Beer bottles rained from the sky and exploded like grenades on the concrete. I clung to the courtyard walls, edging towards the exit. I wanted to get out before the police came. I was in Brixton and in the building above me raged an eviction party; squatters were being forced out by the council and in retaliation, the building was being ripped limb from limb; trashing it was the only thing left they could do. The fight to stay in Clifton Mansions had been lost.
Four years later, I stand outside the same building which has since been turned into flats. The same courtyard is segregated from the street by metal gates, they are always closed and painted in a colour that’s not-quite-black, not-quite-grey. You would never guess this building was once a battleground, where squatters barricaded the entrance to keep out the police.
I’d never heard the term “social cleansing” before I moved to Brixton. Now I hear it all the time. Brixton is becoming a more and more desirable place to live and prices reflect demand. As rents rise, the people and businesses who have been here for years struggle to afford them.
The area is not alone in its fight to preserve life the way it is; all over London, communities are at war with developers who promise they can make life better. But a better life is always more expensive and it is often ethnic minorities who are priced out – gentrification has become a threat to Brixton’s multicultural community.
Yesterday, people took to the streets under the banner of “Reclaim Brixton”; an echo of a similar event in 1998. In advertising the event, organisers have been cautious with their wording, seemingly aware of already existing tensions.
Recently they have tried to define who is welcome: “If you don’t like the concept of displacing communities… poorer humans displaced in favour of wealthier humans who have more financially, then you have a great deal in common with the gathering.”
The Black Revs have called for an end to “racial cleansing”, pointing to the power gentrification has over Brixton’s demographics. Lambeth Council subtly flagged this as an issue in their 2014 State of the Borough report which read: “If there is no housing new migrants can afford, affluent professionals may well make up a large proportion of Lambeth’s population.”
These tensions have sprung to life on the Reclaim Brixton Facebook page; people have rushed to define exactly who can reclaim Brixton – does it matter if you’re new to the area? Does it matter if you earn over £25,000?
One evening I get a call from Grace who is part of the Lambeth Housing Activists group. She says if I want to write about gentrification then I should talk to someone from the Loughborough Park Estate because the tenants there are facing eviction.
“In terms of gentrification, housing is at the cutting edge,” she says down the phone. “If you can’t afford to live here, you can’t afford to be here. Obviously that creates a lot of resentment.”
So I go to the Loughborough Park Estate where I visit Oladimeji Adeyemi, or Ola. He seems suspicious when he comes to the door. He keeps it closed as he asks through the wood, “who is it?” He invites me in and tells me he’s unhappy. “It all started last year when they said they wanted to repossess the flat”.
Ola is being evicted to make way for a new, more expensive development. Many of his neighbours have already left. Once they’re gone, their flats are boarded up and their windows are blacked out by metal shutters.
The building is waiting for its inevitable end. Demolition. Other parts of the estate have already been knocked down and gleaming new blocks have sprung up in their place; some have balconies and there is a sports car parked outside.
The Loughborough Park Estate is managed by the Guinness Partnership – one of the UK’s largest providers of affordable housing. On their website, the company describes itself as a “charitable housing association”. Guinness say the environmentally-friendly new development will replace the 390 run-down social housing flats with 525 new mixed-tenure apartments.
Ola isn’t against change. “I want to live in the new building” he says. Some of his neighbours have already been moved there but even though Ola has lived on the estate for eight years, Guinness has branded him as an “assured short hold” tenant. This means the organisation has no obligation to re-house him. Instead, they will pay him £4,700 and he must leave by the end of the month.
In the old building, Ola is refusing to pay rent because there are too many problems in his flat. The kitchen floods and the balcony floods and there’s damp. He says Guinness have probably stopped maintaining the building “because they want to pull it down” but the regeneration project has made things worse. All the drilling made his kitchen cabinet fall off the wall; he shows me the pile of broken plates which he keeps in a plastic bag on the balcony.
Guinness said: “We have been clear with residents on assured short hold tenancies that they would not be entitled to be rehoused when the site was redeveloped, and they agreed to this when they moved in.”
Ola tells me about neighbours who were offered flats in areas elsewhere but they are often much more expensive. He knows one woman who was offered a bedsit near Tower Bridge for £179 per week, nearly double what she pays for her one-bedroom flat here.
“What they are trying to do now is push people out of the London area.” And many people feel like leaving the capital is the only affordable option. I hear of one woman from this estate who has moved to Manchester. But Ola is studying law in Greenwich and his son lives in Bermondsey. He doesn’t want to leave. “I’m just waiting for the last fight; I don’t have anywhere to go.”
Ola believes gentrification has made the area safer but he thinks it’s unfair that the people who endured the worst bits of Brixton should be pushed out now – they should be able to enjoy the transformation. “But who are we going to cry to? Lambeth Council said go to Guinness, Guinness said go to Lambeth. You have to wait until you’re homeless to get help.”
I walk into estate agents Foxtons Brixton branch. I pretend my parents have given me £400,000 and I say I want to buy a house close to the tube. I’m greeted enthusiastically in a room that’s so clean and white I feel as if I’m covered in dirt.
In 2013, the opening of this branch sparked protests and the words “Yuppies Out” were scrawled across its windows.
A man who seems as if he was born to be in sales – with a perfect quiff and a lopsided smirk – says he is ready to help me in any way he can. He quickly tries to convince me to buy an “ex-local” property; flats which were once owned by the council. Apparently young people like me are buying them more and more and there’s loads of them round here “as you can imagine”, he says gleefully. “In the next few years Brixton will all be private housing. I promise you.”
I want to find the people who have been blamed for gentrification; the people who can afford the more expensive rents; the people who have been labelled “yuppies” or the “new middle class”. So I head to affluent Herne Hill, bordering Railton Road; where the famous riots in Brixton began.
Today, Herne Hill is characterised by the high number of house-sharers and young professionals who live here.
Although property is more expensive, on paper the area seems completely in keeping with the rest of Lambeth: it’s an average size with an average amount of home-owners; an average amount of benefit claimants; an average crime rate. But in person, it feels very different to central Brixton.
On weekdays, Brockwell Park is overrun by new-mums and nannies. Pale babies are propped up on tartan picnic blankets as they shriek and sob, just for something to do. Every Sunday, Herne Hill farmers market takes over the road outside the station. This is a world of organic fruit and vegetables, fresh Dorset seafood, French tartiflette and vintage fur coats.
Families with pools in their basements send their children to school in tiny flat caps. And on weekday evenings, local pubs are choked by young professionals who are more than happy to pay over £4 for a pint.
Tom Shakhli says he wants to sit outside, in summer’s first flood of sunlight. When we met, I thought he looked like the kind of person who is becoming more and more common in Brixton. He’s young, bearded, wearing an unbuttoned corduroy shirt. But Tom is one of the team behind the Brixton Pound, the local currency that channels money into Brixton’s independent businesses. He says the idea behind the Brixton Pound doesn’t make practical sense – the area imports too many international goods – but it was set up to hold a mirror up to issues like gentrification.
I ask him who is to blame for gentrification; is it the new middle classes? He says no. “These are only people who have been priced out of Clapham and Fulham. No one should feel guilty because everyone in some way is in a sense complicit.”
But he does think there’s a difference between people who live in the area compared to people who just consume in the area – it’s about giving back to the community. He looks back over his shoulder into Brixton village – “Look! This place is dead, it’s not residents who come here any more; it’s out-of-towners.”
As gentrification tightens its grip, people on lower incomes are being pushed to the area’s edges. “If you think that an area is not for you, it changes where you go,” he says. “Brixton is much more divided now”
Over coffee, we talk about Lambeth council. Tom says their policies are often contradictory, pointing to the way they try to enhance communities, only to sell land to developers who rip them up.
“But I know a lot of people in the council and the vast majority of them are really good people but they’re under a lot of pressure, particularly after cuts from central government.”
Tom agrees with Ola, Brixton is safer now but he says: “This doesn’t have to come at the price of totally sanitizing the area.” He blames capitalism. Chains in the area seem to make him particularly angry – although he says: “I’m not an angry person” – because the money from a place like Sainsbury’s goes into the global supply chain, not back into Brixton.
He thought the anti-gentrification protests outside the up-market bistro ‘Champagne and Fromage’ a few years ago were misplaced. It would be better, he says “to see those people outside Tesco”.