I could live in Brixton. It’s got community and plenty of it, and Joburg could do with community, in big helpings.
With slogans like “SMILE – you live in Brixton”, “Celebrating Community”, and “Beautify Y(our) Brixton Block”, Brixton sets itself apart.
Regular campaigns in the suburb are led by the Brixton Community Forum. Whereas many Joburg suburbs have residents’ associations that hold an annual fete or fair but seem to be mainly focused on security, Brixton works hard on its community.
They held a mid-December open top bus event, where residents drove past homes to judge the “Light up Brixton Festival”, in which homeowners were encouraged to hang festive lights on the front of their homes. The winner enjoyed two nights in the Drakensberg.
The suburb held a Christmas market, with carol singing, in the Kingston Frost Park, “a lovely, lovely evening,” says Ann Simmonds, a long-time resident and forum member responsible for cleaning and greening the park. Residents brought along their picnic blankets, and together with friends and family, watched the sun go down. Food was available for sale, as were homemade crafts and goodies. The Brixton Breeze Band provided the entertainment. The band is made up of 18 members, ranging from 9 years to 40-somethings.
This is not to say that Brixton doesn’t have problems. Overcrowding is an issue, with landlords exacting extortionist rents from often powerless tenants. Vagrants move into the park. Motor mechanics set up shop, polluting the street with motor oil. But the Brixton forum has a different approach. Working with the council, they try to find solutions together with transgressors, instead of being punitive and just relying on the council to enforce its by-laws.
“We invite them into the community – we have shared norms. It is a human approach, not a police approach. They are also our people,” says Simmonds.
In October residents were asked to bring along their brooms and gardening gloves to tackle three problem streets. Together with Joburg City Parks, residents cleaned and planted 150 planters along High Street and recently had the satisfaction of enjoying sprouting giant sunflowers.
Litter was collected, weeds were pulled and trees were pruned. Seventy people turned up for this. “Picking up rubbish in High Street – it’s part of who we all are,” adds Simmonds, who supervises a monthly park day.
Those who could not volunteer their time were asked to pledge a day’s wage to employ an unemployed Brixton resident to take their place. Six people got work that day.
To follow up the sunflower initiative, the Brixton Sidewalk Competition was held in October. The winner got a R500 Rosebank Zone voucher.
The 100-year-old Brixton has traditionally been a working class suburb, but in recent years professionals have snapped up bargain homes, taking on Brixton’s can-do attitude. Today judges, lawyers, doctors, writers, musicians, architects and academics roll up their sleeves and work for the collective good of Brixton.
The banks had red-lined the suburb but a year ago when a couple applied for a bond the community rallied and in three days they got their bond.
Brixton has wide, clean streets, with charming semi-detached homes and splendid stoeps, some beautifully restored. Several houses are national monuments, and it boasts a Herbert Baker and Frank Fleming church.
But what is striking is that houses have low walls and no electric fencing. This means that taking the dog for a walk turns into a sociable occasion, chatting to neighbours up and down the street.
Consequently the streets in Brixton are busier and safer. Lucy Nxumalo has lived in Brixton for seven years, previously living in Soweto and Yeoville. “I feel comfortable to walk the streets,” she says.
In my suburb, not far from Brixton, I am on waving terms with my neighbours, but I don’t know their names, I don’t know what they do, and I don’t chat to them.
There is a strong emphasis on children in the suburb. The recreation centre has been revived for them, offering classes and homework assistance. And, the forum has arranged with Pick n Pay to drop off a cake, decorated with the child’s name, at the centre, on their birthdays.
“There is always someone to give oversight, to look after a baby for two hours,” says Simmonds.
Musician Elzabe Zietsman runs the Doilie Club Foundation from her house in Brixton. It helps sponsor and fundraise to send musically talented kids to the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein. In 2013 she will be fostering six kids, with help and donations from residents.
“Silly to be surrounded by all this talent and not make use of it, wouldn’t you say?” she writes in her newsletter.
Now I don’t know about you, but I could live without high walls and electric fencing. I could also live with good neighbourliness and community.