Brixton – a part of London you need to explore
The Tube doesn’t roll quietly into Brixton. It lurches to a stop and disgorges a hundred people, who charge up the stairs on a mission. Men wearing sunglasses and flamboyant -patterned shirts linger outside on Brixton Road, greeting friends they encounter with bear hugs, as women in turbans loiter around a busker playing electro-pop. The scene on a Monday morning is as animated as Pop Brixton on a Friday night, a shipping-container wonderland for street food and live music built on the site of an old parking lot. Brixton may be the “end of the line” on the Tube map, but this station redefines the term.
“After you, my dear,” offers a man in a loose three-piece suit, waving his cane for me to pass him onto Ferndale Road. “I’m not so nimble anymore.” We exchange smiles before he turns into the post office next to an old Edwardian department store, revived as a hot-desking workspace with cafés and a record shop. As I peer into the window of the Italian street food restaurant, a passerby enlists my opinion on the correct way to clothe a baby. She points across the road, “That mother should put more clothes on her child!”
Forget what you’ve heard about the standoffishness of Londoners. At least nobody here seems to have gotten the memo.
Once you set foot on Brixton concrete you feel part of the neighborhood. I know David Bowie fans feel that way. They visit Tunstall Road to pose against the Bowie mural painted on the side of Morley’s, then watch Fetty Wap perform at Brixton Academy, the former cinema where Bowie’s mother worked as an usherette. Brixton’s “anything goes” attitude is its great allure – the chit-chat to Britain’s stiff upper lip.
"There’s this incredible mix"
By day, the action buzzes around the independent shops radiating from Electric Avenue, the toast of London when it became the city’s first light-powered shopping street.
Street life suffered during the war – bombs wiped out chunks of it, the middle classes fled and Afro-Caribbean immigrants sailed in to replace them. With cheap housing close by and the nearest job center in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton developed
an Afro-Caribbean vibe that’s never quit. Today, the fine Victorian details along Electric Avenue have gone, and vendors put out flamboyant African fabrics, West Indian produce, hair extensions and mesh tank tops the colors of the Jamaican flag.
Duck indoors between railway arches and the market becomes even more diverse.
“There’s this incredible mix,” says Zac Monro, a longtime Brixton denizen who’s walked over from his architecture firm on Effra Road. “It’s the rarest thing in the world, and it absolutely makes Brixton.”
If you’d had that idea 20 years ago, somebody would have smashed your windows in
The glass-covered bazaar nearly -succumbed to luxury flats years ago, until residents protested hard. The private -developers kept the old Caribbean, Colombian and Vietnamese shopkeepers and recruited new ones. Zac chats with the Iraqi owners of Nour Cash & Carry, whose shelves are laden with tamarind, aloe and a dozen varieties of dates. We carry on past the cheesemonger and fishmonger before lunch in a Thai café, the scents mingling with a whiff of pot.
“If you could bottle it, that would be Brixton,” says Zac, “the ability for multiple cultural groups to rub along together.”
Later in Brixton Village, a covered arcade across Atlantic Road, we glimpse traces of a more recent development, the hipster invasion – minimalist art galleries, stationers and coffee roasters. Although not universally accepted by the locals, Monro is full of praise for “little producers” such as Brixton Brewery and Honest Burgers – young operations that have grown hugely, and -Champagne + Fromage, a charming importer of French delicacies. “If you’d had that idea 20 years ago, somebody would have smashed your windows in,” he says.
Outside on Coldharbour Lane, construction has started on the Ovalhouse Theatre site, including the creative studios Zac has designed from a condemned mansion. Next door looms the hulking concrete Barrier Block, a housing estate notorious for its fortress-like shape. Zac remembers it as a “war zone,” a social failure even before it became synonymous with the infamous 1981 Brixton Riots.
At the same time, he says, “it had an incredibly rich culture, with squats, raves – that’s an exciting thing in a city.” -Relaunching Ovalhouse here, with a director originally from Brixton is, he adds, “like coming home.”
That goes for a lot of places around here. Later, when I arrive at Effra Social, a bygone men’s club, a bloke drinking in the doorway claps my back and beckons me in like an old friend. The rest is a blur of Coldharbour Lager, but that’s just shorthand for “I felt right at home.”
Published: May 9, 2019