Brixton has always been a middle class area. This is evident from the large Victorian and Edwardian properties. Electric Avenue built in the 1880’s was the first market street to be lit by electricity. By 1925 Brixton was the shopping capital of South London with three large department stores and some of the earliest branches of national retailers. The first Marks and Spencer store is located in a 1930’s art deco building and although no longer there, BHS and even Littlewoods used to grace its high street. Indeed even the great Sherlock Holmes visited.
The area surrounding the three markets (Reliance Arcade, Market Row and Granville Arcade) which have grade II listed status, has a history of diversity and resistance. In 1948 alongside working class white people, Caribbeans arrived and began to settle in Brixton, making it home for the largest black community. The 60’s saw resistance to GLC plans to build a motorway through Brixton. The 1970’s saw the South London Gay Liberation front a series of squats on Railton Road and other political movements including the Brixton Black Panthers.
The Brixton riots in 1981 came at a time when Brixton had undergone deep social and economic problems (high unemployment, high crime, poor housing and lack of amenities). On the back of this police harassment of black people sparked the riots. This saw disparate yet interconnected groups such as anarchists, gays and Caribbean’s living and uniting against the police together. A solidarity seen again in the 1995 Brixton Riot which erupted over the death in custody of Wayne Douglas, a black man.
Deflated Brixton needed a life line. The government had to invest in the area; But the soul of Brixton as always has been created by the people. Enter the creatives who looking for affordable rents revitalised Brixton. Brixton even introduced its own currency, the Brixton Pound. It it this “edginess” along with its convenient transport links that has attracted the rich. Who else can afford to buy a property on Coldharbour Lane for £1,150,000?
The heady mix of black, white, asian, single, male, female, gay, transgendered and creative live alongside families in total harmony is cosmopolitan Brixton and it is fast disappearing. Take Coldharbour Lane, Andre Pierre, boutique hair salon with west end sensibilities has traded for twenty years next to Brixton Music Exchange and a fried chicken shop which has been there for at least 30 years. Today only Andre Pierre remains.
This is more than gentrification. It is not the coffee shops alone that are having this effect, after all KFC and McDonalds are also commercial giants. Property developers are driving up market values, landlords both commercial and residential are increasing rents to the level that exclude the very people and businesses that create the buzz. The rich residents are an enclave which does not support the institutions that have made Brixton a thriving place and they underscore the divide with gated communities.
Lambeth has the highest number of jobseekers in London and the second highest number of Housing Benefit claimants. It has been estimated that one in six residents in the borough will lose income due to the cuts. Coupled with the lack of social housing and benefit cuts, Brixton is experiencing the “Kosovo-style social cleansing” Boris Johnson said he would not allow before his re-election in 2012. He said “London such a fantastic place…Because it is a diverse city where people of different income groups live side by side”. Activist groups like Guinness Trust AST Tenants are trying to keep it that way by resisting attempts to remove them from the area.
Although Boris may have forgotten his promise to “emphatically resist any attempt to recreate a London were that the rich and poor cannot live together”, the umbrella movement Reclaim Brixton has taken up the mantle. A gathering to reclaim Brixton is being held on 25 April at Windrush Square, SW2 1JQ from 12pm to 3pm. Other demonstrations will be taking place on the day such London Black Revs walking through Brixton Village. As written in its history, Brixtonians will not be socially cleansed without a fight.