Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Shops of Brixton

Even if the classical tune Four Seasons was transmitted inside Brixton tube station, the violins of Vivaldi’s spring seem already a far-off memory as one reaches the market. But showers apparently do not discourage local shoppers. Fish and avocados, cheap watches and unblocked mobiles, spoons and pop-corn, beef and apples, spice buns and Nigerian films, Jamaican crackers and Chinese healing herbs, Mecca rose incense and Haile Selassie posters, plantain bananas and halal sweets. All you need - and more - is in Brixton market, in the south London borough of Lambeth. 

Las Americas Cafeteria, for example, is a small flavourful piece of Colombia. The restaurant, immediately adjacent to a butcher’s shop, houses a video-club plus a bakery. It is possible to order typical Colombian (and Brazilian) food in Spanish. Not many options left for vegetarians though customers can try the corn cakes and ‘bunuelos’, sort of light doughnuts filled with sweetened cheese.

In the back of the restaurant, chatty women are preparing bread for ‘empenadas’, pastries filled with beef and onions. A tiny crucifix is fixed on the fridge, front of the weird head of a plastic horse. The room’s agency and decor, made with bits and pieces of strange objects, may sound kitsch. It actually reflects the nostalgia of a people attempting to preserve what has been left behind. It creates as well a strong social link between shoppers. Las Americas is to anybody a propitious place for passionate talks or silent reveries. A free Spanish newspaper, Latino Times, is available in the market. The current issue deals with how Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and other South American leaders are facing the financial crisis. It also focuses on the community life in London. The market is very much like an agora, a common space where different people with different stories can not only shop but meet and converse.

Aisha and Muhammad run a small business called Dunya. Muhammad is Jamaican and converted to Islam since 1990. He remembers the Brixton riots in April 1981, provoked by the death of a young Black man first stabbed in the street, and then questioned by the police instead of being taken to the hospital. He says “it was inevitable and there is a lot of tension right now”. According to him, racism is still present even if the words “young groups” replaced the expression “Blacks and Asians”. It is, he adds, “in your face policy. Actually, there are no more silver vans of mobile police as soon as you cross the bridge.”
Despite the pressure due to both social and racial discrimination, relations between the people here are warm-hearted. Aisha, originally from Barbados, explains that “Brixton is made of all different cultures; there is an Islamic shop here, a Rastafarian there, etc.”

The general context, which is to gentrification of the area, does not spare the market though. Aisha and Muhammad have already planned to move their shop in anticipation of a private company buy out. “They want to turn this market into a mall”. A new Westfield might be at stake. But this “new shopping experience”, as advertising agencies call it, would certainly not save the most precious experience of Brixton: stories of its diverse communities. One of those has been told by Paul Simonon’s bass guitar in a famous punk song, and is still clashing like a warning: “You can crush us, You can bruise us, But you’ll have to answer to.”