Small axe: Mangrove proves the importance of protecting community spaces in the age of gentrification

“Notting Hill is a very unique community where many people from the West Indies live, it is a community born out of resistance to a series of backwards attacks from the police… It has something that was located somewhere in the stench of British colonialism. His masters again. In defending themselves against an attack, a community is born and wherever a community is born, it creates institutions that it needs… We created the Mangrove. We shaped it to satisfy our needs. The Mangrove is ours.” 

These words, delivered passionately in Shaun Parkes’ portrayal of Darkus Howe for the first installment of Steve Mcqueen’s Small Axe series, live in my thoughts, rent free. Mcqueen’s dramatisation of the plight of the Mangrove nine, a group prosecuted at the Old Bailey for protesting police harassment of a Black communal hub, is at once harrowing and uplifting. For many of us, the film was an introduction to the monumental court case, 50 years on. Still, it resonates so deeply because we’re yet to escape the marginalisation those Notting Hillians fought so honorably against. 

Direct parallels can be drawn between the Mangrove protest and the BLM protests of this year; most notably police aggression towards and demonisation of protestors involved. The only real differences are that the movement has broadened, from defending our establishments to protecting our peoplehood and that we’re fast running out of establishments to defend in the first place. The British ruling class, threatened by the implications of an economically independent Black community, can no longer rely on crooked cops to dissuade us from owning our own shit and has instead turned to the subtle nudges of gentrification. 

6-8 All Saints Road, where the Mangrove restaurant once stood, became a Rum Kitchen. A former facilitator of Black joy and Black resistance, fell victim to the cruel crutches of gentrifiers and it was done so covertly that nobody batted an eyelid. I was (naïvely) shocked to find the restaurant chain, which sells ‘Caribbean-inspired’ food and cocktails, is owned by two white men. Though they closed their Notting Hill location permanently last April, the signage on the building remains as a stark reminder of how gentrification often intersects with appropriation. Perhaps even more worrying is that property prices in West London have risen to the point where two white entrepreneurs can no longer afford rent on the building so imagine how hard it would be for a Black business-owner, who already has to deal with racist disparities in fundraising. 

Such is the insidious nature of gentrification; a marginalised people are priced out of certain neighbourhoods, or pushed out due to persistent othering, so they move elsewhere. With them they carry their resilience, culture, and innovative spirits, turning ‘elsewhere’ into vibrant, cohesive communities. The vibrance is attractive to young people of all walks of life and before long, ‘elsewhere’ becomes the coolest spot in town. While the property remains cheap, those young people move in droves. This changes the makeup of a community, which once served a specific purpose, and businesses eager to capitalise off the wealth of trendy white youth, shoehorn their way in, trampling on all the purpose-built establishments the marginalised group worked so hard to forge, driving up the cost of living for everyone and forcing the marginalised group out all over again. 

The fragmentation of Black communities through gentrification can be seen all over London; in the bright lights of Brixton’s Electric Avenue, the artisan coffee shops of Brick Lane and the hot yoga studios of Peckham Rye. As much as it’s just another function of capitalism’s cruel mechanisms, the resulting dilution of culture and destruction of community-based enterprises serves the racist agenda of stripping minorities of safe spaces to organise. Outside of boycotting offending companies (which is easier said than done) there isn’t much we can do to put an end to the tireless cycle of gentrification but it is possible to rally behind our all-important community spaces so that they might escape its clutches. 

It starts with awareness, make sure you know exactly who is profiting from the businesses you spend the most money in, once you have that awareness you can redirect your funds towards the business owners who helped to build and continue to elevate the communities in which they operate. Very few minority-owned businesses are on social media, so it also helps to make noise on the internet on their behalf; tell your friends and followers about the great atmosphere, sincere service or unique products. And finally, at the first whiff of a gentrified takeover, put up a fight, sign petitions and enlist your local politicians like the supporters of Nour Cash and Carry in Brixton. The Mangrove may no longer be ours but we can protect what is.

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