Up close and personal with Brixton

Photo by Savo Ilic via 123RF
Photo by Savo Ilic via 123RF

Up close and personal with Brixton

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

It’s often said that by the time a neighborhood becomes trendy, the cool kids have long since moved on. That may be true, but London’s rough-and-ready yet ever-vibrant Brixton has enough going for it to remain a great place to live and play for locals and tourists alike, well into the future.

Location, location, location

Brixton lies three miles south of the Thames and the London Eye and comprises part of the Borough of Lambeth. With its own underground station on the Victoria Line, it’s a straight shot from major landmarks including Buckingham Palace and Tate Britain.

Two centuries of social change

Settlement in this area along a Roman road leading from “Londinium” to the southern coast took off in the early 19th century following the construction of the Vauxhall Bridge and got another boost with the arrival of the railway in 1870. A major shopping area even then, it was here London got its first department store, Bon Marché, in 1877. In 1888, its Electric Avenue was the first of London’s streets to be electrified. The beginning of the 20th century saw a humming theater and music scene take root. From 1908–1910, the actor Charlie Chaplin called Brixton home.

After the bombardment in World War II, urban decay set in, followed by slum clearances and the construction of council housing. The 1940s and 50s saw a massive influx of immigrants, particularly those from the West Indies. The social and economic woes of the 1980s, to include high unemployment and inadequate housing, were accompanied by a rise in street crime. Policing efforts that saw hundreds of young black men stopped and searched upon the mere suspicion of wrongdoing led to riots and destruction of property. The shooting of a local black woman in 1985 was also followed by rioting. Brixton’s 21st-century renaissance has spurred intense debate as to whether the area’s current reshaping amounts to regeneration or gentrification.

A tourist’s day in Brixton

Kick-start your day of art and multiculturalism with a cup of strong java; the brews of Federation Coffee on Coldharbour Lane will put a spring in your step. Call in at Brixton Market to sample exotic fruits and peruse the shops for spices to jazz up your cooking back home. Take in the architecture surrounding you: the stately arcades date back to the 1920s. Should you choose Fish, Wings and Tings or Negril as your lunch spot, your mouth will sing with full-on Jamaican flavors. Reading material for your homeward journey can be acquired at Bookmongers, one of London’s top independent bookstores.

While street art is splashed across many a building and underpass, a stop by the mural of Brixton’s native son David Bowie is a must, found directly opposite Brixton’s tube station. Should the day be steamy, head to the Brockwell Lido, an Olympic-size swimming pool with wellness amenities housed in a refurbished art-deco building. For historical sights, the circa-1816 Brixton Windmill and St. Matthew’s Church will plunge you into centuries past. Thirsty? The Craft Beer Co. on Station Road does what its name suggests.

As evening falls, make way to Pop Brixton, a project that’s turned disused land into space for local start-ups. Street foods from all corners of the globe will tempt your taste buds, and here, solo travelers might find a kindred spirit while taking part in a community event. Take a load off weary feet at the Ritzy Picture house, one of Britain’s largest independent cinemas. Spend any ultimate reserves of energy on a gig at the Hootananny or O2 Academy Brixton. There, you can raise a glass to a day well spent.

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