Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Guest article on Brixton, London gentrification

Having stumbled upon my inaugural blog entry on gentrification and racial conflict in Argyle Chinatown in Chicago, Paul Bakalite was kind enough to drop me a piece he put together on the changing demographics and politics of acceptance in Brixton, a portion of south London. I hope that his perspective will help readers draw their own conclusions about general dynamics and conflicts in this process that are undoubtedly taking place around them, whether they live in the U.S., UK, or some other corner of the planet.

How Brixton is now facing different division…

Paul Bakalite urges newer residents of Brixton, south London to show some humility and the borough council of Lambeth to take more notice of the real needs of local people.
March 2005
I first came to live in Brixton in the late 1980s. Like many before and since, a part of me craving excitement and freedom. Brixton offered those things. But looking back I see now that what I really craved, and what I have found here, is acceptance and somewhere to belong. I am an articulate man (although I didn't go to a posh school or to university) and I am white. Even so, principally 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! Alot of people rejected by elsewhere have gravitated to Brixton over the years. Damaged or different people somehow drawn to find spiritual kinship amongst oppressed peoples perhaps? A place where you didn't have to be either wealthy or conventional to live… to count…
There is something special here, an atmosphere of acceptance and understanding that Brixton has because of it’s history, it’s peoples… and its troubles. There is cohesion across the varying communities of blacks, whites and others. Cohesion across race and to a lesser extent, across class. 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.

But all this is under increasing threat, from people who don't even know that their own security and sense of entitlement gives them power - because they've always had it. And from systems weighted in their favour. While I'd acknowledge I myself was a more naive person when I washed up here the best part of twenty years ago, I was never like the upscale types who arrive in Brixton now. I didn't tell the weed dealers, on my doorstep back then, to “get off my property”. I got to know them. They were there first. It was their street, and my neighbours' - not mine. The cohesion I mention is delicate. It relies on mutual respect. Some of the newer residents just don’t get it.

Brixton's current fashionability was largely built on the backs of black people and on the backs of poorer people. And arty, radical types helped glue it together. Many are left out of this fashionability now or have been forced out. Not everyone is a home-owner or a career high-flyer and Brixton is being re-packaged and resold by and for a wealthier, more conservative consumer. Poorer people can't move to the neighbourhood anymore as they can't afford to rent here. Dissident minds struggle to find brotherhood here. Residents who don't fit in with recent conformity (and Brixton’s current fashionability is a form of conformism) can sometimes feel crushed by the demands of professionals who’ve read in a magazine that Brixton is “hip”, moved in recently and within months want everything their way. Brixton is an area these people would previously have never considered as a home. They may have no real affinity for it. They attempt (and will fail) to control it. They don’t engage with it.

Trendy bars and gated-developments do not a happy community make. Lots of existing locals find the new prosperity and venues excluding, expensive and irrelevant. And just boring too. Ravening “market forces”, allowed precedence over pretty much anything of real worth today, ensure that the needs of the well-to-do, floating from style-bar to luxury apartment, are met. Those with the deepest pockets are first in the queue, while schools and sports facilities for everyone are often left to rot.

Lambeth council has been accused of institutional racism. This accusation has been proven correct. They roll out the red carpet for big-business to eat up the area and for the wealthy who see Brixton as a good investment. Luxury apartments coming soon? Yes they are. The council grant planning permissions for “luxury” housing again and again. Yet a lot of long established people and businesses in Brixton, including many black-owned businesses, have to fight just to stay where they are. Conversely, there has been no recognition of the creative contribution that the predominantly white squatting culture made to this area - Cooltan Arts and the 121 Anarchist Bookshop for example. All that was just swept away. “Dirty squatters” was the extent of Lambeth council’s understanding. This year it’s been announced that the annual Cannabis Festival in Brockwell Park is to be cancelled at the behest of one Conservative councillor. Whether you smoke cannabis, support it’s legalisation or you don’t, the Cannabis Festival was a very enjoyable and, crucially, free day of entertainment in the park for everybody. It is no more. Council publicity may suggest that “vibrant, multi-cultural Brixton” is celebrated but when it comes down to street level it’s difficult for poorer people, many in minorities, or those who just don’t conform, to feel that they can trust Lambeth council at all.

In the street where I live newer neighbours regularly petition the council to close down a long-established pub. Some of them are “intimidated” by the clientele, they say. According to the landlord however, the most vehement complainant has never even set foot in the place. It is unjust that Lambeth council has to be continually reminded not to act on the unreasonable demands of a privileged few at the expense of everybody else. What happens to the former patrons of that pub, and the landlord’s livelihood, if newer neighbours succeed in having it closed or it becomes an exclusive bar? What happens when there are no cheap cafes, selling egg and chips? What happens when the council’s criminal neglect of Brixton’s famous 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 £15? What of so-called “vibrant, multi-cultural 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 aren’t words like “hip”, “edgy” and “vibrant” in this context often, in truth, estate agents’ euphemisms for blacker areas of town? I feel that the tastes of some of the newer residents of Brixton are bland and suffocating of real culture. That their attitudes are a form of control and oppression. And that the established order supports such oppression, through Lambeth council. If the well-off flaunt both their money and their ignorance, and the local authority underwrites them to the detriment of others, this causes resentments. There are now big problems and great deprivations right next door to privilege and easy life.

When I first moved to Brixton Eddy Grant’s infectious early 80s pop-reggae tune “Electric Avenue” could still be heard regularly on the radio. It talked of poverty and violence and asked who to blame. Visit Electric Avenue now and the street is as dilapidated as ever, yet surrounded by increasing exclusivity and the affluence of an elite. Whether you blame “market forces”, Lambeth council or the insistent demands of the professional classes, to me there’s no doubt that this division exists and that it is bad for Brixton. “Regeneration” is OK when it benefits everyone, but “gentrification” is not the same thing at all.

Paul Bakalite is environment champion for
Coldharbour/Angel Working Group, Brixton

If you have questions, critiques or support for the author, please feel free to contact him at brixtonman at yahoo.co.uk, or respond on this site.

7 Comments:

Anonymous sikthsense said...

interesting , I'd just finished reading this article in the New Internationalist and actually came online to find if i could contact the author.
This is a bog-standard diatribe of the bleeding heart hippies. I agree that the professional-class should stay out of Brixton, but only to save themselves the bother of having to goto Brixton nick and get a crime number for their laptop insurance after some "hip and edgy" kid with a baseball cap and six inch blade have taken it. I'm also a south londoner, I'm also white. However i'm not gay , which i think might be where our viewpoints differ. Whereas the author would say because i'm white , straight , and working class, that i won't have experienced prejudice in the same way as a one-legged gay black gypsy, I don't think the regeneration of Brixton has anything to do with prejudice. It has to do with the fact that places like Harmony, which the author paints as a quaint little village pub or somesuch, when in fact it more closely resembles a hovel in the deepest south african township. with crack dealers and hoodlums hanging around outside it's no wonder the local residents complained about the "noise". anyway , i'm at work, gotta go

sikthsense@hotmail.com

11:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The same euphemistic use of "hip and edgy" in that response, as the author of the article points out. Mm.

Check your history - "Brixton Challenge" funding for instance - and tell us regeneration is free from racism.

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

unfortunately, or unsurprisingly, anonymous you took my words out of context , i didnt mean black , i just meant a thug. at least you made my point for me ;)

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Whereas the author would say"

You don't know what he would say, only what he has said, to which you have attached your own insecurities.

6:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article is stupid. in the 1950's Balham was a far flung suburb of London, now it closer than ever. I have lived between Brixton and Tulse Hill for 4 years and the demographic is changing, there are far more white middle class people setting up home here. Apologies if market forces mean that the locals can't get on the ladder. But I am all in favour if people can come to visit me without feeling intimidated by the dealers outside Woolworths and KFC asking if people want skunk every 2 seconds. The property prices will increase and just like Clapham Brixton will become far more middle class, which is great.

12:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Middle class, which is great"

You haven't got a ****ing clue.

10:05 PM  
Anonymous Interesting Gay Chat said...

Wow! very interesting.. I have read this on other paper and was amazed to read it online...
Thanks!

1:45 PM  

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