Julie Cupples and Tash Oduba-Vine
To its residents and frequent visitors, Brixton is rather an awesome place. Its vibrancy is without doubt rooted in its strong working class and immigrant cultures. Today’s Brixton is largely a result of post-war Afro-Caribbean migrations and settlement; the later Latin American and European waves; and the most recent insidious sweep of white British gentrification. These migrants who made Brixton home, both in the 50s and 60s and in more recent years, have forged strong community networks and engaged in creative and diverse forms of entrepreneurship. Small locally-owned businesses, especially shops, restaurants and market stalls, are at the heart of Brixton’s community ethos. This heart is however being ripped out by a vicious neoliberal onslaught in which the Tory government, Lambeth Council, Network Rail and now billionaire capitalist and owner of Sports Direct, Mike Ashley, are all complicit.
One of our favourite things to do in Brixton is to go and eat Colombian arepas in Las Américas, also known as Casa Brixton, on Pope Road. Run by a diverse group of Latin Americans who started as an arepa business 19 years ago, Las Américas is not just a site where you can get affordable nutritious food from across the continent, food you won’t find in Gregg’s, Starbucks, or MacDonald’s, but it is also a site of affective community interaction and support in which Brixton’s Latin American community gather to eat, talk, and exchange information. The space has grown to fill gaps in the community over the years, encompassing a butcher, a cafe for coffee and snacks all day, and most recently an evening live music venue and bar.
Even for us as Spanish-speaking Latin American-loving Brits, Las Américas is one of our happy places. It is a place where we’ve flexed our Spanish muscles, found out why Cartagena is one of the most amazing places on earth, and heard about of some of the dilemmas facing the community. As one man originally from Medellín noted, he would love to return home now that the war is over but his teenage kids were born in London, they are Londoners of Colombian descent, and so leaving is not so easy.
We learned last week that this wonderful place was forced to close its doors for the last time on Saturday 20 January. Mike Ashley, of Sports Direct infamy, has purchased the entire street, allegedly to build a Sports Direct outlet and warehousing space. As noted in the Brixton Buzz article that broke the news of the closure to us – it was revealed in 2013 that 90% of Sports Direct’s staff are on zero hours contracts, and they have a track record of underpaying staff, and operating warehouse working conditions that have been compared to Victorian times. SDI (Brixton) Limited, a company linked to Sports Direct, reportedly spent close to £12 million to buy up Pope’s Road, showing once again that our communities really are up for sale to the highest bidder.
The staff on closing night were nostalgic, but upbeat. Everyone through the door was greeted with kisses and hugs, the dance floor was full of staff and long time customers, young and old, and every moment of sadness was met with a reassurance that things would go on, and a commitment to enjoy the space this one last time. A live salsa singer kicked off the evening, followed by a DJ playing reggaeton classics. As we left at around midnight, an Argentinian man outside tried to convince us to stay, “the cumbia will start soon” he said “you don’t want to miss the Argentinian cumbia.”
This buy up and community closure is the ugly head of a two-pronged wave of gentrification sweeping across south London. Communities like Brixton are being watered down by chain after chain – most notably the recent opening of Brixton’s first Pret a Manger. Yet it’s relatively easy for the middle class residents of Brixton to moan about yet another Sports Direct, or another garish chain shop. The other prong is a bit prettier, and a bit harder for Brixton’s newer residents to organise against, because for a lot of us, it improves our middle class quality of life. This looks like Jamaican cafes being replaced by sleek co-working spaces. Fruit shops being replaced by upscale barbershops. Hair shops turning into craft beer bars. Carpet stores shuttered by Network Rail’s rent hikes, with the promise of a Boxpark-esque shopping experience to come. Mike Ashley is also said to be among the front runners to purchase Brixton Market, potentially putting in jeopardy the diverse independent businesses that are the backbone of Brixton’s culture.
It is hardly surprising that those displaced and those deprived of these places to eat and shop are largely people of colour. It reveals how little interest there is from the elite political and capitalist class in supporting immigrants who work hard and contribute to their communities. Where is the investment in the cultural integrity of our communities? A new Costa coffee branch, or even an individual Sports Direct store isn’t going to be the death of Brixton’s heart and soul – migrant and working communities are more resilient than that. However, more than anything else, the rising tide of luxury apartments and white washed neighbourhoods is proof that our current Tory government exists to serve those who need it the least, at the expense of those who have earned a living, a following and a community making arepas, telling stories and sharing music.
Julie Cupples is a human geographer at the University of Edinburgh and Tash Oduba-Vine is a Brixton resident and craft brewer. Photographer Oliver Dawe.