The battle for Brixton: culture, class and gentrification

by Tom

First published: 27 April, 2015 | Category: Class, Housing

Like neighbouring Streatham, Brixton was at one stage an affluent middle class suburb.  But for decades it has been a hub for Londoners of African-Caribbean descent, who began to settle there after the Second World War, and has served as a symbol of the city's great ethnic and cultural diversity.  The area has remained home to a good number of white, middle class people, attracted by its affordable Victorian housing, excellent transport links and vibrant culture and politics.  But in the last few years, as property prices in London have rocketed beyond the exosphere of absurdity, Brixton has gone through an alarmingly rapid transformation.

The most conspicuous 'cultural' change has been the success of Brixton Village, a cluster of restaurants and cafés described by Time Out as a 'culinary and cultural hub' and a destination for 'budget eating' (the prices in Time Out's 'cheap eats' will tell you a lot about the political economy of London's cultural-culinary scene).  Nestled in Brixton's narrow market arcades, which formerly provided affordable goods and 'exotic' ingredients, Brixton Village – whenever marketers in your urban neighbourhood use the word 'village' expect your rent to go up – has a stripped down aesthetic and a rather disconcerting preponderance of white faces amongst its clientele, who tuck into 'street food' and sip artisan beer.  In all this, Lambeth has followed the north east London borough of Hackney where much maligned 'hipsters' (i.e. young, middle-class, identity-conscious consumers with a vaguely counter-cultural appearance – or really anyone young with a vaguely counter-cultural appearance), 'creatives' (i.e. artists, modern day Don Drapers and other such bell ends) and more conventional urban hedonists formed a peculiarly insular cultural scene which benefitted from being close to central London and which offered the thrills of physical, but not social, proximity to the authentically 'urban'.  Over the weekend, in response to evidently similar trends, the Reclaim Brixton 'demo and party' was held to celebrate and defend Brixton's 'social and ethnic diversity' which, the activist revellers worry, is 'slowly being killed'. 

Many though remain mystified by the fuss over what usually gets called 'gentrification' – as contested a concept as class.  What's wrong with nice cafés and restaurants? And can't people simply relocate if rents get too high?  To which the answers are: nothing, as such, and, yes, but no, not really.  Such (class inflected) perspectives ignore how powerfully inequality shapes opportunities and experiences in a city like London, creating hardship and suffering, and disenfranchising whole swaths of the population from a meaningful participation in city life.

The cultural vibe of an area like Brixton is of course related to 'economic' forces.  Even in relatively cheap areas, starting a new business requires a certain amount of capital, giving the affluent a considerable advantage and influencing the sort of retailers that tend to establish themselves as neighbourhoods are 'regenerated'.  Meanwhile, those budding urban retailers with limited financial backing but heaps of 'cultural capital' and enthusiasm – who may even often profess a certain localist, anti-corporate sentiment – tend to focus on niche products and are therefore required to target a geographically dispersed consumer base through new and old media as well as informal networks of traders and promoters, all of which are orientated towards more affluent consumers. 

Once 'gentrification' is well underway, business rates rise, creating structural pressures for owners to cater even more to affluent consumers.  All these factors converge as neighbourhoods 'gentrify', gradually re-orientating shops, cafés, bars and restaurants towards the faddish and largely corporate moulded tastes of affluent consumers, whilst pricing out everyone else.  More significantly, this in turn drives up housing costs for those in the private rental sectors, meaning that many of those born and raised in an area cannot afford to live there.  This is a particular problem because less affluent groups have less freedom of movement.  Those who can afford to move to Brixton and other (newly) desirable locations are generally not as immediately dependent on their family and wider 'support network' – the only realistic option for those whose household income does not cover professional childcare, for example.  And the Tories' bedroom tax has further curtailed freedom of movement for young people, since leaving your childhood home means you risk losing your bedroom and your home of last resort in the event of financial or personal crisis.

This kind of security is something those from wealthier families take for granted.  Indeed, it is not that the upper middle classes do not have their own vital 'support networks'.  On the contrary, it is almost impossible for anyone to now buy a home in London without 'a little help' in the form of a small fortune to cover a deposit.  In an unequal and competitive society, love for your children and the generational reproduction of class privilege become indistinguishable for certain sections of the population – a reality the Tories have skilfully manipulated.  Meanwhile, those without family wealth are trapped in the private rental sector, meaning a good chunk of their wages go to paying off a richer person's mortgage.  This is what the property market has become: a complex system for the upward redistribution of wealth.  Those fortunate enough to be well placed within it find there is no better way of investing the fruits of other people's labour than reinvesting it in new claims on yet more people's homes.

These social processes are all going on behind the conspicuous transformation of Brixton and are part of a powerful system of commodification driven by finance capital, but which draws all of us in, whether we like it or not.  What gets called 'gentrification' is certainly about 'culture' in the sense that it profoundly shapes our 'lived experiences', including what and where we eat and drink, and who we eat and drink with.  But ultimately it is all about money, and the increasingly obvious fact that capitalist markets are not non-hierarchical institutions of exchange, but mechanisms for the concentration of wealth and power.

At the intersection of lived culture and finance capital dwells the humanoid creature known as the estate agent, who, much more so than the hapless middle-class consumers who've just discovered that street food is delicious, is very much an active agent of this commodification.  Foxtons, who were targeted by protestors in Brixton at the weekend (leading to the usual moral outrage when a window was broken) are the estate agents par excellence.  Known for its branded minis, which the company claims have 'become iconic in London's culture', Foxtons targets 'higher-volume, higher-value residential property markets in London', offering 'a premium service which supports premium prices'.  The company offers an attractive starting package to would-be cogs in the gentrification machine, who are then moulded through a highly pressurised 'sink or swim' sales culture, as the company explains:

Foxtons’ remuneration structures are intended to reward hard work and success and contribute to its strong culture of sales and service. Most of the remuneration of Foxtons’ employees engaged in sales and sales support roles comes from commission earned on the revenue they generate or from other performance-related incentives and benefits, including pay ladders, company cars and annual overseas trips, all of which are intended to motivate employees and reward their success.

Thriving, indeed surviving, in such an environment requires the employee to internalise certain values and develop a certain set of skills – Foxtons estate agents are not born, they are made.  Superficial charm, a willingness to manipulate others, restless energy and a shrewd commodifying gaze are the gifts of the gab. Behind this 'powerful culture of sales', as Foxtons calls it, the company operates through a highly centralised corporate system, expanding 'organically' through London's neighbourhoods 'to maximise return on capital'.  The company is listed on the London Stock Exchange, and among its major shareholders are the private equity firm BC Partners and a handful of international investment trusts.  It is these distant institutions which are at the heart of the gentrification process that is wrecking the lives and communities of so many Londoners.  Estate agents like Foxtons play just a small part.  But they are not neutral parties; they are well-trained foot soldiers in a war being waged on the citizens of London, and that poor Foxtons window was collateral damage in a small but spirited fight back.

We are a long way off winning this war.  But if we want a city where people are treated as human beings and houses as homes, and a city whose shops, restaurants, bars and cafes serve the people and not the 1%, then we need to fight.  Reclaiming Brixton would be an excellent start.

Tom Mills is a co-editor of New Left Project. He tweets @ta_mills.

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