It was a Monday morning. It started not with a knock but with a battering ram: the crash of the bailiffs claiming their prizes.
There were crowds of them, hard-hatted, here to evict more than 70 squatters from six Victorian mansion blocks along Rushcroft Road: my road. Some had been living in the buildings for decades – quietly, their windows shrouded with sheets. We barely knew they were there.
The local authority, Lambeth Council, has plans to sell the buildings to developers for an estimated £5.5m – half of them earmarked for affordable housing – and for that, it needs them empty.
But the forced evictions became a flashpoint in a community that has changed almost beyond recognition in the last five years. Locals gathered in the street, catcalling as the first of the residents were bundled through the doors. Bins were set alight, windows broken, walls spraypainted. “YUPPIES OUT,” they spelled out, one letter at a time. Then “BURN THE BAILIFFS”.
It was a startling scene in an area now more commonly noted for its independent shops, the covered market, an art deco lido. There are pop-up restaurants and a Zaha Hadid-designed academy school, and it is regularly described in the property press as ‘up and coming’ or ‘on the way up’ or with other terms of bouyancy.
It is a poster-child for urban regeneration, much transformed – on the surface at least – since the troubled times of the eighties, when an alienated populace rioted in the streets and the nineties, when the name “Brixton” became synonymous with drug and gun crime. Certainly it is almost unrecognisable from the Brixton of even five years ago.
When I first moved here I was permanently penniless, a part-time photocopier with ink-stained hands. I found a room in the loft of a grand old house on Brixton Hill, sharing the kitchen with a friend and three invisible bachelors who kept to themselves. It was fun, lively, but best of all cheap.
Nightclubs were accessed through chicken shops, evangelists thronged the streets with their loudspeakers, the church yard functioned as an all-night social club for the down and out or simply insomniac. Once a man in a HMP Brixton jumpsuit politely requested that he accompany me to the nearest cashpoint (“What?” I asked, confused. Then when I realised I was being mugged, very gently: “Oh, no, thank you.” He did not press the issue).
Since then Brixton’s rise has been gathering momentum, overtaking me even as I clamber up my own career ladder. Take out shops closed, to be replaced by organic bread shops and wine merchants. Around the corner, a vegan cupcake shop.
It has not been a comfortable transition. Many feel alienated in an area they have lived for decades as the community identity is drowned out by this new concept of what Brixton is and means.
Inevitably, prices have risen. The average Brixton property now sells for £430,000 – up 25 per cent in a year, according to estate agents. Locals are displaced by the professionals, the monied, the university educated – pushed further from the centre or forced to work longer hours to keep their homes.
Meanwhile, pawnbrokers are springing up almost as quickly as the cafes: Sell your gold! Instant cash! Loans in minutes! Lambeth Council’s housing list is now so overstretched it has suggested it could rehome homeless families 75 miles away in Margate, quite literally bussing the poorest out of the borough.
Bubbling resentments such as these can build up. Pressure releases in unexpected ways. Earlier this month, a bailiff was shot and seriously injured while attempting to evict a former nightclub bouncer from his home.
When Foxtons, the estate agents, opened on the high street in March, it was targetted by vandals. “YUCK,” they wrote across the plate glass facade. And “YUPPIES OUT” again, the most common refrain. It became a symbol of gentrification – the ‘Hoxton-isation’ of Brixton, as the local blogs call it – and was forced to hire in bouncers. Last night a police van was parked outside the office, just in case the anger spread from Rushcroft Road across the square and through the windows.
This community which was so proudly inclusive and multicultural now feels uncomfortably stitched together. And never more so than today, as heavy set men affix metal shutters across the windows of my neighbours on both sides.
Like it or not, I was one of the yuppies that moved in. Our own block was squatted until 2003 when it was sold to a private developer, my landlord. My flatmates and I are conflicted: we miss old Brixton. But didn’t we help form new Brixton, spending our money in the new shops, drinking in the pop up bars. And isn’t crime lower, isn’t the coffee better?
In any case, I’m moving out. I spend the night of the evictions packing my belongings into a borrowed car, uncomfortably aware of the contrast of my shuttling up and down the stairs with my bags and books as on all sides the contents of the squats are dumped unceremoniously from the windows onto the street below.
It’s late night by the time I finish. Outside it is still hot, humid – sultry as a Tennessee Williams novel – and the sky is streaked red and pink. Some would call it sunset; others, sunrise.