Riots to riches: gentrification sparks fears for Brixton's soul

Anne Laure Mondesert

The small champagne bar faces the stall selling Afro-Caribbean produce, a stone's throw from the scene of some of London's worst riots. Welcome to Brixton, the once infamous district transformed by gentrification.

Along the roads where hordes of young black men battled police in 1981, wine bars and sushi restaurants have flourished, squats have been cleared and houses are now selling for over £1 million ($1.6 million, 1.2 million euros).

But not everyone is enjoying the good times in this once poor and crime-ridden pocket of south London, located a 15-minute subway journey from the city centre.

"I fear that in 10 to 15 years' time, Brixton will go the same way as Notting Hill where it becomes a totally middle-class area," said Alex Wheatle, one of the rioters who has written several novels about the district.

He said house prices were now so high that the grandchildren of the original West Indian immigrants who gave Brixton its distinct culture were now moving elsewhere.

"They have been priced out of their own area, which I think is a tragedy," said Wheatle, whose own parents arrived from Jamaica more than half a century ago.

Brixton is no stranger to change -- many other immigrants followed in the wake of the West Indians, although theirs remains the dominant influence, from the shops selling wigs to the restaurants serving plantain and jerk chicken.

But the new influx of young, affluent people has helped push up the average house price to over £600,000 -- more than double the national average and out of reach of many of Brixton's low-income households.

In a sign of the pressure on housing, in July the Lambeth Council local authority evicted around 70 squatters who had been living on the site for more than 13 years. Three of the buildings were sold, the others converted into social housing.

Brixton resident Rob Turnbull, a 43-year-old musician, said he and his wife pay £1,200 a month for a one-bedroom flat. "We want to live in Brixton, but if we can't get enough money, we'll leave," he said.

There are upsides to gentrification. Gangs still operate, but the streets are safer and people no longer deal drugs quite so openly.

And many areas have been renovated, including Windrush Square, named after the ship that brought over the first group of West Indian immigrants in 1948, and which will soon be home to Britain's first black heritage centre.

Meanwhile in the covered market, stalls once packed with cheap kitchenware and suspiciously cut-price goods are now independent shops, restaurants and cafes.

The crowd inside is notably different from those milling outside the discount stores, retail chains and mobile phone shops on the high street.

At one table sits a smartly dressed young man sporting a moustache and piercings, while a young mother walks by pushing a designer pram and a platinum blonde perched on towering heels poses nearby for a photo-shoot.

This hipsters' paradise is not to everyone's liking, and a small but vocal band of protesters greeted the recent arrival of a champagne bar and deli with banners saying "Yuppies Out".

A similar message was scrawled on the window of the Foxtons estate agent when it opened earlier this year, replacing the "Speedy Noodle" fast-food joint.

Stefano Frigerio, who runs "Champagne + Fromage", says it is a family business that hires local people and will use the Brixton Pound currency -- notes accepted by local businesses to keep money circulating in the area.

Rising house prices are "a bigger problem; it's not up to us, this is something that is up to the council", Frigerio told AFP.

House prices are the business of Barry Klieff, an estate agent in Brixton for the past 23 years, and he has welcomed the transformation.

While noting that prices have gone up almost tenfold since he has worked here, he told AFP: "Brixton wasn't exactly the land of milk and honey 20-odd years ago. It wasn't great.

"I'm not saying it's completely regenerated itself now, but it's substantially better, safer to walk around."

Klieff has no fear that Brixton will lose its soul, saying he expected it would become like Camden, where tourists, multi-millionaires and musicians such as the late soul singer Amy Winehouse happily co-exist.

"This is not going to change into a sort of twee, Laura Ashley (LSE: ALY.L - news) middle-class place, in my opinion," he said.

If proof were needed that the area still retains the anti-establishment credentials championed by punk group The Clash in their song "The Guns of Brixton", it hosted an impromptu party celebrating the death in April of 1980s Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher.