Tristan Bejawn
Show Hide image

A view from Brixton: how to bridge gentrification’s stark divides

A youth worker in the fast-changing London area on how to stop a community dividing.

One effect of gentrification in London is its creation of vast social disparities within tiny geographical areas. This phenomenon is the by-product of a capitalist logic: one that justifies urban regeneration by promising increased living standards for everyone. Yet in practice, it leads to the promotion of particular lifestyles at the expense of others, and the unnecessary separation of distinct social groups.

Graduates like myself, living in developing areas of the capital on account of their relative affordability and vibrancy, tend to lead parallel lives from the majority of people whose postcodes we share. We commute to and from different places to work, socialise in different bars and buy our food in different shops.

Consider Brixton, in south London, which at its centre has been transformed in recent years by new-build institutions like Pop Brixton. While self-identifying as a “community project” and doing well to host various Lambeth-based social enterprises in its Impact Hub, Pop still fails to attract crowds that reflect the diversity of the local area.

Meanwhile, spiralling rent in Brixton Village and the railway arches have led to cherished older businesses being usurped by more competitive, upmarket ventures – much to the protest of some.


All photos: Tristan Bejawn

Living in this heartland of the Caribbean diaspora is becoming less and less financially viable. Many families who have integrated and built intergenerational presences here – street parties, community organising and political protests – now find themselves overlooked by the influx of attention and new money pouring into the SW2 and SW9 postcodes.

When my friend and I moved into our flat in Loughborough Junction, on the northeast side of Brixton, in an attempt to combat the social division sketched above we started volunteering at Marcus Lipton Community Centre. Still shedding the skin of its former reputation, having been at the frontline of the violent gang beefs that plagued south London in the late-2000s (some of which sadly linger on today), the Centre serves a large footfall of local young people.

Its building rests in the shadows of Loughborough housing estate’s huge, white towers, whose lights are visible from our living room window at night.

On our first visit we were welcomed by Ira Campbell, the managing director, who warned that we would probably be suspected of being undercover policemen by the teenagers who spend their evenings at the centre. Sure enough, we received distrusting stares, kissed teeth and cold shoulders in response to attempts at conversation. But as weeks of consistent visits turned into months, we gradually became trusted additions to the community.


Ira, Rory and Ciaran outside the community centre.

In April 2016, we launched Hero’s Journey (using funding awarded by Brixton Pound), a weekly discussion group for teenage boys, which remains a formal slot in the Centre’s programme. In each session, we sit around a coffee table debating topics pertinent to the boys’ lives – like school, money and stereotypes.

Last summer, our group was invited on a tour of parliament, after which we took Ubers to Sloane Square for breakfast – chosen for being the part of London “where white people look down on us most”, as Shaq, one of the group’s most loyal members, articulated.

A month later, we hosted our MP, Helen Hayes, at the centre. She arrived alone, on foot, and patiently responded to the concerns voiced. After two hours the discussion had not moved beyond the topic of Lambeth police and stop-and-search procedures – reflecting its importance as the primary civic issue for the men, young and old, who frequent the centre.

In the crowds outside Brixton station, I have often recognised the faces of people who went to my school or university. Each time, it would remind me how small my middle-class world is. Now, I bump into young people from Marcus Lipton when I work out on the pull-up bars in Angell Town estate, or walk to the market to buy groceries – boys I know because they attend the odd Hero’s Journey session on a Friday night. I know which school they go to and which block they live in; whose brother is a footballing prodigy, or father is absent from their family home. I have found a close friend and mentor in Ira, who continues to educate me about the complex character and history of Brixton.

People moving into developing parts of London ought to reach out to learn from, and contribute towards, their local communities. There is no better way of doing this than supporting community centres, especially in the wake of budget cuts to these public services. The government is not the only agent responsible for remedying the divisive effects of urban regeneration. It is also down to us privileged few – who enjoy the socioeconomic freedom to move in and out of these areas as we please – to take responsibility.

Ciaran Thapar is a writer and youth worker in Brixton.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496