London’s Portrait – Brixton

posted by on 27/11/2013

The second installment of our London’s Portrait series takes us to SW, and into the heart of Brixton. Bob Dylan, a man who everyone should find a moment to quote once a week, once sang:

Don’t stand in the doorway/ Don’t block up the hall / He that gets hurt / Will be he who has stalled / There’s a battle outside / And it is ragin / It’ll soon shake your windows / And rattle your walls / For the times they are a-changin’.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say Ol’Bob was talking about Brixton, 2013. Times they are a-changin, and a battle is indeed ragin’; and on one side is regeneration, and on the other, gentrification.

This feature will not attempt to take a side. The beauty of a portrait is that it is not meant to be the start of a debate, it is instead a fact: a snapshot of time. This is what our beloved city is like today. Simples. A while back one evening, armed with my latest Topman T, I prepared to head out of the house, only for my mother to sop me and enquire as to where I was going out that evening.

I calmly replied “Brixton”. She gave me the look that West African mothers have perfected. It is a look that says, “Boy, you better sit back down before I accidently hurt you” (Note to none descendants of West Africa, it is never an accident). Luckily, now that I’m at the ripe old age of 24, I am given time to explain myself. And in the case of Brixton, I am more than happy to. To put it simply, Brixton is now what’s up.

Only a few years ago, many would have seen going to Brixton to party as just a way of looking for trouble – crime was consistently on the up, and house prices were falling because of it. Brixton has always been set apart from the surrounding areas that share the SW prefix. Over many years, despite facing fires, riots, and a negative reputation on par with whoever shot Tupac, Brixtonites have come together, and developed a strong feeling of community and identity that could rival that of any district in our capital. I once read that Brixton is not the type of place you could invent from scratch, and I think that’s true. It’s not just a place; it’s an ongoing process.

If you’re looking for a place to hang out, catch a film, buy some artwork, grab a suger cane and jerk chicken, or throw some questionable shapes till the sun comes up (guilty), then Brixton has every attraction you need to fill your souls. And none is more filling than Brixton Market. Intersected by Electric Avenue (yes, the Electric Avenue), Station Road and Pope Road, Brixton Market, and the covered arcade known as Brixton Village, will not only tingle every cultural sensory organ you thought you had, but some that have been hidden away because your only previous experience of a market, however great it is, was in Borough.

A walk through Brixton Market is to bare witness to the building blocks that were laid down to create the foundations that modern Brixton stands on today. History and substance is on every corner. The sounds of conversations steeped in slang, and memories, punctuated only by smooth reggae rhymes, and the occasional fight between a seller and their customer, who is adamant she could buy her yams cheaper in Dalston. Mix all this with the sizzle and smoke of countless grills, and you know exactly what this area is all about. Those minding their stalls have stood guard for generations, and would proudly do so for many generations to come.

As this is modern London, an area must be reserved for hipsters, and within the walls of the covered Arcade you will find Brixton Village.  Decorated like a…..well, it isn’t decorated, because hipsters don’t roll like that; Brixton Village can puff its chest and stand tall against Brick Lane and Shoreditch, in competition for London trendiest spot.

Some trends people experience simply because those they deem cool enough are tweeting about it. That’s just not the case with Brixton Village. Yes, it’s true that nobody has ever eaten there without posting an Instagram shot the moment their plate hits the table in front of them, but the moment you put your phone down, that’s when the joy begins. There is real substance behind this trend, and if you haven’t experienced it yet, well, then, you really need to start doing life better.  Whether you’re buying threads for your wardrobe, a canvass for your wall, or hot sauce for your wings, your need will be thoroughly taken care of.

The only thing that can compete with the noise of Brixton in the day, is the noise of Brixton at night. From the swarm of people queuing to catch a gig at Brixton Academy, to the sound of residents trying out their new DJ Decks in preparation for the mass of people that are about to descend on their home for their latest party, Brixton is emerging as the go to place in South London to jam, and generally drop it likes its extra hot.

The worry for locals in Brixton is a valid one. Their community that is built on a sense of shared purpose and identity could soon change beyond recognition. Rising house prices that are forcing locals to move out is proof that they have a right to be concerned. Locals understand that a strong sense of community is about a style and a feel that you often cannot put it into words. It’s about those who have called it home all their lives, not feeling like strangers down the same road they have known love and loss on.

You don’t feel like a stranger simply because somebody from another area moves in, that’s simply the bi-product of living in a vibrant and diverse city; but you do become a stranger when ideas and values from other areas usurp those that your community was built on.  I am no expert, but I’ve got a slight feeling that the new bar opening in Brixton Village called Champagne + Fromage, won’t exactly fit the vibe the locals want to maintain. Now, for all we know, Champagne + Fromage is really code for Ginger Beer + Salt Fish Dumplings, but I have a feeling that no matter how many times I pray to the god of Ziggy Marley, that won’t be the case.

The Nottingham Carnival is an amazing event, but for me Brixton Splash has a unique appeal because it feels like it is being fueled by the people who actually still live there. Standing with my can of Coke, which for some reason had ‘Red Stripe’ written on the side, and my Lamb Patty, you can’t help but be moved by hundreds of locals singing Jamaica, Land We Love, while standing in the district they love. There are amazing champions of Brixton, like the Brixton Blog, and those who operate the stalls of Brixton Market, that our fighting the good fight, and keeping people aware of the entire social issues that are vital to the area. As an outsider, I hope Brixton manages to keep its roots well nourished.

As of today, Brixton’s portrait shows an area that once battled tear gas, now proudly taking its place on the social map of this great city. I started with Bob Dylan, so I will end with another great visionary and prophet, LL Cool J : Don’t call it a comeback, they’ve been here for years.

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