London's anti-gentrification movement gathers steam as hundreds show up for an unruly street protest
They hoped it would rain. But the sun was blazing down on Windrush Square on Saturday morning as over a thousand people gathered in the middle of Brixton to protest the dramatic and swift gentrification of the area. And although mainstream media predictably focussed on the small group of people who later smashed in the window of a local Foxtons, it was really a day of joyous celebration, community and samba bands.
Reflecting the multicultural diversity of Brixton residents, those gathered ranged from fashion students to fishmongers. Yasmine Akim, 23, a photographer and activist, used to live on Effra Road but was quickly forced to move to Brockley. She’s here because, as she put it, “I felt it was important to get my voice heard, and it’s good to share information on a personal level. It’s unfair that residents can’t stay.”
Standing tall in platform heels, 35mm camera around her neck and cigarette casually hanging from her lips, you could easily accuse south-London born-and-bred Yasmine of being one of the newcomers making Brixton so toxically cool that residents are forced out by rising housing prices. But can the social cleansing of Brixton really be purely down to the area becoming fashionable?
“Brixton has always had a middle class,” argued Dion, 29, a doctor. “But it also has a visible cultural history. Hackney is a bit culture-less – it’s where gentrification began and it spread out from there.”
The Hackney resident said that she debated whether to even attend Reclaim:Brixton. While discussing the idea of white guilt and the complexities of attending a gathering like this when you feel you might be part of the problem, she asked: “Is there such a thing as black guilt? Because I feel it. We have more money than our parents did – we can reap the rewards of gentrification. But that guilt can become separatist.” So what is the real problem with gentrification? “Essentially, there is a conscious decision to make as much profit as possible.”
Which is where the fairly recent success of Brixton Market comes in. Home to the absurdly out of place Champagne and Fromage, which sells French cheese and £59 bottles of bubbly, the market has come under scrutiny for drawing the yuppies into Brixton.
Marc Cowan 33, a freelance designer and artist, disagreed. “A lot of people see the market as a bad thing – honestly, it was a dead space before all these businesses were there. The problem is that they want to make more money and not have local businesses prevailing.” Marc also works at the Ritzy Cinema on Windrush Square, and was part of the Living Staff Living Wage campaign last year, where staff went on strike to fight to be paid a Living Wage.
“You don’t need to make a killing to make a living in Brixton,” he continued. “Money is only important to the extent that you need to survive off it. Apparently they want to increase the number of shops in the market – but they should facilitate local businesses first. Rents, for homes and businesses, are always going to go up with inflation, but that needs to be connected to wages. It’s directly relevant to staff at the Ritzy. Political parties talk about it but they don’t actually do anything tangible.”
“The state shouldn’t be subsidising private landlords,” agreed Beth, 26, who has been involved with Guinness Estate protests for the last year. The campaign is fighting against evictions in one Brixton council estate. “For young people in London, the prospects of affordable housing is grim. This new wave of Right to Buy will leave no supply of social housing for future generations.”
Dazed heard from one anonymous protestor who lives right on Brixton High Street. Above what is now Foxtons, there were three apartments, each with about five massive double bedrooms. The rent he paid for these rooms a few years ago? £300 a month.
These flats were knocked down and three apartments became eleven one-bedroom flats. Living there now sets him back £1,250 a month. Looking round at the crowded square, he fretted, “Oh God, I’m part of the problem.”
“My bedroom is literally above the Foxtons office,” he continued. “Every morning I hear them all cheering and slapping each other’s backs when they go through the sales. It’s like a frat club.”
As estate agents became London's public enemy number one, Foxtons came under attack by a small group of protestors. The group began outside Electric Brixton – soon to be knocked down and turned into a nu-town hall, costing local government a reported £50 million.
Drawn by the beat of a samba band, the crowd pressed up against the gates of the Electric and began shouting “Whose Brixton? Our Brixton!” At one point, several police hats were snatched and flung through the air, and the crowd was slowly pushed out of the building. Unfazed, they moved towards Foxtons.
As the energy in the crowd changed rapidly, some intent on causing trouble smashed in one window of the estate agents and scrawled “YUPPIES OUT” on the other. One woman began shouting, “Now you’ve ruined it! Now they will be able to say, we need gentrification, so we can get rid of people who behave like this!”
After the police moved in with riot gear and cordoned off the area, the crowd thinned out. Those keen to continue marched down the high street, ending up at the police station, where a small group attempted to gain access and were met with batons and tear gas. Only one man, a journalist, was arrested on suspicion of criminal damage at Foxtons, and was released at 5 am the following morning.
But while this happened, the rest of Brixton stayed peaceful. Down the road, a very different group of protesters held hands in a long line in front of the Brixton Arches. As previously reported by Dazed, the small businesses in the Arches have been battling to remain afloat as they’re threatened with eviction by the local council to make way for a larger railway station.
We spoke to Lorne, owner of the oldest shop in Brixton: a fishmongers dating back to 1932. It was passed down from his grandfather, to his father, to him. A lighthearted banner erected outside the shop reads: “Triple the rents? You must be squidding me!” But Lorne didn’t seem to be all that hopeful about his chances. When asked what people could do to help, all he could muster was “got any winning lottery numbers?”
As the dust settles on what was overwhelmingly a peaceful protest (fragments of rebellious anarchy or not) the community of Brixton came together to fight for what is rightly theirs. Whether this will make a difference to the rapid gentrification of the area is another matter – but what is clear is Brixton will not go down without a fight.
“Reclaim Brixton had to happen,” one of its organisers, Laura Mills, told us. “We believe it was always going to happen, but to us and many others, it had to happen now. The rate at which our friends, family and neighbours are being evicted from their homes, losing their small (and often family-run) businesses, or are priced out of the area they call home has become so fast and fierce that, as you have seen, the whole community can sense the urgency to act now.”
“The vibrancy, character, diversity and plain human-decency of Brixton and its residents now depends on us coming together and fighting back, against money-driven landlords, ruthless developers and an apathetic council.”