Brixton First

“If you want to see what is going on in London, go to Brixton”. That is what Professor Paul Watt said when asked about gentrification in London. In South London, at the heart of Lambeth borough, lies Brixton. The district known for its multi ethnical population- particularly afro-caribbean- has been the focus of the “anti-gentrification” movement that has grown in nearly every part of London.

Street art piece supporting the traders of the Brixton Arches in Atlantic Road Source: Aina Martí

Street artists painted the shutters of the Brixton arches in support of the traders.

Organizations like Reclaim Brixton have held demonstrations to “advocate change and regeneration that benefits existing communities.” The fact that every time more people study and work in the centre of London makes Brixton a perfect place to stay. People of middle to middle-high class, with a high purchasing power –denominated as “yuppies”- have moved to the district in the past years.

Also contributing to the surging populations: falling crime rates over the past century. Today, chain firms, fancy hipster cafés and pop-up restaurants are all over the place.

The value of the land in Brixton has increased by 35 per cent in the past year according to the Financial Times. According to State of Borough 2014, currently a two-bedroom flat in Brixton can cost half a million pounds.

“Local businesses are driven out by increasing rents and redevelopment schemes that benefit national & multinational businesses, siphoning money out of the area,” says the Reclaim Brixton organization.

LACK OF SPACE

The situation is made worse by the massive housing crisis that is happening in all of London. People are struggling to live in the capital: “a third of people living in London do not have sufficient income to pay for a decent standard of living because housing, transport and childcare costs are so much higher than in the rest of the UK,” says a report by Loughborough University.

Professor Watt from Birkbeck University, a housing expert, suggests that the demand for housing is higher than the available supply, driving prices upwards beyond affordability.

The lack of space combined with the absence of private rent control result in landlords doing whatever they want with their properties. Watt also says that even though housing was not on people’s minds before the crisis “the Titanic has been sinking for years.”

“We didn’t notice it because everybody could borrow money from the bank,” but after the 2008 crash “the banks cut off credit and prices continued to go up.”

SPECULATION EVERYWHERE

To make things worse, lots of houses are being built only for speculative reasons. Journalist and activist Chris Sullivan, who started a petition against the redevelopment of Portobello Market, says “London is a city of greed: it is the biggest money laundering capital in the world, people come here with billions of pounds and they get permission to do anything; they build a building and in 10 years time it will cost 100 times what it costs now.”

Professor Watt agrees: “to buy a property in the capital of the UK gives good return to the investors with much lower risk than, for example, oil.”

The fact that London has become an epicentre of speculative housing is a key element to explain the increasing land value and the fact that poor people who traditionally lived in the centre of London have to move to the outskirts or even to another city because they cannot afford it anymore.

It is pretty obvious when you walk around London. It is slapping people in the face. You see a tall shiny building and you know. You will never afford to live there. In 10 years London will be like Paris, a richer’s playground,” says Watt.

“Unfortunately there is an increasing view that people cannot live in central London if they cannot afford it,” says Turner.

Brixton is a good example of that. There has been a displacement of the working class citizens in the neighbourhood to other locations farther away from the capital where the rent is cheaper than in Brixton.

Reclaming Brixton

The locals don’t want Brixton to lose its unique vibe: markets, independent shops, street art, music, mix of cultures and a strong community spirit with a history of activism has led to the defence of the traders of the Arches in Atlantic Road.

Around 30 local businesses have been given eviction notices as part of a wider redevelopment plan of Brixton. These traders stated that they have not been notified if they will be able to return to their units.

“These units will be sold to a number of multi-national organizations such as River Island, Costa, Starbucks, etc.,” says the Save Brixton Arches manifesto.

Even if they are allowed back, traders claim that the renovation work is set to send rents soaring to as much as three times the current rate, which will force them out of the area regardless.
What has happened as a response is really remarkable. The community has stood by these group of traders and organized the campaign “Save Brixton Arches” together with “Reclaim Brixton” and “Our Brixton.”

T-shirts and stickers are being sold every day. Street artists have painted graffiti murals on the shutters of the small businesses on Atlantic road. Social media has played a major role in spreading awareness and the community contributed by adding a hashtag #savebrixtonarches. An online petition against the development has already been signed by 23 thousand people. Two short documentaries about the traders have been made by Brixton Blog.

In addition, a song called “Brixton First” by the rap singer Potent Whisper has now more than 8.000 views on Youtube. The chorus is clear: “We want to take London back, but we will take Brixton First”.

ACTION-REACTION

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Street art express people’s anger with the Lambeth Council.

What is the reason for this reaction? The rap singer, Potent Whisper, is certain about his reply: “The traders are the community, they’ve stood by the community through the hard times […], when people wouldn’t take a place in Brixton for a pound. They stood there and they built a community up.”

Not only that, the rapper states, the shopkeepers offer products at prices that “working class people can afford and it reflects the type of people in the community, you won’t go there to buy fish and chips costing 10 pounds”.

The problem is a “lack of balance,” claims the singer, because even if Network Rail allows the traders to come back no one is going to be able to afford to stay.

“They just want to move everybody out” concludes Potent Whisper. “But ultimately the community in Brixton isn’t afraid to speak up and to rise above, and to stand in front of the shops.” He says that if it comes to that, they will not hesitate to keep the intruders from taking over their businesses.  

And the same reaction can be found throughout London. Reclaim Brixton and Save Brixton Arches is part of a big, huge swell of public opinion that is going on in all of London.

George Turner, who has started court action against the mayor of London for the building of eight skyscrapers of luxury housing near the Thames, claims that “people can see clearly that there are no rules for those with power and money and they can do whatever they like to the people who are poorer than them.” And he continues, “no wonder people get pissed off about the way the system works.”

They fight back with online petitions, campaigns, demonstrations, new organizations.

But at the end of the day the traders and activists keep doing their jobs. Meanwhile, the developers don’t rest. And there is proof of it everywhere: in the Brixton Underground one can spot an advertisement saying: “London building 2015, Come to our annual meeting with all the real estate agencies.” There is a lack of balance, indeed.