
It is spearheading a campaign to go back to local shopping launched by the East London Advertiser to help the community in recovery.
Calvert Avenue is unique, the centrepiece of the world’s first municipal housing complex opened 120 years ago and still run by the local authority.
“But what’s threatening us is rent,” Leila will have it. “We have no rent regulation in this country.
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“This neighbourhood has become so fashionable that the council is at liberty to raise rent to market rates at any point.
“A grocery shop is never going to compete with fashion handbag or luxury clothing shops.”
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The shop owners helped set up the East End Trades Guild in 2012 to fight off rocketing rents and incursions from the big stores moving into neighbourhoods pushing up property values for business rates.
“We always blame consumers for not supporting local businesses,” Leila admits.
“But in my experience it’s mostly lack of rent control. Businesses mostly move out because they can’t afford the rent.”
The traders are all Tower Hamlets Council business tenants who have been offered rent deferment till next March because of the three-month Covid closure for non-essential businesses.
They have also asked the mayor for a three-month rent free period and maybe three months at half rent to recover. They are waiting to hear back by the end of the month.
Leila was lucky to have stayed open as an essential business. “It’s brilliantly designed as a greengrocers,” she points out.
“There’s venting back and front that creates cool air circulating. We hardly need to refrigerate the vegetables.”
Her store, the second premises she has rented along this parade of shops, actually opened as a greengrocer’s back in 1900 when Calvert Avenue was built and continued until 1964.
Leila has turned that last 120 years a full circle, selling only natural, unprocessed produce without all the pop-up plastics that we have put up with in the environmentally-aware world we live in today.
Her business has a loyal and local following. It now takes phone orders for collection and has started home deliveries within a mile radius for the elderly and those who can’t make it easily to the shops.
“Our primary focus is on neighbourhood customers,” Leila enthuses. “I work directly with growers in Kent and Sussex and feel passionately about marketing natural food, unprocessed and unpackaged. We use paper bags here.”
Leila borrows a cargo bike in the afternoons from the Phytology medicinal garden, a project with a mobile apothecary dispensing herbal remedies to the homeless.
That’s Calvert Avenue for you, all neighbourly and friendly. The tradesfolk just need some friendly people to “shop local”.