Have you ever heard of Brixton?
Prime Minister John Major once described the community as a “grey, sullen wasteland, robbing people of their self respect.” It has virtually no green space, was twice ravaged by race riots, and remains one of the most crime-ridden area’s of London. Graffiti lines the roads that policemen speed down almost incessantly.
But Brixton has history; it has that cultural ethos that so many communities strive to conjure. The graffiti is art, multiculturalism is welcomed, and the police sirens are merely a tune in Brixton’s long and illustrious soundtrack.
To understand this bereft little community south of the river, one must first understand its path to becoming one of London’s hidden gems.
In 1860, at the heart of the Victorian Era, Brixton was one of the most bustling, affluent areas in London. It was known as the Oxford Street of South London, characterized by stunning Victorian architecture, a culturally vibrant social scene, and the city’s first department store. Brixton of old was exactly what fantasies of 19th century propriety are depicted as. So how did it fall into despair?
The short answer is war. Wealth moved into central and northern London, and World War II left the area desolate. Brixton was left out of most public funding schemes. No investments were made, no housing projects were undertaken, and Brixton was ultimately left for dead.
In 1948, after donning the Union Jack and fighting for the allies, a massive ship of Caribbean men and women – the Windrush – touched down on the island. These immigrants expected a hearty welcome, and for good reason. They had just fought alongside British troops in the great war. But they were not welcomed They were met with Brixton: a forlorn community devoid of the resources necessary to function in an increasingly modernized society.
Swaths of Caribbean people flooded into Brixton, as word spread to other immigrant communities as well. Brixton became increasingly multicultural. It transformed itself into a young, rambunctious, culturally vociferous area. David Bowie was born here. Remnants of his rebellious career still manifest themselves throughout the community.
Rebellion, while a key tenet of Bowie’s character as an artist, is more indicative of Brixton’s population as a whole. In 1981, as recession was crippling the UK, the Thatcher Government instituted a program called Operation Swamp 81, which was essentially a concerted influx of unmarked policemen into the neighborhood to help combat the over 30,000 crimes that had been committed in Brixton in 1980. In April, tensions erupted.
An incident involving a young black man and police occurred, and finger pointing rapidly turned into rioting. To this day, the facts of the case are heavily disputed, but the carnage from the unrest are not. 299 policemen and 65 citizens were injured, 145 buildings were damaged, and an estimated 8 million pounds of damage was incurred.
While the riots were a dark stain on the community, they invigorated a new class of Brixtonians. These citizens, emboldened by strife, took pride in their place of habitation. Brixton Academy, one of the most acclaimed concert venues in the UK, opened its doors in the ’80s. The Black Cultural Archives sprung up soon after, honoring and memorializing the contributions of Africans and Caribbeans throughout Britain.
Citizens purchased local, they supported the markets, vehemently detested gentrification efforts, and in 2009, introduced the Brixton Pound. The Brixton Pound is a Brixton-specific currency created with aims at increasing local trade and commerce, which research supports. Studies show that money spent with individual businesses stays in the community up to three times longer.
These efforts are necessary as Brixton is no stranger to the gentrification that has characterized 21st century London. These efforts are quite apparent on the High Street, where the juxtaposition of storefronts is almost comical.
As I ventured down the street, I passed by a pristine (and empty) shop selling exclusively vegan cupcakes. It was one of those places that makes you question whether contemporary society still has functional taste buds, and emblematic of the young and non-Brixton population that has flooded the area.
As I looked to the left, directly across the street was an authentic Jamaican cafe called “Three Little Birds,” presumably named out of reverence for Bob Marley. I could smell the musty aroma of rum mixed with tinges of marijuana quite pungently, and while I don’t smoke or drink rum, I preferred this fragrance to the kale-infused, gluten free cupcakes baking in the oven to my right.
When I initially left the station and made my way into the town, the sun beamed, unbothered by the clouds. I was mad at myself for layering so heavily, knowing that I’d sweat right through my shirt. However, as we weaved in and out of Brixton’s alleys, the weather changed drastically. The temperature plummeted as rain clouds swallowed the sky. I silently thanked myself for packing a coat.
The dismal weather coincided with our trip to the barrier block, dampening our spirits and also our clothes. Yet, as we walked through Brixton village – one of the last vestiges of old Brixton and one of the final remaining covered markets in London – the sky opened up. The sun smiled down again. The cold never left, but I didn’t mind. My mom taught me how to layer.
I found beauty in the chameleon-like volatility of the weather during my walk. In a way, it was symbolic of all that Brixton has been. Born in era of prosperity, it has weathered the storm of war, poverty, and riots.
Brixton was dragged through the mud, but the end goal wasn’t to come out clean. It was to develop a thick cultural shell, hardened by the diversity of its community. It was to exercise resolve amidst tides of gentrification, holding true to the many colors and histories of its residents. And it succeeded.