Brixton, back to where it used to be?

Brixton has been gentrified. That story may not be known or of much concern. What it means in a simple visual sense is that an area that was for decades known to be one teeming with black faces has seen a sharp increase in the amount of white faces and a decline in black faces. Black people did not own Brixton, but populated it in large numbers in the wake of mass migration to Britain from the late-1950s. Brixton also developed a reputation for crime and drugs, as negatives, and of driving music, as a positive.

Some simple reasons can explain gentrification, or a form of urban transformation. One that is relevant is simple geography. Another is a series of social and economic responses and reduction in barriers to urban living. An easy-to-read article in The Economist a few years ago talks about how some general trends towards urban living has helped Brixton find a new place.

Lots of inner city areas to which immigrants flocked have become attractive in an era where people want less commuting and easier access to certain types of amenities. Having income to support a life style just makes the processes fast; they seem to snowball. But, it’s really a set of instances of people exploiting market opportunities.

I joined a walking tour of Brixton yesterday afternoon. It was interesting for several reasons, one of which was the clear opportunity to network.

Brixton Library next to Windrush Square

We walked a few streets and visited the market. We saw new renovations and older housing estates. We heard about homelessness and saw the new residents enjoying their lifestyle of leisure and ‘culture’.
imageOur guide, a man with Somali parents, gave a good account of his own place in the neighbourhood–as an organizer, activist, who ran a feeding program, was himself a good reflection of the changes that had occurred. He had arrived in 1989.

I tried to give a longer perspective to some of his commentaries, which really didn’t offer much insight into the area before the 1980s. Our group was made up of a Dutch man now living in west London, and in the UK for a work assignment. It included a young antipodean couple, of whom the man was full of radical thought and talk. We also had two elderly women who lived in what they referred to as ‘Brixton of the north’, Kensal Rise/Harlsden. We all walked in teeming rain and bitter cold, looking at white yuppies sipping wine, eating a range of exotic meals at outdoor cafes in Brixton Village. We ended at a bar restaurant named ‘Satay’, that was manned and populated mainly by black people, eating food from southeast Asia.

Brixton was for many years a melting pot. It had a dark colour that had become the norm after the influx of Caribbean and African immigrants in the 1960s. That tinge is now decidedly lighter and it was a funny sight to see the younger white people streaming out of the Underground station, with their heads held high and confident smiles. Few black people were around the station. Few were seen on the street. It was Sunday, but many shops were open. So, their lack of visibility suggested less presence.

I never knew Brixton well. More than anything, it was in the wrong place, south of the river. The divide in London is not trivial. It always had good proximity to many areas, but really got its modern boost by being tied into the Underground system through the Victoria Line in 1971. In the past, the building of a bridge had tied the area to central London.

Brixton got its life as a middle class suburb in the early 19th century. It moved towards being a working class area later in the century. Bomb destruction during the 2nd World War caused housing shortages and dereliction after the 1940s. Mass immigration put new social pressure and on the area and changed its complexion. Racial tensions changed the image of the area as crime increased and black youth were increasingly targeted as suspects. That caused much frustration and was a proximate cause for the riots in 1981. Changes in economic policy put public housing into private citizens’ hands, and they were then able to realise an important asset by selling it as property prices rose.

That is essentially it. Once residents are prepared to sell property the characteristics of areas can change fast. That was part of the change to see areas become more filled with immigrants. Those who cant sell want to get on the gravy train and rent, if possible. But renters with some sizable amount of disposable income wont take ‘substandard’ for long, so pressure to sell and renovate will rise. Other things happen as related opportunities become apparent. Most white people are not interested in hair weaves, so the seeming overabundance of outlets offering that to black women will come under pressure, to become cafes, delis, or other things that draw the incomes of white middle class people. They like arty and crafty, not dowdy and cruddy. It’s ironic that the restaurant seems to have gotten it right in offering good food at affordable prices, with good atmosphere and easy access to the Underground. It would thrive in most areas that have people with disposable income. That most of the patrons were black also points to how that population has itself changed. They’re more middle class than their predecessors.

Disposable income? Spend It!

Society is not static. I’ve written before about how Jamaica needs a gentrification trend to happen in Kingston. It is regeneration from a particular perspective. The forces to drive it are blocked. Those who can unlock its potential have sat on their hands many decades. Are they ready to get up and let it loose?

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)