Brixton’s pull has continually attracted migrants who have established communities alongside many counter cultural groups; those who have flocked to the area for its low house prices and vibrant culture. Rising property prices and the appeal of living in a cultural hub is dismantling its individual identity and displacing the migrant communities. Anchor and Magnet invited members of the community to meet and discuss how Brixton is evolving around them along with activists and academics, facilitating the conversation through a series of interventions and exchanges. As an outsider I am keen to hear how local residents are responding to regeneration as I hope such an activated population will set a precedent for other communities. Anchor and Magnet originated as conversations in café’s between Barby Asante and Kate Theophilus about the changes they were experiencing in Brixton, and the final co-founder Katy Beinart explains that this, the 2nd Brixton Exchange, has been triggered by Lambeth council launch of a 5 year heritage project. Anchor and Magnet have seen this as an opportunity to reflect on how and what of Brixtons heritage should be retained.
Our first talking point is Stuart Hall’s keynote speech to the Arts Council in 1999 in which he proposed the preservation of a cultural heritage. With migration and colonialism our shared heritage has expanded beyond the narrow view of national past that is often presented by the heritage industry. This view should be expanded by incorporating spaces of current social importance and the activities that take place within, them as well as those of historical significance. Artist and Curator Michael McMillan and Professor of Architecture Nabeel Hamdi instigated the conversation on how Brixton’s heritage should be approached. In the three years since Anchor and Magnets last Exchange development has continued to undermine Brixton’s communities. McMillan explains that even the teenagers have felt the shift as businesses, local amenities and social housing are redeveloped to cater for the ever growing demand for London real estate. Migrant communities are disproportionately affected by the process of gentrification and they are forced out of the area. McMillan, the son of African-Caribbean migrants, has experienced this process in Hackney. He suggests that whilst gentrification is inevitable we can influence the outcome and ensure that all areas of history are recorded and their significance acknowledged.
We discuss the tendency for mistrust between neighbours; many of the rooted locals see the influx of new residents as part of the problem. He worries that the new residents are not engaging with the existing community and if there is any interaction between the groups at all. In London it is increasingly normal to have little or no contact with your neighbours and development in Brixton is not encouraging integration. If heritage is to be preserved, development must be sensitive when merging the communities. Part of Brixton’s heritage is what Hamdi describes as the invisible structure of space made up from the social networks and the way the population interact within the space. Projects should be sensitive to these aspects of society, developing rather than replacing them. It is inherent to Hall’s proposal of cultural heritage to protect this invisible structure and cultivate relationships between the existing and the new. Hamdi draws our attention to practical innovation in design in order to achieve new ways of integration where one group does not replace the other and trust is developed. Development so far has failed to embrace these ideas preferring to focus on the more tangible notion of economical expansion.
There are many activists working in London fighting the effects of gentrification, but these groups are often disparate and focused on a singular purpose. Property development companies paving the way for gentrification are organised and well versed in the process. Uniting people and sharing tactics across London’s community to form an informed and organised opposition will enable a greater chance of intervention. Unification was the aim my first workshop Laundering Change: Creating Solidarity, run by the Critical Practice Research Cluster (Chelsea, UAL) and public works. To open conversation we share ideas and experiences of gentrification then condense our conversation into a slogan to adorn a banner. My group’s discussion is focused on the preservation and expansion of public space and its innovative use by activists. Commons are neutral areas in communities and are important in merging cultures as people cross paths with those they may not otherwise have contact with. We paint the words ‘Grow the Commons’ on our banner and surround it with depictions of common spaces which can have cross cultural significance creating a village around the slogan. Each group’s banner is displayed outside the venue announcing our presence and declaring our message.
There is anticipation as we move into lunch. Several large trays have been brought into the foyer and the lids are lifted to reveal a delicious selection of Caribbean curries. We gather around tables with plates full of food – an integral element of Brixton’s identity. Our meal also gives us a chance to discuss the outcomes of our workshops. Those who had chosen What does Brixton taste Like? (run by Fan Sissoko) had shared their experience of food in the area. Each member of the group had brought their own ingredient which conjured memories of places in Brixton which they had then mapped out. They used their ingredients to create a menu of combined experience. Brixton plays host to cuisines from around the world but as a neighbourhood changes invariably food culture does to. The eateries and famous markets are reflective of the population and they will disappear together to be replaced by a homogeneous culture of chain brands.
In the Post war housing memories workshop, run by Gian Givanni, participants had responded to documents and clippings depicting different eras of social housing, sharing their memories which were collected and archived. As the city develops the history of these places is lost, their value discredited by a rhetoric promoting financial progress. What remains of this social heritage is memories and the physical items that capture them. Katy Beinart, has begun documenting memories and objects as part of an on going archival project, The Brixton Museum. Submissions are recorded via photographs alongside the story behind each object. At the back of the exchange sits the mobile archiving structure designed to resemble the Victorian canopies which had covered the market until the 1980’s when they were deemed too costly to maintain, dismantled and removed.
In the recent decades, Brixton faced losing many community artefacts, like the market canopies, as a result of under investment in the area; today they are disappearing to make room for new investment and development. In my final workshop Tales of Contested Spaces run by Variant Office, we were encouraged to share our experiences of places where the change in use has caused conflict. We gathered around a map with bright felt tip pens and marked the position of the community hubs that had once played host to the Brixton scene. The group reeled off names of long gone pubs and clubs, the popular figures that drank and what bands had played there. Squats and co-ops were high on the agenda as Brixton has been home to some of the most prominent civil rights movements.
We considered more recent losses; NHS services, the conversion of public libraries into private gyms and lost social housing. We discuss existing contested spaces and the institutions that would decide their fate. By this point the map is filled with patches of colour so that it is barely legible and each mark has its own collection of memories. We split into groups and are each assigned spaces to discuss and create a alternative map. The arches are owned by Network R,ail and are currently home to various independent shops many of which have been there for decades. Network Rail is proposing to evict many of them to implement a face lift which will be followed by a tripling of the rent; pricing the current tenants out of the area. To protect the businesses the traders have have used graffiti, social media and events to unite the whole community around the shops. They have gained support from all over Brixton and a petition has attracted 22,000 signatures. But despite this the works are still going ahead. We share our maps. They are fluid visual diagrams of space reflective of shared memories. They have begun to document the invisible structure of space where the emotional and social connections prevail physical distance. One group has drawn a diagrammatic list of closed venues resembling a time-transcending pub crawl.
In our final meeting we gather to review the outcomes of the afternoons workshops. In Barby Asante’s session Internal colonialism and the possibility of decolonializing heritage the group had examined archival material collected by Asante. Through responding to it they had joined the conversation she was developing with participants own stories and opinions. The material demonstrated that migrant communities in London acted like magnets attracting those who can identify here more than in the dominant society. With ever-rising demand for housing in London these areas are becoming more popular and are often perceived as as ‘exotic’ or ‘edgy’ options. The established communities that have enriched the area are being priced out as the dominant society moves back in. Asante compares the economic and political intervention to that of colonialism which is often justified as improving an uncivilised area for the better.
There is a consensus amongst the group that anger has returned to Brixton, not seen since the 80’s when it was at the forefront of civil rights movements. Back then there was a sense of unity, but now there is no united force to hold the private development companies to account. Despite the opportunities online social networking presents and has demonstrated in other movements Brixton has not rallied around it. The population has responded to grass roots projects, like the Exchange, that acknowledge the value of their heritage. The day was successful in uniting the mixed attendance exemplifying the process which, we concluded, needs to happen more across Brixton. Through critical thought on heritage along with the sharing of memories we have learnt of many different points of perspective across Brixton. We all take away from this Exchange new knowledge which we now have an opportunity to spread further afield to expand the conversation of Brixton’s heritage and future.
For further info: www.anchorandmagnet.org