Brixton, with its vibrant market, multicultural community and independent cinema is a neighbourhood full of energy, history and culture. Situated at the southern end of the Victoria tube line (the opposite side to where I live), it feels like a foreign country to me. But it’s a neighbourhood in which locals proudly proclaim themselves ‘Brixtonites’ and that people flock to from all over London to experience its vibrant and unique attitude.
Once considered quite a rough area, Brixton has transformed itself in recent years and become famed for its food scene. It’s also managed to turn its less-than-glamorous past into one of its draws, introducing a number of creative initiatives to integrate its diverse population.
To get to know the area better, I was in need of a guide. And I found one, a very good one, through a company called Unseen Tours, a social enterprise that employs homeless and formerly homeless people to conduct tours of lesser-known parts of London.
“Tourists want to explore Brixton, but they don’t know what to expect,” explained Hazel, a slight woman in her 50s who was born in nearby Crystal Palace and used to come shopping to the area as a child. “Brixton has a reputation – it’s had a lot of bad press. So people often want to come on a tour first, to be shown around the area, and then they feel safer exploring it independently.”
Hazel was a Brixton local, but became homeless after her marriage ended and has now been housed nearby in Stockwell. She continues to lead tours in the area as a way of earning an extra income (£6 of the £10 fee goes directly to the guide) and to help change people’s perceptions of homelessness.
She is certainly a popular person to be exploring the neighbourhood with. As we walk, she says hello to various characters from all walks of life. Some you might usually hurry past, but they’re her friends, and hearing their cheery welcomes makes you appreciate the diversity of the neighbourhood.
“She’s lovely, she is,” said a man with a beer can sat on a wall soaking up the sun as we pass.
The tour itself is fascinating. Outside the Ritzy Cinema (a local icon) in Windrush Square, Hazel points out a statue of Mr Tate, of the sugar company Tate and Lyle. He invested a lot in the area and gave his name to the local Tate Library (and the famous Tate galleries). She points out the irony that the people who flocked to the area from the Caribbean in the postwar period would probably have had relatives who worked on sugar plantations.
And why is it that Brixton in particular became a centre for Caribbean migrants? She explains that the boarding houses in the neighbourhood were more liberal than elsewhere in the city and didn’t have signs saying “No Blacks, No dogs, No Irish”. Therefore, many of those who travelled from the Caribbean to London after the war went to the job centre on Coldharbour Lane to find work in the local area.
You can now find out all about the history of Brixton’s black community in the Black Cultural Archives, also in Windrush Square. This new heritage centre gives a permanent home to a community archive that has been collecting materials since 1981. Until 31 July you can see the fascinating exhibition ‘Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience, 1950s – 1990s’. The selected photographs are complemented by previously unheard historical testimonies from the photographers and contributors.
“Just up that road there is an 18th-century windmill,” said Hazel, pointing up Brixton Hill. “It’s now a tourist attraction, you can take tours there at the weekend and they’ve started to grow wheat again. It’s a reminder that this whole area used to be grassland.”
Further up Brixton Hill is HM Brixton Prison, which counts David Bowie and Mick Jagger among its famous inmates. It’s now home to another ingenious charity initiative, a restaurant called the Clink, which is run by inmates learning crucial skills to use once they’re released.
We continue our tour through Rushcroft Road to Atlantic Road.
“You see Electric Lane there?” Hazel said as we passed. “That’s where they lit the first electric lights in Brixton.”
The reason we are heading to Atlantic Road is because this is where the infamous riot started in 1981. Disgruntled residents – who were suffering from high unemployment and regular stop-and-searches – clashed with the Met in a bloody frenzy that saw properties looted, cars burned and many people injured.
“It’s taken a long time to iron out all the inequalities that caused the riots [there were others in 1985 and 1995],” explained Hazel. “But a lot has changed. There is a strong community feel here, there is a wealth of small local businesses that are growing the local economy, and there is the Brixton pound, which is an attempt to stop the money leaving the area.”
However, when we pass the local shops under the arches of the railway line on Atlantic Road there are huge cloth protest signs hanging across the awnings.
“Network Rail wants to smarten up the arches,” explained Hazel. “Make way for more delis and whatnot.”
The area has seen a massive gentrification in recent years with a glut of fabulous restaurants and cafes catering to the mobile classes that have arrived to buy up the period properties. But the area still has great character. In Brixton Village and Market Row, the old and new community brush up against each other at every turn. A sourdough pizza place and an African fabric shop, a creperie and a Caribbean food suppliers. At least the new places that are opening are not generic chains, but continue the tradition of independent stores. Vintage clothing abounds, as does organic produce and healthy, honest food. Every night of the week the market is bustling with patrons looking for a decently priced and delicious feed. There’s always a queue at the original Franco Manca, a wood-fire pizza place, and the savoury crepes from Senzala go down well for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
While we don’t stop there, I’ve been told that Pop Brixton, which opened in May, is the neighbourhood’s latest feature. This brightly coloured container park is filled with coffee shops, bars and food stalls and is proving to attract a cool crowd on weekends. Plenty of school groups visit during the week and a number of local community initiatives are being run here, which will soon include Pop Farm, an urban neighbourhood garden.
By the time the tour ends I am itching to have a nosey around the nooks and crannies of the neighbourhood. The tour has whetted my appetite to see and do more in the area, and I am pleased that my £10 has made a small contribution to helping a local resident get back on her feet.