Salad days in the layers of Leather Lane

I’ve been in London and Brighton recently, getting back out into the world. I’ve been uploading a bunch of pictures over here on Flickr, just gathering a bunch of things I’ve noticed in the layers of these places. It’s not ‘the new normal’, but a walk through a city today can be instructive in terms of what forms of renewal are taking place.

One interesting experience in particular was Leather Lane yesterday in the sun.

Leather Lane, London, 16th May 2022

Formerly a fashion stall street (hence the name, and vestiges of which still persist), for a good while now it’s been home to a stretch of pop-up food stalls, coffee shops, restaurants and more. Perhaps as the food scene in London grew, it squeezed out the fashion stalls to some extent.

Leather Lane at this moment is an interesting living example of how thinking about the layers of social and material cultures (à la Zenko Mapping) can help you to spot interesting things in environments.

Take this example, the seemingly closed Chick (a falafel and schnitzel place; I’ll let you work it out…). I’d eaten there a couple of times maybe in the past, so it grabbed my attention when I saw it was closed.

Of course, Leather Lane has never been that short of Falafel stalls. Indeed, as the lunch crowds have started to come back, there’s a Falafel stall right in front of where Chick was. It’s not that unexpected, really; there’s known demand in the area, and it’s a fairly easy and versatile sheet food. You just need to quickly cook one type of thing, then serve it up in a variety of ways with wraps, salads, and so on.

In uncertain times, I suppose having an on-street food license is much lower risk than taking out a lease on the building behind. And with lower overheads comes more experimentation, as it means people can be quicker to jump on trends.

It’s notable, for instance, that on the sign they make a point of these wraps being vegan. Maybe all falafel wraps always were, but it’s now just a better thing to lead with as more and more people turn vegan.

However, just across from the vegan falafel stall was an Argentinian steak place. Mortal enemies of the Vegan Falafel Gang, I’m sure.

But looking closely at their stall, I spotted… well, can you spot it?

That’s right, you’ve got it. It’s an old napkin tray from Chick, the closed falafel place across the street.

How did it get here? Did any of the crew setting up the Argentinian Steak place used to work at Chick, and take it on the way out? Was it left on the street as part of a clear out? Was it stolen by a drunk customer sometime in March 2020, and left in an alley?

The answer is: ‘we don’t know’. But we might find out more by asking people.

Observations from the environment, moving through the layers from hundred-year-old restaurant buildings to branded napkin trays can only get you so far. They’re certainly a good hint for where interesting stories may lie. But the social layers that overlap with the material will offer richer, deeper insights.

Who’s running the stall? Who owns it? How long have they been working on Leather Lane? How well do they know other stall holders, or customers? Is it the same customers who came before, or new ones? Are they still working in the same jobs? Are they in London as much as they were?

Spot things. Ask people questions. Repeat. And you can even grab a falafel whilst you do it.

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