It's ironic: Brixton, like Harlem in New York, is feted as a cultural hub just as its identity as a black neighbourhood dissolves
I have always felt that Brixton, London is the centre of the world for people of colour. Now that London's Heritage Lottery Fund and Lord Mayor have unveiled a plan to build the UK's black cultural archives there at a cost of £5m, I have even more reason to think so.
A collage of ethnicities form on Brixton's high street in the middle of any given day. As a newly-minted immigrant from Jamaica, it was here that I first saw a woman in a hijab driving a doubledecker bus. This is the site of Amy Winehouse's tryst in her song "Me and Mr Jones". Brixton: a veritable metropolis for south London's outer boroughs and neighbouring inner cities.
Brixton bears the weight of a chequered history – notoriously, for race-related riots in the 1980s. The names of streets – Coldharbour Lane, Electric Avenue, Acre Lane, to name a few – carry an edginess that captures the stories of generations of Brixtonians. The themes have remained consistent through the years: from Coldharbour Lane describing basic accommodation offered to rough travellers in the 1800s; to Electric Avenue conveying the excitement of being the first street to be lit by electricity in London. This is an area that is defined by progressive change alongside material deprivation.
If that vibe is endemic, it is perhaps not surprising that Brixton became a popular home for the first set of African and Caribbean immigrants who sailed to the UK on the Empire Windrush in 1940s, as well as for succeeding generations. Over the years, it has borne all the contradictions of immigrant communities – unemployment and high levels of crime, with wells of creative brilliance. For many outside looking in, Brixton seems like the unpredictable distant cousin.
The BBC reported this summer that Prince Charles and Camilla visited Brixton market – recently named a listed building of historical interest. The royal couple would have missed a face of the neighbourhood that would not be evident in a midday visit during the business day. They wouldn't have seen the clumps of suited City types who barrel into the subway in the morning, to return at night; and the spattering of early evening joggers darting pass couples walking ornamental dogs on their way to Brockwell park.
Predominantly white and middle-class, the newest residents are the face of a resurgent Brixton, who are mostly taking advantage of the area's proximity to the city. As property prices soared in London's last boom, many homeowners in the area sold and moved further south into the suburbs. The pattern of homeownership has changed dramatically – in favour of the more affluent.
Comparisons with New York City's Harlem are, therefore, appropriate. Both Harlem and Brixton are alike for their large black populations and historical significance. They both have seen periods as a sought-after cultural centre, as well as decades of social and economic decline. The decision by President Clinton to make Harlem the home for his post-presidency office and foundation, and the attendant rise in property values in the area – pricing out many of the neighbourhood's longstanding African American residents – has become emblematic of the gentrification debate.
Does it matter when increased commercial activity leads to radical changes in the ethnic and cultural makeup of communities?
I moved out of Brixton last week, further south into a neighbouring suburb. The recession, and redundancy, made it prudent for me to find a flat elsewhere. One morning about a month ago, as I raced toward the underground – the smell of incense wafting in the air and a street preacher blaring the news of the next coming of Jesus Christ – I looked up to see a fully operational Starbucks coffee shop. It had sprung up so quickly: people were milling around inside as if it had always been there. If there was ever any doubt that Brixton's gentrification is well-advanced, the argument had just closed. I smiled wistfully and descended into the subway.
It would be ironic if Brixton's recognition as an iconic black space in Britain comes just at the point when there is a mass exodus of its black residents.