“The place-makers no one ever talks about”: an ode to the corner shop

A corner shop in Hornchurch, east London. Image: Getty.

When I think of all the different places I’ve lived, the first things I remember are my local newsagents. When I was younger and living with a somewhat chaotic life at home, I spent as much time out of the house as possible, usually hanging around outside a local row of shops with my friends under the watchful eyes of the shopkeepers at the paper shop and the convenience shop next door.

This paper shop gave me my first taste of independence when they gave me a paper round: my own money for sweets and Smash Hits which I’d spend before Saturday even came around. After a bad day at school I’d stop into the same shop and console myself with a big bag of crisps and a can of coke before facing going home.

When I was a bit older and unemployed, the only contact I had with the outside world for days on end was the newsagents over the road, where i bought packets of pasta for lunch or a snack to break up the day. These types of shops have provided me with samosas on my way home from work late at night, and Lucozade and chocolate bars that provided a respite from essay writing at uni, not to mention electricity and gas on my token to keep me warm in winter.     

There are tens of thousands of newsagents and similar small shops up and down the UK, all with similar, familiar characteristics, but all of them unique in their own way. They are a welcome break from the monotony of small supermarkets where you’ll find pretty much the same offerings no matter which city you’re in and which remain unchanged with the passage of time.

Newsagents and similar smaller shops are different. You go in never knowing which new flavour of drinks or crisps you might find in there. And they’re better able to respond directly to the needs of the local community making them completely of the place they are based. I’ve just got back from the Scottish island of Islay where their newsagent at first looked like any other on the mainland – until, that is, I saw the range of fishing hooks nestled alongside their unusually large selection of fancy soft drinks. 


Their customers tend to be diverse too. There aren’t enough places left in our cities that can be and are used by a wide range of people, but newsagents are one of those places. The shop across the road from the Civic Centre in Southampton has residents buying their daily newspapers, local government officers and councillors grabbing a sandwich or coffee before a meeting, and visitors to the city often asking for directions to the train station. My boss once told me a story about how he ended up behind Harold Wilson in a queue to buy a newspaper on the Isles of Scilly. 

Why have I been motivated to write this niche ode to newsagents? Because newsagents are the place- makers that no one ever really talks about when they talk about placemaking. They are part of what makes our urban spaces liveable, part of the delicate balance of how we use cities day in day out. But they are unfortunately dying out – and many that remain are struggling to survive. 

Part of the problem is the decline in print media, which will of course be having an effect on shops that were originally set up to provide people with their daily news. But the problem also lies in how we are regenerating, rebuilding and planning our cities today. Regeneration happens through bigger scale developments that are carefully planned out with chains in mind. Lip service is paid to the idea of “mixed use”, as every development provides retail units under blocks of flats and near housing – but these units are on a scale only suited to bigger businesses. We are getting rid of the types of low rent spaces that newsagents pop up in. 

I’m not someone who thinks chains have no place at all in our towns and cities. They often provide food, either to cook at home or to eat in a restaurant, at a price that makes eating well a lot cheaper. But they aren’t going to let you off with 20p if you’ve not got enough for milk that day. Mix is important. We need these small spaces that encourage conversation, where someone would notice if you stopped coming in for a while. Places where the person running the shop lives nearby and understands the nuances of a community. These are the places that are being planned out of our cities and towns – and that’s not good for healthy urban living.

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.