How black women have influenced Brixton’s cultural and spatial landscape today.24 minute read

Introduction

This project will look at the cultural and spatial landscape of Brixton, examining the footprint of black women and how they have shaped its landscape since the start of mass migration in the 1950’s. For ease of interpretation I will be using the modern definition of ‘black’ (indicating African-Carribean people), as its original use is inconsistent with its inclusion/exclusion of other the Asian populations included in its original use. As this is a broad topic, my focus will be on the main shopping streets of Brixton, including Electric Avenue, Electric Lane and Atlantic Road. Through identifying traces and patterns of the past in the present-day I can, as Dillon (2005, 2014) notes, analyse how the presence of even suppressed voices is still reflected inside their cultural and physical spaces. Using postcolonial and intersectional feminist theory, I hope to analyse specific issues around representation within these marketplaces, and then look at wider issues of dominance and power within the spaces. Finally, I want to explore the mainstream commodification of black women’s legacies in Brixton – creating cyclical analysis on how representations of black women’s traces are created and destroyed within the same spaces.


Background – Place identities and the palimpsest

Sarah Dillon (2005) writes that the ‘palimpsestuous reading is an inventive process of creating relations where there may, or should, be none’, and that sentence embodies how this project hopes to conceptualise and utilise the palimpsest as a tool for reading the multi-layered and complex relationship of my site. The palimpsest, popularised by De Quincey can understandably be theorised, interpreted and utilised in different ways depending on the theoretical standpoint, however its core purpose and objective remains the ‘resurrection of underlying script’ (Dillon, 2005) through understanding both the result and the process of layering, reusing and re-inscribing specific to the object of study. Therefore, to make my approach clear, this project will take a Foucauldian interpretation, which asserts that it allows the previously unseen visible, and highlighting layers within history which had ceased to be significant or assumed to hold no value. More broadly, the palimpsest analysis within this project will take  a  postcolonial  and  feminist  approach,  focusing  on  the  under-researched,  under-represented movements of black women within Brixton and how years of these patterns of behaviour have left significant traces, that I hope will ‘speak through’ and ‘infect’ the way this space is viewed today. I also hope to emphasise the ‘palimpsestuous’ nature of Brixton, as the rewriting and reforming of  its landscape by black women is a process and should be recognised as one.

Furthermore, I will highlight this though the acknowledgement of myself and socio-spatial positioning and navigation of Brixton as a black woman as a contributor to this palimpsestuous process. Defined by Dillon (2005) as ‘the structure with which one is presented as a result of that process, and the subsequent reappearance of the underlying script’, the palimpsestuous necessitates patterns and echoes within the script – or in this case, the landscape of Brixton. Examining how black women have shaped this space though time is to examine sequences within the urban and cultural landscape and understand the relationship between this group and this space. Drawing from De Quincey’s metaphorical extension of the palimpsest to the brain, whereby impressions made on it ‘are not dead but sleeping’ due to its inability to forget, we can see these impressions not only in the structure of the landscape itself but in the black women within it. Therefore, through the impressions made by their movement within these spaces, black women have become part of the palimpsest and their contributions to the space exist within the living memory of the landscape. In many ways, as a black woman and a consumer of this space, I contribute to this process and echo many of the consumerist and cultural habits of black women as a collected intersected group, who navigated the same spaces before me and practiced the same habits. Therefore, although the landscapes of Brixton’s shopping centres are my palimpsest, the way I navigate it, as an object of my own study, is inherently palimpsestuous.


Methodology

The literature review conducted on Brixton exposed a dearth in sociological/geographical interest, requiring me to seek more innovative ways of finding data on the area – specifically about the shopping capitals. An additional challenge to sourcing data was the innate overlapping invisibility of my community. Academia (and general media representation) with a focus or analysis on intersecting demographics of black women within space is incredibly sparse due to their competing  identities rendering them invisible rarely existing in its own right. The literature demonstrated the current impossibility of black women’s space, ignored as women in critical race theories and as black feminist theory. They are therefore divided and compartmentalised, the chosen segment of identity utilised for that cause’s motives rather than understood by it (Mirza, 1997). Therefore, though I combined postcolonial and intersectional feminist theories and applied their analysis and critiques to the space, I had to supplement my knowledge and data on the history of black women’s consumption habits in other ways. Consequently, media analysis came to the fore as suitable for my needs, entailing the analysis of video documentaries from the 1960s, photographs and any articles that I could find.

In order to allow for a more detailed and comparative understanding of how black women have influenced Brixton’s landscape, I decided that participant observation was complimentary to this study and had the potential to enrich my research when combined with media analysis and the aforementioned theories. There were advantages to having ‘insiders’ knowledge of the community and an ‘outsider’s’ perspective on its workings (Cairns, 2013; Few et al., 2003), as being ‘of and inside the cosmos’ that I seek to understand (Smith, 1987), which allows me to refer to pre-existing knowledge, and helps focus my research. My observations were documented mostly through photographs (‘an extension of visual perception’ (Jorgensen)), and notes as I observed and walked through the main shopping spaces around Brixton. As a reflexive and self-critical researcher, drawing on the theoretical frameworks of feminist geographers, I recognise the importance of challenging my own subjectivity and how this contributes to the creation my research (Latherr, 1991). My perspective was triangulated through the use of mixed methodology (Rothbauer, 2008) as the aforementioned compiled media of documentaries, footage, photographs, and articles provided a nuanced picture of Brixton as a palimpsest.


Creation of community

It was soon established that the rebuilding of post War Britain’s  economy  would  require migrant labour. Therefore, with the British Nationality Act of 1948 establishing a new citizen status, and The Royal Commission on Population reporting in 1949 that immigrants of ‘good stock’ would be welcomed ‘without reserve’ (National Archives, 2018), Britain for the first time had attracted large numbers of workers and families from outside of Europe. Between 1948 and 1962, 500 000 non-white British subjects entered the UK (Hansen, 1999), with the first of many arriving on the HMT Empire Windrush that year. Out of the 1,027 passengers (National Archives, 2018), it often goes untold that almost 300 of them were women (BBC, 2018), and 188 of them were travelling alone.

Upon the Migrants arrival into London, an ethnic enclave sprang up surrounding Brixton to cater to this new diasporic demographic. Ethnic enclave theory demonstrates how these cultural hubs provide opportunities for the new influx of migrants, as well as their own housing, labour and capital markets, sheltering ‘ethnic group members from competition by other social groups’ (Zhou & Logan, 1989). They also provided a haven from government surveillance and regulation, particularly important considering how the new migrants were already facing abuse, prejudice and discrimination from native Londoners. This is demonstrated by this letter raising concerns over the ‘excessive immigration’ of ‘coloured’ migrants, dated two days after the Windrush’s arrival (National Archives, 1948). The enclave’s boundaries are internally reinforced as it ‘provides tangible benefits to group members’ (Zhou & Logan, 1989), while simultaneously being externally reinforced through the surrounding white society’s perception of the space, transforming it into a socially constructed community (Anderson, 1983). Anderson (1987) argues how this construct ‘belonged to … “white” European society’ and is used as a representation of that ethnic group to ‘other’ them and deny access to social and economic capital in the wider society (Sibley, 2002).

Finally, as consumers the new generation of black immigrants would have felt singularly uncatered for by 1948 London, which can be extrapolated by two methods. Firstly, in a survey of modern black people, 78% said that marketing by mainstream brands has little or no relevance to them (Business in the Community, 2010), showing a general failure of mainstream capitalist consumption to cater for the black community’s specific needs. Secondly, a foundation of Ethnic enclave economic theory is that it creates a market for sought after yet otherwise unavailable goods and services, (BITFB, 2016) which can be seen both historically in studies about the emerging ‘Chinatowns’ in Western cities (Zhou & Logan, 1989), and by observing modern transient migrant communities (Ostertag, 2016).

Upon arrival, those migrants without a planned place of residence found themselves housed in the Clapham South deep shelter. With Brixton being the nearest labour exchange, the area became a community hub for the new migrants (BITFB, 2016). Many of those who left into wider London were then forced to re-locate due to worsening racial discrimination (from within the labour market, churches and in order to secure accommodation (BITFB,2016)) and tensions with locals around the post-war shortage of housing, and the new burgeoning black community in Brixton seemed a relatively safe haven (BTIFB, 2016; BBC Voices, 2014; Knowles 2013). Brixton itself was already a centre for mass cultural consumption, containing London’s first purpose-built department store Bon Marche in 1877, and Lancey and Morley (now known as Morley’s) which was South London’s largest shopping centre.

With this status, and the growing influx of black women from all over the Commonwealth, the conflict of finding identity within place began. Brixton continued its legacy as a mass consumerist retail hotspot for this ever-growing group who, although came from different parts of the world, became homogenised under the ‘othered’ racialized British lens – pressured into a place-based imagined community through these shared lived experiences (Surjamoto, 2014; Anderson 1983; Dwyer, 1999; Amin, 2002).


The Re-inscribing of Brixton

Contemporary Brixton’s shopping spaces which, whilst also supplying to the diverse and multi-cultural client base of Brixton (Lambeth, 2012), unsurprisingly overwhelmingly caters to the specific tastes and preferences of black women. A palimpsestic analysis of the shops, market stalls and their various products allows us to recognise the traces of historic diaspora and evaluate the meaning of it. For example, when walking through Brixton’s Electric Lane, the landscape is strikingly juxtaposed. (Image of market stalls). Below the chipping three story Victorian houses, displaying ornate window pediments and rooftop French balconies, are the crowded grocers, hair shops, phone shops and market stalls. With this, significance should be attributed to the importance of black women’s place-identity formation, a process which entails both ‘social practices and material conditions’ (Giesking, et al.). This means that the visible surface landscape is developed through macro processes such as policies, housing, and the local economy, as well as micro processes, which refers to everyday behaviours navigation of space. The value of analysing black women’s consumerist habits is that we can analyse the co-production of place and identity as both inform and evolve each other. Much of the fresh produce sold on these stalls (image of the food) such as the okra, the  plantain, and the  pounded yam are not easily found in mainstream supermarkets, but instead are supplied in enclaves such as this because of the demands for them. Drawing from the Pathe 1961 (Pathe, 2018) video of the Brixton Market, two things are obvious. The first is that the occupiers of this space are overwhelmingly black and women. The second, is that the video itself advertises (insert quote) types of food. When comparing this to the home-grown apples and pears traditionally sold on market stalls during the late 50s and 60s, we can argue that the variety of foods observed on the market stalls today is due to the influences and demands of black people, and specifically black women.

 

Figure two traditional Market stall with apples and oranges in Electric Avenue.
Figure 2: Traditional Market stall with apples and oranges in Electric Avenue

 

 Another way in which black women’s cultural influences in Brixton  landscape  can  be  mapped  is through the ‘hair shops’ scattered throughout the high streets and arcades. With permission of the owner, I was able to photograph the largest hair shop in Brixton, which covers two arches spaces and completely caters for black women. This, along with other photographs document the array of small business economies which dominate the landscape of Brixton and revolve around black women’s hair politics. Their existence within the arches, arcades and old properties within Electric Lane and Electric Avenue again signifies the physical palimpsest. Globally, hair has always been important to women, existing simultaneously as a display personal/public display, and for black women like myself, it is entirely political. This is as the afro hair texture speaks to body politics and is an artefact for analysis within itself. The black female diaspora in Brixton was drawn from multiple ethnic groups, forced into the same space through racially charged external pressures, yet we all face the gendered racism of having to conform to Euro-centric beauty standards for survival. Our hair demands the same standard of care, and thus exists as common  ground, a  powerful point of unity  in an  otherwise potentially fractured community. Furthermore, it shouldn’t be disregarded that black hair exists as an expression of personal protest against oppression, and as such exists as a symbol of empowerment  which  is embodied and realised through these hair-shops. Finally, due to gendered racism black women are often in low paid manual labour or service jobs. Harvey (2004) explores how entrepreneurship in the hair industry of the enclave, particularly through salon ownership, provides financial stability and success.  Thus,  the hair  shop represents  overwhelming black female success, through the creation of a unique, self-sufficient internalised economy, despite the inherent lack of external social capital. Therefore, through these shops we can see that the challenges of hair, though altered over time, are re-inscribed, engaged with and challenged from within the safety of these spaces.

Figure three, hair shops
Figure 3: Hair shops

 


The Architectural Palimpsest

Morleys department store became the focal hub for goods outside of what one could find at market stalls and is hugely significant in understanding how black women’s past is entwined with the present. As wider Britain is criticised like much of the West for the lack of diversity in makeup brands and beauty products, in Brixton the purchasing power of black women has made Morleys a specialist in catering to their cosmetic needs. Demonstrating this purchasing power, Chakrabortty et al. (2012) report that black women spend six times more on hair products than their white counterparts. Housing makeup ranges notorious for their diverse colour palettes such as Mac, Blackup and Iman (with the former two specialising in pigmented makeup) alongside the more mainstream brands, it has become a mass consumerist community hotspot. In addition, Morley’s is one of the only places in London where it is possible to get flesh coloured hosiery in a variety of skin tones. This is the legacy of the black female diaspora.

 

Figure four, Morleys department store in 1975.
Figure 4: Morleys department store 1975

 

Furthermore, the physical architecture of Morleys, which today looks like most other British department stores, goes unrecognised as the mass consumerist archetype. The archetypal Victorian architecture commemorates the department store as a space of liberation for middle-class women in the 19th century, as their free movement was previously deemed socially unacceptable and  immoral (Bowlby, 1985). With the inception of the consumer identity, bound up in notions  of  femininity, shopping became more than a functional leisurely activity, it was the beginnings of capitalist inclusion through this new place-based identity, the privileges of which remained distinctly white and middle- class. However, in Brixton a pre-existing department store combined with black financial stability through the enclave economy gave black women the opportunities elsewhere denied to them. This not only provided the goods and services which the black female population required, it also fought directly against the stereotypes attributed to black women. Throughout the History of the British Empire, black women were racially portrayed as unfeminine, hyper-sexualised, invisible and animalistic. The frequent use of a space so associated with middle-class white culture contradicted these racist notions, and thus could be seen as a reclamation of ‘femininity’ both in terms of class and race. Morley’s Brixton department store is therefore a contradictory palimpsest, the shell of the building was built  to  be inherently exclusionary of anyone not white and middle-class, however it has been repurposed to serve the community by providing goods and encouraging black female empowerment across all  socio- economic backgrounds.

Figure five, author's image of inside of Morleys.
Figure 5: Author’s own image of inside of Morleys

Due to their historical significance, all three Brixton Arcades are statutory listed grade II buildings in addition to the local listings of Morleys, Bon Marche and the building of the former third department store, Quin and Axtens. The act of conservation preserves the physical structure of the artefact, not only by physically, but within its positioning within future maps (Crampton, 2001; Kitchin and Dodge, 2007) holding Brixton’s landscape at a point in time. However their use and internal structures continue to palimpsesticly evolve, which is demonstrated perfectly in the Brixton Arcades. All three were listed in 2010 after a long campaign by local residents (video), many the direct descendants or members of the Windrush generation and the first arrivants from the black diaspora – representing a ‘process’ of intergenerational social and cultural co-production of the palimpsestuous space (Hewitt, 1986 pg. 126; Kallis, 2016). The buildings were not built for or by the community responsible for their preservation, however due to their role in the enclave’s economy they became an integral part of the community’s identity (video segment about apples and pears replaced with yams and plantain). When James Clifford (1988) purports that people and their culture can be mapped and identified, () his analysis perfectly encapsulates how the cultural value generated by black women’s use of these buildings lead to their status as precious cultural artefacts, (Sumartojo, 2014) and consequent preservation by Historic England and Brixton Council. Interestingly, the council must also give permission to alter any building built before 1948, the same year of the Windrush Empire arrival. Although a correlation not made explicit, we can highlight this coincidence and suggest that the protection of these buildings is a result of their historical cultural preservation. Despite the unique and thriving network  of  three  modern  covered market arcades ‘keeping all its Victorian Vitality’ (Nairn, 1966), and being found nowhere else in Britain (Lambeth, 2012), the meanings of Brixton’s retail structures, like all architecture, ‘remains remarkably under-theorized’ (Whyte, 2006). However, we can extract meaning by unravelling the relationship between the migrant cultural diaspora, the architecture and black women’s retail consumption habits which have heavily contributed to multicultural Brixton having the atmosphere it does today.

Figure six, author's image of inside of Morleys.
Figure 6: Author’s own image of inside of Morleys. 

 


Commodification

Hall’s (1993) remarks on how ‘Black culture is a contradictory space. It is a site of strategic contestation. But it can never be simplified in terms of the simple binary oppositions that are still habitually used to map it out’ deeply resonates with why the palimpsestic analysis of Brixton is so complex. The simultaneous industry (Mitchell, 2000) of how black women’s production and consumption habits and conditions ‘are not only bought and sold on a market integrating a complex

division of labour but also turned into conditions of capitalist production’, consistently contribute to the political landscape of Brixton. Just as Frank (1997) noted that ‘consumerism is no longer about “conformity”, but about “difference”’, the worldwide infamous reputation of Brixton reflects its continuing mass commodification (BITFB, 2016). My insider status has allowed my integration with the black female community of Brixton, however it is clear is that, for the outside, the multicultural atmosphere  caused  by  black  women’s  influences  have  become  ‘cultural  artefacts,  a  product  of political economy. (Mitchell 2000). This is made clear by examining the other major Victorian department store in the area, Bon Marche. Although the bulk of the building was made into offices in the late 20thC, an abandoned annexe has undergone recent renovations transforming it into a new miniature department store. Undeniably middle-class, the space shows none of  Brixton’s  unique cultural history, existing purely to be consumed by wider white London society. As Mitchell (1995, 2003) notes: ‘Precisely because they can be used by everyone, public spaces are frequently considered contested spaces; places where opposition, confrontation, resistance and subversion can be played out over the right to space’.


Conclusion

In conclusion the culture and vibrancy of Brixton’s shopping centre owes its existence almost entirely to its use and consumption by the black female community. Women’s role in enhancing ethnic enclaves is a documented phenomenon, with Zhou and Logan (1989) noting how female involvement expanded the enclave economy, whilst rapidly diversifying and developing the area’s industry. However, the impact of black women in Brixton is often overlooked, which this project hoped to in some small way rectify. Black female consumption has created a consistent demand for similar goods and services across the past seventy years. This has both allowed the expansion and diversification of the economy and left an indelible mark on Brixton’s cultural and architectural fabric which is inherently palimpsestuous. Their use of certain spaces in the original architecture has transformed them into community hubs, which after years of use are then recognised as cultural artefacts and preserved, before being eventually commodified and consumed by the wider society, all layering to form Brixton’s unique character. Therefore, black female cultural requirements, entrepreneurial spirit and consumer demands have demonstrably been the driving force behind Brixton gaining its cultural status. Without their influence, the neighbourhood decline after the second world war may well have continued, its old buildings bulldozed in attempts to regenerate the area, and might have ended up losing its character, its history and its soul.

Justice Aina


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Figure 1: Market stallholders R. Kelley & Son selling fruit in Electric Avenue, 1960, REF: #7693 Figure 2: Morleys Department Store, 1975 REF:#9093


Appendix

A selection of images from Brixton are provided as background.

Conservation Map of Brixton
Conservation Map of Brixton – detailing the statutory listed buildings. Source, Lambeth Council (2012).

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