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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May knows she's talking nonsense - here's why she's doing it

The Prime Minister's argument increases the sense that this is a time to "lend" - in her words - the Tories your vote.

Good morning.  Angela Merkel and Theresa May are more similar politicians than people think, and that holds true for Brexit too. The German Chancellor gave a speech yesterday, and the message: Brexit means Brexit.

Of course, the emphasis is slightly different. When May says it, it's about reassuring the Brexit elite in SW1 that she isn't going to backslide, and anxious Remainers and soft Brexiteers in the country that it will work out okay in the end.

When Merkel says it, she's setting out what the EU wants and the reality of third country status outside the European Union.  She's also, as with May, tilting to her own party and public opinion in Germany, which thinks that the UK was an awkward partner in the EU and is being even more awkward in the manner of its leaving.

It's a measure of how poor the debate both during the referendum and its aftermath is that Merkel's bland statement of reality - "A third-party state - and that's what Britain will be - can't and won't be able to have the same rights, let alone a better position than a member of the European Union" - feels newsworthy.

In the short term, all this helps Theresa May. Her response - delivered to a carefully-selected audience of Leeds factory workers, the better to avoid awkward questions - that the EU is "ganging up" on Britain is ludicrous if you think about it. A bloc of nations acting in their own interest against their smaller partners - colour me surprised!

But in terms of what May wants out of this election - a massive majority that gives her carte blanche to implement her agenda and puts Labour out of contention for at least a decade - it's a great message. It increases the sense that this is a time to "lend" - in May's words - the Tories your vote. You may be unhappy about the referendum result, you may usually vote Labour - but on this occasion, what's needed is a one-off Tory vote to make Brexit a success.

May's message is silly if you pay any attention to how the EU works or indeed to the internal politics of the EU27. That doesn't mean it won't be effective.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496