The date was Tuesday, June 29th 2017. The place- Brixton, a neighborhood in London, England. Brixton is known for its ethnic diversity. Dr. van Riemsdijk told us ahead of time that it was well known for having a fantastic marketplace, as well as being a place where hipsters like to hang out. We were asked to look for signs of gentrification. So, without further ado, we boarded the Tube and were on our way to Brixton!
The first thing of note is that Brixton is not easy to get to. From Queen Mary University where we were staying we had to switch subway lines twice, and get on a smaller line that terminated at Brixton. It’s difficult to accidentally arrive there- that is to say it is a destination, as opposed to a stop along the journey. As we exited the Tube station, I was immediately caught off guard by the sheer amount of people around the station. It is a lot busier than most other tube stations that I had been to in London. Already there was a large amount of diversity amongst the people. A month ago that would have been a situation where I didn’t immediately feel comfortable- not knowing anything about the languages being spoken and being around people that have different views and beliefs from me wouldn’t have been a smooth immersion. Thanks to taking this class I truly see things from another point of view and I feel incredibly comfortable being in largely diverse areas.
We walked over to a large piece of street art featuring David Bowie surrounded by planets (see photo above). The art had writing everywhere beside it, people paying their final respects to one of the greatest musical artists of all time. I learned that Bowie was born in Brixton and he is a source of great pride for the people there.
We continued to walk down a side street to the heart of Brixton. Every shop that I passed by caught my eye- from colorful robes to a shop that only sells weaves, I couldn’t stop looking- I felt like my head was on a swivel. We walked up the stairs that led to the Overground train station (conveniently located across from a sex shop) and looked at a pair of statues on the opposite sides of the tracks, called Platform Piece (the third statue was located behind a fence). The statues were modeled after real people in the neighborhood and were made of bronze to withstand the test of time. They stand on opposite sides of the tracks, gazing out for time immeasurable. Whether they are looking at each other or off into the distance is up to your personal interpretation, but one thing is for certain- they symbolize the immigrants in the area. Two people moving to new lives, taking different trains, possibly to never meet again.
We continued our journey, pausing to look at more street art, and letting the students get some coffees at the Brixton Cafe that sells and accepts “Brixton Pounds”. They are a special type of pound note that comes in regular pound values but is stylized to carry something unique in the area. They are not British legal tender, but roughly 200 shops in Brixton accept them- the idea is that you can help keep Brixton the local-owned area that it is by using these notes there. I think it is a great idea- they were unique and were I to be wealthy I would have bought one of each note to take home. Unfortunately I am not, so I didn’t.
The next stops all related to each other- we went through the large Brixton Market carrying food from almost every ethnicity/region you can imagine- from Japanese to Jamaican, Pakistani to Spanish, and everything in between. If I wanted to try a new food I would stop there first. We left the market and went to the Brixton Box Park- think a ton of shipping containers arranged in a square with a small shop in each one. The prices here were significantly higher, and the crowd it seemed to cater to was less “ethnic” and more “hipster”. This was a definite example of gentrification. We then went to Electric Avenue (maybe you’ve heard of it) and visited the market there. It felt like a continuation of the Brixton Market. The fish smell was overpowering, and poor, fair William almost fainted at the sight of chicken feet for sale outside.
The rest of the trip passed in a quick blur- the Black Cultural Centre, focusing on the accomplishments of black Englanders in music and the struggles they had to deal with. Then lunch with the Professor at a Jamaican restaurant eating lamb and pumpkin and string beans. Probably the best meal I’ve had since going abroad.
At the end of the trip (and being that this is my final blog post as well), I feel it necessary to sum up my entire experience with the program. As I said earlier, I have not had a large amount of experience with diversity having lived in Knoxville most of my life. Even in San Diego, the general populace falls into three categories- American (white or black but American nonetheless), Asian (Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese), or Mexican. That is not as diverse as it sounds, believe me. Coming here and visiting these places and these people it really hit home how similar we are to each other, even when we are different. We all just want to live and love and be happy. We want food and shelter and comfort. I grew to like the “ethnic” areas of the cities we visited more than the “white” areas. This is not to say I was ever afraid or had judgements based on race/religion/etc., but that I was inexperienced in the immersion of it. Going from being a large majority to a distinct minority in a matter of minutes can be a shock at first. This class has forever changed my view and I am a better person for it. You should give Dr. van Riemsdijk a hefty raise.