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5 July 2017

Should we blame art for Brixton’s gentrification?

Artists protest the destruction of local communities, but in doing so make them more desirable places to move to.

By Rudy schulkind

It has become cliché to point to the outward symbols of gentrification in cities throughout the world. Craft beer, artisan coffee, retro clothing and avocados; homogenization of the high-street – all offer a checklist of signs that an area is going up in the world. Kyle Chayka, writing for the Verge, has even coined a term, “airspace”, to denote the stale, commodified hipster aesthetic that we all recognise: minimalist Scandinavian furniture, reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, refurbished industrial lighting.

Of course, the impact of gentrification on the communities it affects is rarely as benign as these outward signifiers. It often takes the form of a sort of social cleansing – exorbitant increases in rent drive out families and independent businesses. London and other cities become segregated by income as the poor, and ethnic minorities, are pushed to the fringes.

London’s Brixton offers one of the most striking examples of gentrification in a city famous for it. The way it has changed illuminates one of the key questions about the process – is art to blame?

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You can be sure that wherever cheap rent can be found, artists will follow. They bring with them creative dynamism, galleries, beautiful street art, and a demand for coffee shops and bars. Governments and property developers are quick to recognise the gains to be made from this transformation of the landscape. The shipping containers housing the cafes, restaurants and boutique shops of London’s “pop-Brixton” have been adorned with huge, colourful illustrations by prominent street artists. Meanwhile, further up the street, the same processes which drive demand for such initiatives have led to the eviction of independent businesses which occupied the space under Brixton station’s railway arches for decades. For Davy Jones, a local who teaches photography, such trends crystallize the historical “natural marriage between artists and capital”.

Art is also an important part of the struggle against gentrification. The shutters of evicted businesses in Brixton quickly became covered in anti-gentrification murals: a skeleton in a suit carrying eviction notices, a starbucks logo with blood dripping from the figure’s hollow eyes and mouth. Others carry a more positive message, celebrating the area’s historic diversity. On nearby Beehive Street, portraits of Brixton old-timers have been fixed to the wall, alongside political messages lamenting “Brexodus”, and containers with plants. “They’re a response to gentrification”, Joe, who used to live in the area and does not want to give his last name, tells me. “I know the guys who built this, he drilled it to the wall to see if the council would tear it down, because that’s what they’re doing here, they’re tearing everything down.”

But can art be a part of anti-gentrification protest, without failing on its own terms? These pieces of street art carry a political and aesthetic edge that might inject value into the area, and speed up the processes that have been unleashed. Felix Choong, a member of the art collective sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, tells me that in the Chicago neighbourhood of Pilsen, murals which explicitly aim to celebrate and preserve the historic Latin American community, have inadvertently made the area more attractive to gentrifiers: “The murals are seen as a kind of cultural exoticism, which leads to white people wishing to inhabit these realms that are ethnic, different and exciting.” 

Brixton’s political murals could end up producing a similar effect – leaving radical artists inadvertantly exacerbating the social injustice they are trying to highlight.

At the same time, such art is an important means by which locals can reclaim community spaces: Choong suggests they “create a feeling of solidarity among those who feel dislocated when they navigate the streets that have changed so rapidly”. The anti-gentrification art in Brixton is filled with cultural references and historic figures only understood by long-time residents. And Joe tells me that their creators are self-conscious about how their work affects the area: “I think they think about these issues in fact as well, because when they make a lot of these things, there’ll be a street party, and everyone will come out, and it creates a community aspect for people who actually live here. Because only they know about it. There’s no adverts.”

Local artists are reluctant to view art as a cause of gentrification. Sara Khan, who helped run the Save Brixton Arches campaign, explains how anti-gentrification art can retain its radical roots, and avoid being co-opeted for commercial purposes. “Art itself is rebellious, and asks the audience to see things from a different perspective. For Save Brixton Arches we used graffiti art as a platform to get our voices heard- it’s a style of art that is the opposite of gentrification. It wasn’t designed to be loved by the many or sold to the rich. Graffiti tells underlying social and political messages that make a statement.” The art served as a focal point for the campaign, drawing the community together, and Sara has since been approached by other neighbourhoods to help protect their threatened businesses.

Tim Sutton, from the Brixton-based art group Urban art, says that “if you’re looking for someone to blame, it’s not artists, it’s the council”. Their annual event – which uses the street railings as an open air gallery for local artists – is likely to be cancelled, because of Lambeth council’s decision to raise the fee for closing the road, refusing to distinguish between their nonprofit event and a commercial one. Meanwhile, local artists are losing their work space – he cites the example of Stockwell studios, which was sold off by the council for redevelopment.

The farewell note of those based in the Stockwell studios quoted “local boy” William Blake: “When nations grow old, the arts grow cold, and commerce settles in every tree.” The line echoes the views of many I spoke to in Brixton that the changes in the area are a natural, universal process that necessarily repeats itself across the globe – but this is only part of the truth. The dislocating inflow of capital, the soaring rents and expensive shops, are often merely following in the wake of artists and their art. But it is political decisions and nondecisions that let those changes destroy the communities that drew artists there in the first place. 

All photos courtesy of the Save Brixton Arches campaign