THAT OLD BUZZ ON ELECTRIC AVENUE
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE
Electric Avenue at Brixton is a cornucopia of all the basic necessities of life: food, drink, clothes and kitchen towels. A walk down the meandering road fills your senses with all kinds of stimuli. Halal shops dominate, acting like their alpha male, knife-wielding butchers. Vegetable shops with carefully stacked yam, ackee, pepper, okra and papaya are in direct competition with their neighbouring, equally hued clothes stalls. Stores selling everything from scrubbers to buckets to silverware to cellphone covers play hide and seek with each other. There are hawkers hawking, women chatting, men smoking, and everybody is welcome to dive into this chaos and get what they need. Electric Avenue was built in the 1880s and was one of the first streets to have electric light – hence the name. It is part of a triad of markets that make Brixton so vibrant, the other two being Market Row and the Village market.
There are hawkers hawking, women chatting, men smoking, and everybody is welcome to dive into this chaos and get what they need.
Market Row has an assortment of shops selling everything from hats to old furniture. It has Mexican, Italian and Chinese restaurants and is a smorgasbord of sights with a semi-gentrified covered market area with a tall ceiling and windows on its dome-shaped roof. It’s where I found a decrepit looking store selling all the masalas I had been dreaming of, at half the prices of Hackney. I’d strolled in because I was curious to see what the store had (and a little drunk), and I walked out with close to two kilos of cumin seeds, coriander powder, bay leaves, turmeric, garam masala, peppercorn, cardamom, dried red chillies and the hope of cooking all sorts of Indian food. Right next to the masala store was a stall selling CDs, triple A batteries, lighters and holographic posters (wolves, Jesus, kittens and naked ladies took turns changing positions as I walked by). When I asked if I could take a picture, I got a “Sure swee’art, don’ worry ‘bout it.” I tried not to point my camera directly at the, erm, ladies of lenient morals.
I have an aversion to reading about a place before visiting it, the same way I have an aversion to reading movie/book reviews. I like the idea of getting lost and I love the element of surprise. I say this because that day, as I finished sussing Market Row, I crossed the road and accidentally walked into the Village Market, a gentrified little beauty. The immaculate placement of store signs with their carefully careless fonts, surgically placed window displays and squeaky cleanliness jump at you on first sight. The rawness of Electric Avenue and Market Row is nowhere in sight. Here it’s all about the right kind of everything – food, artisanal jewellery, dressed up charcuteries, dapper fishmongers and socks made of bamboo. The gentrification of Village Market happened in 2009 on account of it almost going under (like many of its counterpart independent markets) with the rise supermarkets. With a fresh new take and a lot more restaurants, people came in droves. Trinkets, food, groceries and a day about town had turned Brixton into a neat little package.
Brixton got its bohemian identity at the turn of the 19th century when it became home to a lot of music hall performers. Then, after the Second World War, the cheap rents attracted the Windrush generation – a wave of post war immigrants from the Caribbean – who brought a lot more colour and ethnicity with them when they settled in. Multi-ethnicity, hustle bustle, being in a real, old school marketplace makes this not-so-quiet corner of London very special. Since I’ve got enough masalas to last a nuclear winter, I’ll have to come up with another excuse to make a day of bumming around Brixton.
Brixton Market, Electric Avenue, Brixton, London SW9 8JP