Brixton, UK and Shaw, DC

About a week ago I got an email from a Paul Bakalite who lives in Brixton, a London neighborhood. He sent me an article he’d written about the gentrification going around him and possibly it will get published somewhere soon. Although it doesn’t reflect my point of view regarding gentrification, because I have certain ideas about property and other things, it is good to calmly hear other points of view…. or at least that’s what they taught me in grad school.
Brixton and Shaw have a lot in common. Both are neighborhoods in capitol cities. Both have a large population of people of African decent. Both experienced riots that caused significant property damage and now both are dealing with gentrification.
My Brixton, particularly Brixton circa 1993, which was in between the 1991 riot and the 1995 riot, was an escape from the Central London areas I worked in for a Summer. I would go there for the small open air food/veggie market, to get my hair done, and to wander over to the Tesco’s (think Giant). And I believe at the time there was talk about parts of Brixton getting posh, gentrified. In Paul’s Brixton, the gentrification is not just displacing people but an atmosphere, an openness, a spirit of the neighborhood that attracts people to it in the first place.
So I present part of Paul’s article:

How Brixton is now facing different division
Paul Bakalite urges newer residents of Brixton to show some humility and Lambeth council to take more notice of the real needs of local people.

March 2005

While I’d acknowledge I was a more naive person when I washed up in Brixton the best part of twenty years ago, I was never like the upscale types who arrive here 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.

I first came to live in Brixton in the late 1980s. Part of me craved excitement and freedom. It’s an interesting area, Brixton. 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 not for obvious reasons: 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 people somehow drawn to find spiritual kinship amongst oppressed people perhaps? A place where you didn’t have to be either wealthy or conventional to live… to count…

Do you now?

There’s always been 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 communities, of black, white 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 could be insiders.

But this is under 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 biased in their favour. 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). Brixton is being re-packaged and resold by and for a 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. Rapacious “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.

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

There is more to it, but as it hasn’t been published in print I would like Mr. Bakalite to have the opportunity to have it fully published in a newspaper or other such thing.

7 thoughts on “Brixton, UK and Shaw, DC”

  1. I was going to disagree that Shaw/LeDroit is not yet ‘hip’ like Brixton has become. But then I remembered that there are some painfully hip cats over at Cafe Manowaj every time I walk by these days. So hip it hurts to be them.

  2. Thanks Jim.
    By the by where the heck is Cafe Manowaj anyway? Is it the one with the yellow awning or is it north of Florida?

  3. I live in Shaw and I was actually in Brixton last Saturday. If you can believe it, I went to brunch at a restaurant/club called “Harlem” on Coldharbour which is just around the corner from the Brixton Tube Station. And the only things “black” in “Harlem” were me and the R&B music. (Ok–so they played some Hall & Oates which shows that they totally get it–and I definitely enjoyed the flashback.) It was definitely a yuppie scene and gentrification is coming steadily and quickly to Brixton. Although I have to say the Saturday market was as vibrant and “local” as ever. Hopefully it will survive as a venue where Brixton residents of all races and classes can come together. I also went to see “The Roots” in Brixton last Thanksgiving and was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the crowd.

  4. soundsystems blare, traders call and hawk. preachers yell the forgiveness of christ japs sing of new testaments and the cry reggae ragga, incense fills the air. young entrepeners credit their pockets. big girls loll and tease. these are not echo’s of freedom brixton is still the real deal.

  5. I am the author of the said article. The comments of the anonymous contributor directly above lift my spirits, but how long before what remains of the “real deal” really is only an “echo of freedom”.

    Just Google “Beyond the Fridge” for the latest media naivety on how “Brixton’s gone smart”. Then Google “Brixton” and “death”.

    I am not doing Brixton down in suggesting this comparison. What I am saying is that “gentrification” is by definition elitist. It’s part of the problem. Genuinely inclusive regeneration is a different thing all together.

    Paul Bakalite

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