I grew up near Brixton and from as far back as I can remember it has always been a place of special significance. As a British person of Afro-Caribbean descent, Brixton plays an important role in my cultural narrative. It was Brixton where the first wave of Caribbean immigrants arriving in England in the late 40s laid their roots and built their lives; they brought with them their music, style and culinary traditions which transformed the town, infusing it with a distinctly West-indian feel and flavour. It was also Brixton where, in a culmination of outrage and indignation at anti- black policing and institutional discrimination in the 80s people rioted, and streets and stores were set furiously ablaze. Over the years, whilst the ethnic struggle continued, Brixton nevertheless came to be emblematic of a communal unity that transcended race. Even in the midst of chronic underfunding from both the public and private sectors resulting in pockets of poverty and high crime, Brixton represented a certain togetherness, where blacks and whites united, not by ignoring their cultural and racial distinctions, but by treating these differences as important constituents of a wider communal whole.
These somewhat halcyon days of cultural and racial unity now appear to be a thing of the past in Brixton. Like many areas in London, recent years have seen the town subjected to the invidious forces of gentrification. House prices have sky rocketed and the moneyed (predominantly white) middle-classes, looking for accommodation within reasonable distance to the city, have poured in. It isn’t that an alteration of demographics is itself a problem; London is a city that has historically undergone constant change as different peoples have mixed and mingled together throughout the ages. However, it is the tendency of gentrification to eschew cohabitation and to instead displace communities and cultures that is problematic. The rising rents in Brixton have pushed many local ethnic businesses out of the area and have forced many people, particularly poorer residents of colour, within the local community into cheaper accommodation elsewhere. The result? Brixton is becoming visibly less diverse and the racial and cultural unity that was once the hallmark of the town is fast evaporating.
On a recent visit to a pop-up restaurant and bar complex in the heart of Brixton, I was taken aback by the lack of diversity in what was once one of the most cosmopolitan parts of the town. Besides myself and a friend, the only minorities present were either serving or securing the people on the premises and the diversity of food on offer did little to disguise the conspicuous lack of diversity within the venue itself. Other observers have commented on this changing face of Brixton and remarked on what can only be described as an insidious sort of “ethnic cleansing” taking part as a result of its gentrification.
Some have argued in response to these concerns that gentrification has brought investment which has in turn improved Brixton. This argument is usually embodied by the expression that “a rising tide lifts all boats”. Whilst it is no doubt true that investment improves an area, if the original residents have been forced out of the housing and business markets, then the question is who does this investment improve the area for? As a corollary to this question, we also have to ask ourselves why does investment have to wait for new residents? Couldn’t investment in Brixton to clean up the streets and open up new commercial spaces have pre-dated the demographic shift which in turn could have created jobs and opportunities for those who needed them most? These questions cast doubt over the apparent benefits of the town’s gentrification.
The story of Brixton is indeed a tale of two towns. Unfortunately, whilst the new Brixton certainly has a veneer which is more polished than the old, these improvements have come at the expense of diversity and a slow and gradual eradication of the cultural and communal unity upon which Brixton built its name.