The two Brixtons

It's not only that young local boys live different lives to the new, gentrifying, arrivals. They live in different versions of the city, too

May 24, 2018
Depending on who you are, Brixton—and similar parts of London—can be a radically different place. Photo: Prospect composite
Depending on who you are, Brixton—and similar parts of London—can be a radically different place. Photo: Prospect composite

In his book Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City, the urban planner and sociologist Richard Sennett describes two sides to the modern city. What he calls the “ville” is the designed, built, physical city; the actual buildings we live and work in, bridges and pavements we walk upon, the parks and squares in which we eat lunch with friends or walk our dogs in solitary peace. The“cité,” on the other hand, is the lived experience of the city; the way people socialise, generate income, make decisions and navigate their lives.

One of Sennett’s main aims in elucidating his concepts of the “ville” and the “cité” is to observe examples from around the world in which the two interact in a way that is ethical. How should a city be physically designed and lived-in so that the most socially just and equal urban experience can be shared by its people?

The walk I take to Marcus Lipton Community Centre in Brixton, South London, where I have volunteered for three years, takes me through a part of the capital that is in flux. Gleaming new blocks of flats, interwoven with pristine, rigidly-cut public walkways back onto greying, faded, litter-strewn structures of social housing. Hipster professionals sit on their balconies eating dinner in the summer, overlooking excitable groups of hooded teenagers riding on bicycles below. Here the strands of the ville and the cité are intertwined and identifiable.

Yet Brixton’s character also divides along a different line: one of personal identity. In other words, how you experience the city physically and socially depends on whether you are young or old; a newcomer or a veteran; rich or poor; black, white or neither.

The idea that people from different walks of life participate in the urban environment in different ways is not new. But like other historically impoverished pockets of London over the decades—such as Dalston in the north-east, or Notting Hill in the west—gentrification in Brixton has been occurring at an exceptionally fast, and visible, pace.

The process has accelerated since I moved here and became a youth worker. I have thus come to experience Brixton through the erratic courtship of its ville and cité—the symbiosis of its modernising physical infrastructure, and the patchwork of lives within in—whilst also straddling the existential inequalities of identity politics.

*** I live in a new-build flat complex, but I work with teenagers who live in social housing estates. I am a newly-arrived middle-class graduate, as are most of my social group, but I spend my professional and volunteering time with members of a strictly working-class community.

I am Anglo-Indian and thus do not identify myself as white, but to the boys I deliver youth-work to, who are mostly black, I intuitively represent an authoritative otherness. In sum, I am at once a gentrifier, and a servant of the gentrified.

By possessing a suburban grammar school accent and enough visible caucasian features to pass, I can slip comfortably—if reluctantly—into spaces that are becoming undeniably more exclusive on the basis of class and race, leaving to visit friends across the city. I essentially enjoy the cushioned privilege of safety, of being in control, of feeling interwoven in the social fabric of my shifting environment.

Many of the local boys I mentor enjoy no such privilege. For them, as has long been the case for their older relatives, Brixton and other comparable parts of London like Walworth and Peckham are traps of gang-beefs, trauma hotspots and police sirens. The airy metaphysics of comfortable inner-city life for the professional adult is turned on its head and driven unapologetically into the ground for the impoverished black boy who lives in a single-parent household on a dilapidated housing estate.

As if trapped by an imaginary forcefield, tiny segments of land—a few slabs of pavement and a convenience shop—become measly safe-zones, outside of which some young people are unprepared to step for fear of an attack by a rival group. If they do dare to cross the boundaries of their “ends” into others, hoods go up, eyes tighten into a tough mask, skunk spliffs are rolled to relax the perpetual edge of nerves, and knives are pocketed.

Brixton and places like it are not just renewed landscapes of open, colourful opportunity and pop-up fun. For many, they are dark caves of claustrophobia, worn concrete and survivalism.

*** The first time I walked through the front-door of Marcus Lipton Community Centre in the summer of 2015, bunches of fresh flowers, which remain to this day, now battered and drained of colour, had recently been tied to the fence across the road in memory of a teenager killed the month before. That day an article had been published in the Evening Standard about life on the nearby Angell Town housing estate. It was poorly received by some members of the local community. The atmosphere in the building was tense.

“I told them not to appear in a photograph!” managing director Ira Campbell, now a mentor and friend of mine, ranted angrily before throwing his folded newspaper in the bin. He was referring to the article’s cover image, in which a group of boys who frequent the centre appear sat on railings with their hoods-up and backs turned.

It is not unreasonable to believe that the article had, that evening, been consumed by thousands of professionals commuting home from work to Brixton, providing their only local reference point for life outside of the town’s gentrifying bubble.

Last November, I walked across the busy regenerated roundabout in Elephant & Castle at rush-hour and yelled to stop a knife-fight unfolding between two young men.

A week later I was sat on a bench overlooking the city skyline, my eyes streaming with tears, after hearing that the older brother of a boy I mentor had been stabbed to death.

On the following Thursday evening, en route to the community centre in an attempt to find me, that same mentee was robbed at knife-point for his phone. Deciding they didn’t want to keep it, his robbers then threw the phone onto a nearby roof. He had stepped fifty metres too far onto the “opp-block,” crossing the imaginary code of the roads. Still confused, still mourning his older brother, he had been punished. This summer he is expected to sit his GCSEs.

*** On the face of it, Brixton—much like other places in London and the world that are experiencing the forces of hyper-capitalist urban regeneration—is changing in a way that invites an upbeat, pop-art, celebratory ethos. The ville is edging towards the purified sheen of new-build architecture; the cité, and its obsession with private need and time is responding.

Local young people from families who are locked out of the change are being left behind; the public services and spaces they rely upon have been strangled beyond viability. Local rappers refer to the new structures as “them pretty new blocks” but I’d question whether the prettiness extends further than visible aesthetic into genuine social cohesion or neighbourly care. The Thatcherite idea that we exist as individuals and not as a society has crystallised. Is this not a rejection of Sennett’s ethical consciousness?

The cycle of gentrification, driven by capital, profit and comfortable privilege, is bulldozing any chance we have of paying attention to the most vulnerable. We need to peel back the gloss and see that the closed disparities of personal experience are blinding us from realising what life is like for an entire generation of young people trying to cope in austerity Britain.

Only by protecting public space and life, and therefore thinking about the ville and cité in a way that serves everyone, not just the most visible or powerful, will we avoid tunnel vision.