Brixton was once the cultural capital of the UK's Afro-Caribbean community. Gentrification has changed its identity.
At Brixton Recreation Centre in South London, many of the young and middle-aged men pumping iron greet each other endearingly with hugs, handshakes and fist bumps.
There is a sense of camaraderie rare within British public spaces.
Carl, a down-to-earth youth worker in his late forties, has been coming here most of his life. He feels gentrification has changed the atmosphere in the wider area and BRC is one of the last remaining hubs of the once close-knit community.
“The people that are coming into Brixton now are coming in with a perceived mindset of what they’ve been told by the media about people like me, a black man. They double-check their wallets are safe when they walk past me.
“Their head is filled with media reporting of how people of colour are breaking Covid rules and have it in higher numbers or whatever, and they see me and quickly put their masks on before they walk past me.
“They look at locals who have been here for decades and see us as suspects."
Brixton- a district in South London- was once the cultural capital of the UK's Afro-Caribbean community. Many settled here from the 1940s onwards as the government encouraged West Indian migrants to come and boost the country's economy shattered by World War Two.
However, over the past twenty years the council has sold much of its housing to private property developers. In the ten years to 2016 it reduced its housing stock by 5,000 and property prices have risen 76 percent since 2011.
The new wealth is bringing in a growing number of white middle class residents and ‘urban tourists’ with new restaurants and pubs in the centre increasingly catering for such clientele. There are extravagant Italian and French restaurants where there used to be humble Caribbean takeaways.
There are plans for more changes.
US property developer Hondo Enterprises owns many prime commercial premises in Brixton. Its proposal to build a twenty-one storey office block was initially approved by the council but strong opposition from locals against the hyper-marketization of their community has led to the Mayor of London pausing the plan pending the outcome of a public consultation.
Hondo Enterprises’ existing property takeovers in Brixton have already led to the eviction of thirty artists from their studio spaces. Nour Cash and Carry, in business for over 20 years selling a diverse range of food at affordable prices, was served with an eviction notice last year. Community protests in defence of the grocer eventually led to an agreement with Hondo that it could relocate to a different site.
“It’s like Israel in Palestine. They come in here saying ‘I can do what I want and leave everyone else out’”, reflects Carl. “They rip out the community.”
Steadman Scott is a rare being. When he speaks one can almost feel the vibration of each word reverberating through his entire body. He is fully present, alive and thriving-not just surviving and playing the game- a far cry from the stooping, stiff, coffee guzzling office workers so common on the streets of London.
From BRC he runs Afewee Training Centre which includes a football academy for children. Since starting in 1997 thirty of his alumni have gone on to join Premier League teams; one was in England's national team and every division in England currently has at least one Afewee alumni.
He’s lived in Brixton since arriving here as a ten-year-old from Jamaica in 1967. He’s seen it at its worst when there was high crime, low employment and perpetual police harassment of young black men.
Steadman was nearly uprooted by gentrification himself when in 2012 attempts were made to move the centre to a smaller location and replace it with shops.
His concern is the materialist, corporate culture championed by the forces of gentrification, such as Hondo Enterprises, - a culture which he feels conditions people to be mechanical and ultimately suppresses the human spirit in the name of maximising profit. He sees this as an extension of other forms of suppression which have stifled humanity for centuries, such as colonisation and slavery.
He is determined to develop independent young locals who don’t need to buy into such a system.
“It won’t be people from Brixton that work in those offices (in the proposed tower). Many might aspire to but is that a dream worth having? What we have to do is re-educate our youngsters. Our folks always told us to get educated to get a job. But then your future is controlled by the system, by the company.
“We give kids the fighting mentality in the sporting context- a mentality they can use to succeed in a cold, racist, soulless world. They might not make it in football but they will still be able to go and do something for themselves because of the discipline we give them”.
He describes the racial division created by gentrification. “Most of the new people coming in, white people, they go straight past the black shops and go to Pop Brixton or Brixton Village. How does that help the people of colour here? They won’t be getting business from the new commuters. All these food stalls here: Ethiopian, Senegalese, all that will be gone”.
Afewee is Jamaican patois meaning 'it’s for us' and Scott says for him us means everybody. “Afewee don’t have any colour barrier. We are fighting for equality for everything. I have white parents bringing their children here so they can learn in a multicultural environment”.
He feels the economic barriers that further gentrification will bring will undermine his work to remove colour barriers.
Not All Bad For Locals
Michael Groce is a poet and community relations worker. His mother moved here from Jamaica in the fifties. In 1985 she was shot and paralysed by police sparking two days of riots. A mural partly dedicated to her was painted this year in the district.
For him, Brixton is not gentrifying fast enough. He recalls the sixties when there were housing shortages, overcrowding, rat-infested buildings and intense stand-offs with police and rival gangs. “It was a violent and uncomfortable area to live in”.
Although he himself can no longer afford to live here he has seen many long-residing locals benefiting from increased property prices.
“You have families that came from the Caribbean and have been there for fifty, sixty years. Now their homes are worth £1. 5 million ($2.8 million). The regeneration is not all bad for the local community and it’s almost a swear word to admit that”.
Elements of the long-standing Caribbean community deeply value spiritual development over wealth accumulation. But for Groce, the corporatization of the community has not been a bad thing. “My daughter now owns a pharmacy there and I’ve another daughter who is a property developer building for the homeless. It’s allowed for upward social mobility in my family”.
Nor does he personally see gentrification as widening racial inequalities. “The corporates have a business model that works a certain way and it’s not to do with the colour of my skin”.
Unfortunately, despite benefitting some, that ‘certain way’ of doing things clearly disrupts communities and threatens livelihoods as the successful and attempted evictions of artists, Nour and BRC show. When communities are disrupted it is the most vulnerable that are worst affected and all too often in the UK that happens to be people of colour.