They are legendary neighborhoods, an ocean apart, yet connected by parallel histories and similar challenges.
Both are predominantly Black communities, fighting to overcome social challenges, while at the same time working to keep their own cultural success from overwhelming the very cohesion that makes these places what they are.
The communities are Brixton in south London and Harlem in upper Manhattan.
We are used to hearing about sister cities. But this week the theme was sister neighborhoods, as Brixton came to Harlem.
In any community the business people are among the most central. Which is how Barbara Askins, President & CEO of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, and Gianluca Rizzo, managing director of the Brixton BID, came to the idea of “twinning” the two districts.
Brixton is “considered by many to be the home of Black Britain,” the organizers said, rich with cultural institutions like the Black Cultural Archive and Brixton House, the theater, which hold places in British culture not all that different from the prominence here of The Apollo, the National Black Theatre, the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Schomburg Center.
“These two communities share a similar history,” said Askins. “Social issues including inequities and crime, and in recent years, both have experienced a rapid socio-economic transformation, which many refer to as gentrification due to the new influx of wealthy individuals moving into the area.”
Tours and Conversations
Askins and her colleagues from the 125th St. BID welcomed ten members of the Brixton BID – theater operators, museum managers, a brewer and a club owner – for a weeklong visit, full of tours and conversations.
When I first came to America people told me ‘never come to Harlem’,” said Leah Abraham, owner of Settapani’s, the popular Italian style-restaurant at 120th and Malcolm X Boulevard (née Lenox Avenue).
“Same in Brixton,” replied Gbolahan Obisesan, artistic director of Brixton House, a theater that traces its roots to the 1960s and the pioneering experimental theatre company, Ovalhouse. David Hare, the playwright, was a stage manager there.
Abraham and Obisesan illustrate another commonality of Brixton and Harlem, the way new arrivals have repeatedly reenergized the communities. Abraham arrived from Eritrea 23 years ago, fleeing the war with Ethiopia. Obisesan was nine when his family brought him to London from Nigeria.
This constant flow of new people has taken a worrisome turn of late, however. Both money and people are flowing into Brixton and Harlem, in part because of their success as capitals of Black culture. But many of these newcomers are “people who don’t care about the historical narrative,” said Lisa Anderson, the interim Managing Director of Brixton’s Black Cultural Archives, which describes itself as “dedicated to collecting, preserving and celebrating the histories of African and Caribbean people in Britain.”
She was one of several participants who emphasized the opportunity for the two communities to tap their histories as tools of economic development. The Black Cultural Archives were not conceived as an economic engine, “yet it served that function,” she explained.
From this broad idea, the business improvement district leaders also swapped more nitty-gritty insights. For example, both business improvement districts are supported by a local tax. In New York that levy is paid by the owner of a property, whether it is vacant or occupied.
But in the British system the tax is paid by a property owner if the site is vacant and by the tenant business when rented out, a system that might encourage some property owners in New York to leave fewer storefronts vacant.
Business Across the Pond
One major topic, as befits two business districts, was finding opportunities to do business across the pond. A good part of the week was taken in conversations between and visits to similar businesses – restaurants, fashion designers and even brewers, who thought they might come up with a Harlem Brixton brew.
The Brixton visitors and their Harlem hosts covered much ground, both topically and physically. “We did 33,000 steps one day,” said Askins, “and 25,000 the next.” Demonstrating the universal power of mobile phone pedometers.
“Everybody is going away with amazing energy,” said Rizzo as he boarded his flight for London Friday night. “We went away thinking we have more in common than we thought.”
Coming in August will be a Festival in Brixton, Brixton X Harlem, celebrating what Rizzo described as “common threads” like food and drink, music and theater. One of the goals of this visit was so the Brixton organizers of the festival could experience Harlem firsthand and not work just from the internet.
The British government has put up a tidy sum to support the festival. But everyone here wants to go, said Askins. For that, they are trying to raise travel money now. For the future, Askins would love to see the festival become an annual event alternating between old world and new.
“We also need to raise funds to do the Harlem portion of the twinning and I am looking to use our US connections to help on our end,” said Askins. “They were successful in getting their government to allocate funds for the festival in Brixton. One of the things we discussed during this visit is that maybe one year the festival could be in Brixton and one year it could be in Harlem.”