Brixton is a well-known London neighbourhood. It's central, it's culturally significant and it's ever-evolving. It's currently facing concerns of gentrification, the pushing out of long term immigrant families in favour of young professionals and high-income earners. Looking back at Brixton's history highlights why this neighbourhood is worth fighting for.
The Street Full of Soul
Electric Avenue is a song written by Guyanese-British singer-songwriter Eddy Grant released in 1983. It reached no. 2 in the UK charts and was only kept out of the American no.1 spot and a Grammy win by the Police’s Every Breath You Take and Michael Jackson’s Bille Jean. The Electric Avenue in question sits at the heart of Brixton market in South London, so named for being the first market street to be lit by
electric lights in the 1880s. Late-Victorian Brixton was South London’s premier shopping district, with the Bon Marché and Morley’s department stores serving the new middle-class residents newly moved into the imperious houses that line the suburban main-roads.
New Century, New Brixton
With the change of century came an adjustment in Brixton's social makeup as the middle class started leaving to the outskirts of an ever-expanding London. Their houses were subdivided into flats and boarding houses for working-class Londoners. These new residents enjoyed and helped build a thriving cultural community, at the heart of which stood the Empress Theatre, described in 1909 as "one of the finest of London's suburban music halls", demolished in 1992 and turned into nondescript housing.
The bombs of the Second World War flattened the neighbourhood and turned it into a mouth full of rotting teeth’ as urban decay set into the ruins of the area. Meanwhile, down the road just off Clapham Common, a former air-raid shelter in an underground station housed the 492 individuals recently arrived on the HMT Empire Windrush. These were the first and most iconic wave of the new generation of Caribbean migrants, brought to the ‘motherland’ with the promise of jobs and citizenship in a 1947 Britain in need of rebuilding after the war.
Down the road, they went to Coldharbour Lane’s jobcentre and found out that Brixton had cheap housing and helpful Jamaican landlords. This new generation would make this former corner of Surrey part of what we now see as a multicultural London.
Social Tension Comes To a Boil
Fast-forward 35 years and Eddy Grant, after a brief stint acting in Brixton’s Black Theatre, finds himself penning the hit song Electric Avenue in a fit of righteous rage in response to violent riots that burned through the area in 1981. In a part of the city where unemployment and crime swept through the poorly-housed and unprovided for Afro-Caribbean community, the Police decided to stop and search, up to 1,000 ‘suspected’ locals in early April of that year. It's estimated that nearly 5,000 people took part in the riots, which claimed 56 police vehicles and burned 28 buildings. Or, as the resulting Scarman report put it, ‘complex political, social and economic factors’ led to a ‘disposition towards violent protest’.
The report highlighted the racial disadvantage often tacitly faced by members of migrant-heavy inner-city communities, it urged decisive action to encourage people to ‘to secure a stake in, feel a pride in, and have a sense of responsibility for their own area’.
Another Century, Another Brixton?
Photo credit: Hues Of Delahaye
Nowadays that pride is felt and expressed in attempts to save the perceived soul of Brixton from the unrelenting march of opportunistic business people. There is anger at the ‘Pop Brixton’ development, which was meant to be a community project, but many of the businesses have priced themselves out of the range of the areas traditional residents. The community organised to attempt to save Nour, a family-run cash-and-carry supermarket, from going the same way as the fishmongers and grocers on Atlantic Road – priced out, shut down and forgotten about.
Brixton is a familiar kind of London neighbourhood. Its history mirrors much of South and East London, and many immigrant-heavy neighbourhoods across the world. But Brixton always seems to end up being the battlefield for the metropolitan concerns of gentrification, class politics and social change, the site where they come to a head and are acted on.
Written by Jonathan Casewell