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Village Market, the Caribbean brought to life in Brixton

Sellers who help customers while dancing, colourful stalls that catch the eye of every passer-by, and a district that wants to wipe out its ‘conflictive’ past. This is the part of London that many, or few, know about.

Text and photos by Ramón Alabau

After walking only a few steps along its streets, you realise why Brixton, a district situated to the South West of the English capital, has the name ‘Little Jamaica’. Here, only 54% of the population are white.

The area belongs to the Lambeth district. It stands out by being Afro-Caribbean. Several immigrants started to bring colour and rhythm to the streets of Brixton after the 1940s. Nowadays, it has the highest concentration of Latin Americans in the UK.

Amongst the anecdotes that characterise the history and origin of the area, many of them go unnoticed and many are unknown.

For example, the main road in the district, the Electric Height Avenue, obtains this name because it was the first street in the city to have light generated by electricity.

Another story, (one that is known by nearly everyone) is that for a few years now, it has been possible to buy and sell using indigenous money – the local “Brixton pound”. It is accepted in 200 establishments and was invented by the citizens of the area.

Upon walking and speaking to people, you realise that they are now going through a social change. This district, which people avoided and feared only a few years ago, has now become a fashionable district. Although, there are still certain levels of crime and unemployment.

What is certain is that in Brixton, you feel a cultural mix and a certain happiness.

You can get here by bus, train or underground. These transport methods allow you to discover the area from different perspectives, from the architecture of the buildings, to the streets, and different corners of the district.

The comings and goings of the people lead us to the heart of the district, which has one simple name: The Village Market. A market that welcomes visitors with an explosion of colour. It has exotic fruit and vegetable stalls with endless varieties, which appeal to the sight and smell of every human being.

For many natives, this small area in the district is like travelling to a Caribbean island. Together with the fruits, you can see stalls of fresh fish, whose shiny scales suggest that they have only been a few hours out of water.

But also there are butchers, multi-use fabric stalls and sombreros, among other typically Central American and African products.

The market is divided into two zones: an exterior zone with street stalls, and an interior zone, where renovated establishments stand out.

Cooking is also crucial to the district. The smell of Jamaican spiced chicken invades the area. Small shops, perhaps because there are so many, serve this dish on portable barbecues. Nevertheless, it is a delight to eat.

There are numerous restaurants and they underpin the area’s special charm. The establishments are lined up side by side forming ‘streets’. They are covered by a glass ceiling, which allows London’s daylight to shine through.

And these establishments support the multiculturalism present in the district, due to the varied gastronomy that is exhibited, but also due to the different flags that hang from the walls.

The Village Market has succeeded in making a space for itself in tourists’ itineraries. It has become one of the districts’ attractions, together with other very famous markets like Camden Town and Portobello Road.The main difference, and the reason why it has always stood out, is because of its cheap prices.

Many traders proudly advertise their history of this neuralgic centre. Sarahhgwen Sheldon, owner (along with her husband) of a Mexican restaurant explained that “it was built in the 20s and 30s, and has become a gastronomic destination. The community is very united, in spite of cultural differences. This market reflects the character of the people who live in the district. Lots of Londoners come to the market to try different foods, and they can every day. This has changed from last year, in September 2011 local shops were empty, now they are full of life.”

The market is at the nucleus, where in addition to business transactions, social ties have been made. It has found its way into the hearts of every trader and shopper. Thus, the united citizens of Brixton, by using their market voice,’have been able to bring a halt to a project, which claimed, under the pretext, to ‘regenerate’ the area- to build a modern shopping centre where the market stalls currently are.

Of course, bars and other modern establishments were suggested, which are already not popular, but which continue to be seen as accessible. In fact, shoppers find very cheap prices when they buy from different merchants or food suppliers.

And here, customer service is also different. Some traders do not think twice about dancing and singing when they are helping a customer. It is a reflection of the Caribbean or Latino blood that runs through their veins.

Neither would they think twice about loudly singing “half price” offers, in a style that bears no resemblance to traditional market selling.

This is Brixton market, which takes place every day of the week from 8am-6pm, (except Wednesdays, where it closes at 3pm). The place where Saturdays are known as lively days, and whose streets are filled with people who wander, patiently searching for their destination.

(Translated by Emma O’Toole)

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