Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Walking along Electric Avenue

August 22, 2009 · 4 Comments

Entrance to the Brixton Market

As soon as you step off the bus at Brixton, the Caribbean and African influences in the community jump out at you. Signs for jerk chicken, racks of exotic spices, fresh melons and peppers, halal butchers, and the smell of fresh fish overtake your senses. The market extends for about two to three blocks and is full of colorful clothing, food, electronics, and toiletries. It was a bit intense of an experience to see fish so fresh they might still be wriggling, chickens hanging upside down with their heads still in tact, and butchers chopping animals up in the back of a market stand. That being said, many stands boasted products that could be purchased in any local or chain vendor. When asked where the jewelry she was selling was made, a vendor replied, “The factory”. In a similar vein, a different vendor was quite angry when we took a photograph of the DVDs he was selling- proof that they weren’t necessarily the most legal of all goods? Maybe. Still, as you strolled through the market, reggae music that was from other musicians than Bob Marley met your ears to show you that the market was more than just an outdoor equivalent to any old supermarket.

Jamaican influence

The racial aspect of Brixton was quite striking. The market vendors seemed to hail mostly from Jamaica, Ghana, and Nigeria. People from many different backgrounds crowded both the main street and the market. As soon as you step off the main road, however, you find yourself in a quiet, remote residential community mostly inhabited by white people. So as you journeyed through Brixton, the community seemed quite segregated. The majority of the residential area was white while the majority of those at the market were black. The street that connected these two areas was full of people of all races but the segregation was certainly noticeable. One circumstance made this segregation quite tangible to the three us today. One white man sat in the back of a quite crowded bus next to younger black men. For reasons unbeknownst to us, the black men started yelling and cursing at the white man. When he tried to leave the men, they grabbed his paper and increased the amount of profanity they threw his way. The bus then stopped and the three of us exited quickly to the market. The incident was not violent nor was it necessarily completely race related but it seemed to be if not characteristic than at least not out of place in terms of the tensions in the area.

On the edge of the market, a small plaque sat on the wall of a building. It commemorated those who were killed in a 1999 bombing of Brixton. As we had never before known of Brixton, hearing of a bombing took us by surprise. After researching the occurrence when we got back, we were able to make more sense of it. At the edge of Electric Avenue, a nail bomb was planted by David Copeland, a member of the British neo-Nazi Socialist Movement, in the early evening of April 17th. The group is a far right anti-immigration party. When the bomb exploded, it spit out glass and nails in a 20-foot radius and injured 50 people. He was planning on attacking other cities including Brick Lane and Old Compton Street (other racially and sexually diverse communities). Police accepted his testimony that he worked alone and he was sentenced to six life sentences in prison. This bombing is not an isolated incident in Brixton’s history. It is one example of racial tension that have persisted in the area for years. During the 1980s, the tensions erupted in multiple riots. These riots were usually sparked by the community’s distrust of authority and resulted in increased community damage and heightened tensions between the police and public. This tension continues today as we witnessed in the market. A vendor poked fun at a policeman passing by asking him, “Why aren’t you smiling? You never smile! You smile when you write a ticket though.” While the policeman continued walking by unfazed, the tension between community member and authority was still evident.

commemoration plaque

As you walk away from the market up a hill, you see a construction site for a proposed community center. Windrush Station will have representations from local community groups including the Black Cultural Archives and the Brixton Society. The name “Windrush Station” comes from the British ship Empire Windrush that brought the first generation of African Caribbean settlers to Britain to Brixton. The community hopes to hold events such as Brixton Splash that celebrate community pride of Brixton. Still, the website that advertises these events has pictures of only young white people who weren’t very prominent at the market that we saw today. So, while the community center promises to increase connectivity and inclusion in Brixton, it is not without the undertones of segregation.

*sidenote* We thought there might be a connection between Eddie Grant\’s \”Electric Avenue\” and Brixton’s Electric Avenue. Comments?

Categories: Audrey · Azul · Brandon · Markets

4 responses so far ↓

  •   mliberty // Aug 22nd 2009 at 16:03

    Wow, I would have loved to see some chickens hanging upside down! It seems as though the vendors at the market were all very ethnically diverse, similar to the Walthamstow Market. However, did you find that the customers were equally as diverse? Or were you guys a few of many tourists?

  •   kgzell // Aug 22nd 2009 at 16:47

    I’m curious as to how you three were received as customers. At Acton Market people were polite, but I think they were wondering why exactly we were there.

  •   Brandon R. // Aug 22nd 2009 at 16:57

    As we got to the market relatively early in the day, the market was not too crowded. In fact, as we were moving down the row of storefronts, a vendor wheeled in a large, portable stand. The clothing he was selling was set up; all he needed to do was remove the tarp cover.

    There were customers, though. Some seemed to know the vendors pretty well and, when passing by, stopped to chat. The butchers, after offering us some fresh cuts of some-kind-of-meat, asked us where we were from. We definitely stood out, whether it was through our barrage of picture-taking or my bright orange notebook I jotted stuff down in every so often (probably not the best color choice, come to think of it).

  •   kstaab77 // Aug 22nd 2009 at 17:42

    I find the relations you described between the police officer and the vendor really interesting. While it highlights that there are still, and always will be, tensions between peoples, I also think it is a good way to see how far people have come from the riots of the 1980s in that particular community. Unfortunately, things will never be perfect, but progress, even if it is slow, is better than complete misunderstanding. I would be curious to see what relations in that neighborhood would be like 20-30 years from now.

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