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.
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.