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The Battle for Brixton

Taj Ali

In Brixton, the local community are fighting a Texan millionaire’s attempt to build a vanity tower block that would tear the soul out of the iconic market and turbo-charge gentrification.

Credit: Ricardo Santos

Brixton shouldn’t need an introduction. As one of the most famous parts of the country, the South London neighbourhood owes its reputation to the arrival of West Indian migrants, which began in the forties and fifties. This generation—who later became known as the Windrush generation—transformed the local area, developing vibrant markets and community spaces which catered to the Caribbean and other diaspora communities in Brixton. This effort—a cultural, communal effort by the people—is what has made Brixton such a unique place to be in.

Over the years, however, Brixton has been changing for the worse. A wave of gentrification has erased Brixton’s cultural history, pricing out many of the working-class communities that have lived in the area for decades. In 2018, Brixton Market was bought by Hondo Enterprises, a property company owned by the Texan millionaire (and self-proclaimed part-time DJ) Taylor McWilliams. At the time, Hondo Enterprises released a statement promising to maintain Brixton market’s ‘unique character’. This promise has failed to materialise.

In the past few years, many veteran local businesses have been forced to close as a result of rising rents and evictions. In January 2020, Nour Cash and Carry—a staple in Brixton for over twenty years—was threatened with eviction by Hondo Enterprise. In response, over 50,000 people signed a petition objecting to the eviction. The uproar led to the formation of the Save Nour campaign, where Brixtonians came together to oppose Nour’s eviction and actually won. For the campaigners, this was a small but welcome victory in the fight against Brixton’s gentrification.

But that fight is far from over. The Save Nour campaign is now fighting the proposed development of Taylor Tower, a twenty-storey tower presumably named after McWilliams, Hondo Enterprise’s sole director. Campaigners are certain that this development will exacerbate gentrification, displacing local market traders for office workers and expensive shops.

Hiba helped to organise the Save Nour campaign alongside other local residents. For her, the gentrification of Brixton is no new phenomenon. ‘There’s been a push to change the character of the area and who it caters to,’ she tells Tribune.

‘Brixton market, in a way, is one of the last bastions of what Brixton was historically like. Unfortunately, shops run by diaspora communities are being priced out quite heavily – we saw it in 2015, when predominantly BAME businesses on the railway arches were evicted by National Rail,’ Hiba explains. ‘The idea was to redevelop them into something else, but most of them still stand empty today.’

Danai has lived in and around Brixton for the last twenty-five years and has seen first-hand how drastically gentrification has impacted the local community. ‘Brixton has become segregated into two areas – the more affluent and the less affluent,’ she tells Tribune. ‘I know a lot of people who can’t afford the rent and have had to move out. It breaks my heart to see the established stores closing down.’

For years, Sid ran a carpet shop in Brixton Market with his family – ‘a very small shop,’ he says, ‘but it was good for us.’ As soon as Network Rail completed their ‘development’ of the area, they demanded Sid’s family pay three times as much rent as they had previously done – a price they simply couldn’t afford. He insists this experience has dramatically eroded the community, telling Tribune that ‘there was a bit more of a community, people would know each other. People would take the time to slow down and have a look around. If you had your own little business, you’d definitely be supported by the local residents’ – whereas now, Sid says, ‘so many people have come in all of a sudden and they completely neglect the existing community.’

Many speak of different classes living parallel existences in Brixton, where space is taken over by wealthier people who refuse to mix or interact with those they’re effectively displacing. That is certainly the view of Steadman, a community activist and youth worker who has lived in Brixton since 1967. ‘Gentrification is forcing the Windrush generation out,’ he insists. ‘At the same time, we have middle-class people moving in. They walk past the stalls run by people of colour and go straight to Pop Brixton [a food and drink market built out of shipping containers, opened in 2015] and the expensive wine bars.’

Michael has worked at the market for the past twenty-nine years, when the place ‘used to be buzzing’. ‘We used to have so many stalls here,’ he tells Tribune. ‘It was difficult to even get a stall here if you didn’t come here at half six in the morning. Now it seems like it’s declining.’ For Danai, the proposed Taylor Tower development will only exacerbate this decline. ‘We’re talking about a twenty-storey office building in the heart of Brixton market. As an architectural structure, it is going to be massively dominant.’

Locals have also mounted serious concerns about the environmental and physical dangers associated with McWilliams’ project. Danai points out that not only is the disruption to local traders going to be huge, but that the huge level of pollution caused by turning the market into a construction site is going to ‘be incredibly discouraging’ for potential shoppers. Her thoughts are echoed by Tsiresy, a civil engineer by profession, who points out that ‘the three London boroughs with the highest proportions of nitrogen dioxide [an air pollutant] are Lambeth, Southwark, and Hackney.’

Those three boroughs, Tsiresy adds, have some of the biggest black communities in London. ‘So there’s an intrinsic link between how polluted the borough is and the higher proportion of people of colour living there.’ For him, Taylor Tower’s construction will only exacerbate this. Of particular concern to him is the huge amount of cement that will be transported for the production of concrete in Brixton, which will only further toxify residents’ air. ‘This is not what Brixton needs,’ he tells Tribune. ‘What Brixton needs is a relief from air pollution.’

Tsiresy explains that the community are being deliberately misled when it comes to the environmental aspect of this development. ‘According to the developer’s planning documents,’ he says, ‘they’ve said they’ve considered solar panels and putting wind turbines on the building. But that exact same planning document says they can’t actually put in solar panels because they want to use the roof for something else – and they can’t actually put wind turbines in because obviously there’s flats nearby and the wind turbines make a lot of noise.’

It’s no surprise that after years and years of gentrification, many long-term residents and small business owners feel demoralised and hopeless. ‘We’re fighting a losing battle,’ says one market vendor who preferred to remain anonymous. ‘They are trying to get us out of the area. It’s been happening for the past ten years.’ But given the success of the Save Nour campaign, others are more optimistic. Hiba concedes that ‘we haven’t had a lot of wins’, but points out that until very recently, ‘no one thought a community group of fifteen people could go up against a millionaire and get them to drop an eviction plan.’

In January, campaigners caught a glimmer of hope, as London Mayor Sadiq Khan reconsidered his decision to let Lambeth Council go ahead with their controversial granting of planning permission – on the grounds that Lambeth Council did not provide Khan with all the objections received. The campaign is now focused on amplifying the voices of local residents and calling on Khan to intervene and reject the proposed development. Street stalls are around every Saturday, and Brixton people have been encouraged to sign postcards to City Hall to demonstrate their opposition to plans.

Fighting to not only overturn gigantic corporate provocation but to ward off a sense of disillusionment within the community itself, these local campaigners are utterly determined not to go down without a fight. ‘There is so much skill and so much talent within our communities,’ says Steadman. ‘It was my generation, the Windrush generation, that made Brixton the vibrant place that it is.’ Of course, Brixton people want to move with the future, he reminds Tribune’s readers, and they want much-needed investment in the area as much as anyone. ‘But we want that investment to benefit our community,’ he insists, ‘not come at the expense of us.’