New Internationalist

Brixton Blues

Issue 385

Paul Bakalite reflects on the creeping changes to the community he loves.

Brixton is a multi-ethnic community south of the River Thames in London that, since the influx of West Indians to Britain in the years after the Second World War, has become arguably the most significant centre of Caribbean-British culture in the country. It is also, or at least was, a centre of counter-culture and became infamous in the early 1980s. Back then both black and white youths were driven to riot in the streets in protest against racist policing and the prevailing poverty of the times. Conditions have improved, but Brixton is now facing a kind of social division that would have been difficult to conceive of 20 years ago. It’s becoming inhospitable for those without fat wallets. It has turned into a fashionable location for young professionals to buy property.

I came to live in Brixton in the late 1980s. Looking back, I now see what I found here: acceptance and somewhere to belong. I am an articulate man (although a product of nothing greater than an ordinary British secondary-modern school and without a university education) and I am white. Even so, because I am gay, I know how prejudice can gnaw at a person’s sense of self-worth, especially if they start on you early. Brixton always welcomed refugees – those seeking refuge – and a lot of people rejected elsewhere have gravitated here over the years. There is something special here, an atmosphere of acceptance and understanding that Brixton has because of its history, its peoples and as a legacy of its troubles. There is cohesion across the varying communities of blacks, whites and others. And a rightful defiance of anyone who’d dare push Brixton people around. In Brixton the marginal and the outsiders of the wider world can be insiders. This cohesion is now under increasing threat from people who sometimes aren’t even aware that their own emotional security and sense of entitlement gives them power – because they’ve always had it. These people give little thought to what it’s like outside majority culture – because they’ve never been outside. When I washed up here the best part of 20 years ago I was more naïve, I’ll admit, but I wasn’t like some of the upscale people who arrive in Brixton now. I didn’t tell the cannabis dealers, on my doorstep back then, to ‘get off my property’. I got to know them. They were there first. It was their street – not mine. The cohesion I mention relies on mutual respect. Some of the newer residents just don’t get it. Some of them couldn’t care less!

Brixton’s current fashionability was largely built on the backs of black Caribbean people and of poorer people in general, including the Irish. And arty, radical types from all over helped cement it together. Now many are left out of this fashionability or have been forced out. Not everyone can afford to be a home-owner or is a career high-flyer, but Brixton is being repackaged by and for wealthy, conservative consumers. Poorer people can’t settle in this neighbourhood any more as they can’t afford the rents here. Many existing poorer people can’t stay. Dissident minds struggle to keep brotherhood here. Residents who don’t fit in with recent conformism (and Brixton’s current fashionability is a form of conformism) can sometimes feel crushed by the demands of professional people who’ve read that Brixton is ‘hip’, moved in recently and want everything remoulded in their image. Brixton, with its sometime bad reputation, is an area some of these people would previously have never considered a place they could live. They show no real affinity for it. They attempt (and will fail) to control it. They refuse to engage with it.

The area has been undergoing a process commonly referred to as ‘gentrification’. A process residents of areas such as the Mission District of San Francisco or Victoria Island in Lagos or the Cabbage Town area of Toronto and numerous other communities will be familiar with. But trendy bars and gated housing developments do not a happy community make. Many existing locals find the new prosperity and the new drinking and entertainment venues excluding, expensive or just plain irrelevant. ‘Market forces’ ensure that the needs of those with the deepest pockets are met. Meanwhile schools, social housing and sports facilities are often left in poor repair or are sold.

Under the overall control of Mayor Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Authority, London is governed by no less than 32 separate borough councils. Brixton is in Lambeth, one of the largest of the London boroughs. Lambeth Council has recently produced a booklet called Revitalise. It’s about their plans to regenerate the borough. For Brixton more ‘café culture’ is on the menu. The writers of this booklet claim there is a widespread desire for more cafés and restaurants. They don’t say how many people desire this or who they are. ‘Café culture’ has become a cliché of urban renewal. It is superficial.

In the double-page spread Revitalise reserves for Brixton there is no mention at all of black Britons or the significance of Brixton to Caribbean people. Other minority communities that have made Brixton their home are also disregarded. There are approximately 140 languages spoken in Lambeth – the most common after English are Portuguese and Yoruba. This might as well count for nothing. Photographs show streets empty of life – ripe for redevelopment.

Lambeth Council is often accused of institutional racism. An employment tribunal ruling last August found Alex Owolade, a council employee who was fired after exposing racist practice, had been subject to racial discrimination. The panel ordered his reinstatement but the Council has refused to take Owolade back.

Lambeth Council grants planning permission for ‘luxury’ housing at the drop of a hat. Yet a lot of long-established people and businesses in Brixton, including many smaller black-owned businesses, struggle just to stay where they are. There has been no recognition of the creative contribution that the predominantly white squatting culture once made to this area either – there was the highly successful ‘Cooltan’ community arts centre and ‘121’ in Railton Road, the anarchist bookshop and café, for example. ‘Dirty squatters’ was the extent of Lambeth Council’s understanding as it swept such organizations away, either selling their premises or leaving the buildings unused and abandoned.

A short distance from Brixton town centre, again in Railton Road, a newer neighbour has petitioned the Council to close down Harmony, a long-established pub mostly used by people of Caribbean descent. Keith Henry, the landlord (a reasonable man who has listened to legitimate noise complaints) tells me that the most vehement complainant has never even set foot in the place. ‘It’s ignorance, they fear me,’ Keith says, with obvious sadness. More accepting locals of varied backgrounds have defended the pub.

Although Revitalise doesn’t even bother trying, Lambeth Council publicity generally pays lip service to the idea that ‘vibrant, multicultural Brixton’ should be celebrated. Lip service is all it turns out to be. It is hard to trust Lambeth Council even a little. Designating Brixton a ‘cultural quarter’, while at the same time mainstreaming it and forcing out the unconventional, the mad, the poor, or those narrowly perceived as ‘undesirable’, is neither compatible nor just. It was through the very marginality of some of these Brixton people that the area’s creativity was born.

What happens to the former patrons of Harmony, and Mr Henry’s livelihood, if newer neighbours succeed in having the pub closed or it becomes an exclusive bar? What happens when there are no cheap cafés, selling egg and chips? What happens when the Council’s criminal neglect of Brixton’s famous street markets causes their ultimate demise? What happens when jerk-chicken is only available with a side-salad and a glass of white wine and it costs $25? What of so-called ‘vibrant, multicultural Brixton’ then? Will it only be available in first-class?

It seems to me that some people only want a part of Brixton if it’s ‘hip and edgy’ at some distance or filtered through their own upmarket tastes. And in truth, aren’t words like ‘hip’, ‘edgy’ and ‘vibrant’ often the words real-estate agents or magazines use instead of talking plainly about blacker areas of town? The tastes of some of the newer residents of Brixton are bland and suffocating of real culture. Their attitudes are a form of control and oppression. And the established order tends to support such oppression, sometimes through the police (that’s another story) or through institutions such as Lambeth Council.

Similar stories of unsuccessful urban renewal can be found in other London neighbourhoods and in cities across Britain. We are told it’s for the good of us all, but wherever it happens, it always goes the same way. The area becomes more upmarket, to the advantage of only a few. The regeneration of Hoxton in East London has even been declared a failure officially. In a consultation paper published by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport the Government recognized that the arrival of fashionable venues has squeezed out local people and left unemployment levels unchanged. In wider research carried out by the London School of Economics earlier this year, Britain was found to have one of the worst records for social mobility in the developed world. In other words, the money tends to stay in the hands of the people who already have it, wherever they choose to live.

When I first moved to Brixton, Eddy Grant’s early 1980s pop-reggae tune ‘Electric Avenue’ could still be regularly heard on the radio. It talked of poverty and violence and asked whom to blame. Visit Electric Avenue today (one of Brixton’s grandest and most historic streets) and it is as dilapidated as ever. There are still big problems and deprivations here. But now they are wreathed by exclusivity and the affluence of an élite. Whether you blame ‘market forces’, the policies of the Council or the blinkered and fearful demands of the professional classes, to me there’s no doubt that this division exists and that it is destructive to Brixton’s more long-standing communities.

Paul Bakalite lives in Brixton and campaigns locally on environmental and social issues.

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