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Originally published Saturday, May 10, 2014 at 6:03 AM

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London’s funky Brixton neighborhood is gentrifying

Long one of London’s most downtrodden, rebellious and diverse neighborhoods, Brixton has been gentrifying in fits and starts for decades. But recently the pace of change has quickened, home prices have surged and evictions and protests have followed.

The New York Times


LONDON — They came trotting through the southern entrance of Brixton market, waving handwritten signs to protest the “yuppification” of this notorious South London neighborhood.

The vegan cupcakes sold across the street, on what was once the front line in race riots, were apparently alternative enough, as was the “contraband” espresso blend on offer two aisles down: At least it came in recycled paper cups sporting a revolutionary star.

But the opening of a Champagne bar by the name of Champagne & Fromage was a step too far.

“This is Brixton, not Chelsea,” growled one man, a hand-rolled cigarette dancing in the corner of his mouth, as another protester handed out plastic-wrapped slices of processed cheese to “make a point” about the fancy French fare now on sale here: snail raclette and aged Gruyère.

Long one of London’s most downtrodden, rebellious and diverse neighborhoods, home to Rastafarians and vegetarians, to far-left housing communes, underground raves — and the riots in the 1980s that still overshadow its image — Brixton has been gentrifying in fits and starts for three decades.

But recently the pace of change has quickened. In 2009 the covered market, once dubbed a “24-hour drug supermarket” by police, became “Brixton Village” and reinvented itself as a foodie hub. A year later Starbucks arrived. This year, even the local prison opened a gourmet restaurant: The waiting list at Clink is two months.

House prices have surged by 45 percent over the past 18 months, raising the temperature between those nostalgic for the ubiquitous reggae beats and cheap rents of old, and those welcoming the safer streets, trendy eateries and local designer shops that have transformed the area.

When the upmarket real-estate agent Foxtons opened a branch here in March last year, someone spray-painted “Yuck” across its glass facade, and “Yuppies Go Home.” The office was briefly occupied by protesters. As the number of home sales worth 1 million pounds or more has climbed, so has the number of evictions of residents unable to pay rising rents.

“It’s class war operating through the property market,” said Rowland Atkinson, of York University, who studies gentrification. Historically, London has been better than most capitals at integrating social difference, he said. Unlike in Paris, where poor ghettos circle the city’s core, in London housing projects dot the cityscape even in wealthy neighborhoods.

But in an ever-tighter market, many of those housing units are now privately owned. And it is no longer just the poor but the middle class, too, who are being displaced by the money pouring into property from domestic bankers and foreign investors from Greece, Russia and the Gulf.

Brixton may have resisted the shifting social geography longer than most areas. As early as 1984, a local anarchist band called Class War started a movement called “Rock Against the Rich.” But at Foxtons, one of the managers, Thomas Osborn, said the momentum is now unstoppable. “This used to be a place where people moved who couldn’t afford to buy elsewhere,” he said. “Now it’s become a destination in its own right.”

The activists and hippies who once lived in cooperatives where everyone paid according to ability have largely gone. With them, memories of unlikely alliances across social divides have faded: During the miners’ strike of the 1980s, the vegetarians and radical feminists of the co-op movement made common cause with meat-eating, beer-swilling, working-class lads. “Everybody got on,” said Jess Andoh, who grew up in a commune here and now works in a local bookstore.

Tabitha Rout, a slight blond woman in her 50s, giggles as she recalls the fear Brixton inspired in her friends north of the River Thames when she first moved south in the 1990s. “People would ask me, ‘What’s it like living there?’ and what they meant was: ‘How often do you get mugged?’ ” she said.

Those same friends now come to shop and eat in Brixton Village, where Taylor and her business partner sell local artwork in a shop made entirely of cardboard, string and brown paper. You can pay in regular pounds or in Brixton pounds — a local currency accepted in more than 200 venues. (The 10-pound note carries the face of Brixton boy David Bowie.) In between traditional stalls selling plantains, pig heads and plastic statues of Christ, hipsters sip flat whites and nibble on cookies made in the Bad Boys Bakery in Brixton prison.

Even Champagne & Fromage, which survived last October’s protest, is packed with young professionals sampling pink bubbly after work.

Is Brixton losing its soul to gentrification?

“Do I look like gentry to you, girlfriend?” responded Etta Burrell, who sells One Love shrimps in her seafood restaurant. Burrell said she had a dream one Wednesday in 2009. A voice told her to go down to the market, and so she went. It turned out to be the day the local government was handing out market units to local entrepreneurs rent-free for three months, a last-ditch attempt at regeneration.

A single mother of three on income support at the time, Burrell had 10 pounds in her back pocket to buy fish. By the end of the day, 10 pounds had become 100 pounds and by the end of the three months she was able to pay 800 pounds in rent on her unit.

Burrell, now 46, has lived in Brixton since she was 9. She has seen her rent climb from 80 pounds a month in 1990 to 600 pounds today. Her restaurant rent keeps creeping up, too, but so does the number of her customers.

“All things considered,” she said, “Brixton has become a better place.”

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