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How will Brixton’s history be remembered?

Posted on 14 June 2023

How can you preserve and curate the history of our ‘inner cities’? That’s the question being considered by community activists, academics and curators during an event in Brixton today, run jointly by the University of York and the Brixton Project.

Areas, such as Brixton, once in urban decline, are now popular places to live

The event is part of a five-year research project led by the University of York and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, looking at how the twentieth century ‘inner city’ is remembered and represented. 

Dr Gareth Millington from the University of York’s Department of Sociology leads the project. He said: “During the 70s and 80s, both politicians and the media characterised urban decline in our inner cities as a ‘race problem’, as these were areas with predominantly black and migrant residents. 

“At the same time, these residents drew strength from the urban communities they nurtured, often in resistance to the racism they experienced. Since the 1990s, the liveliness and perceived authenticity of places such as Brixton and their proximity to city centres began to make them desirable places to live, especially among the young and educated.

"Their history is very much part of their appeal but that’s in danger of getting lost in the process – and we want to look at what is chosen as heritage and who makes those choices.”

Curated heritage

Alongside Brixton, the project is also looking at la Goutte d’Or/Château Rouge in Paris and the area of South Philadelphia once known as the ‘seventh ward’. All three areas are traditionally associated with black and migrant communities, and play an important role in their city’s history.

The day-long symposium – ‘Archiving the Inner City: How is Brixton remembered? What is preserved and what is lost? – will be accompanied by an exhibition of photos created especially for the project, showing Brixton (Thabo Jaiyesimi), la Goutte d’Or/Château Rouge (Eddy Anael) and historic black neighbourhoods of Philadelphia (Monique Perry). Delegates will take part in various panel discussions and have the opportunity to take a walking history tour of Brixton.

The three areas studied by the project are at different stages of turning their past into curated heritage, allowing the researchers to draw comparisons between them. The team have also been visiting Black cultural institutions in New Orleans, learning how they were established, so they can share these insights with community activists in other cities.

Dr Miranda Armstrong, research associate at the University of York, explains: “Our aim isn’t to create an archive ourselves but to understand the processes by which a city’s history is retained. We’ve visiting archives and collections, and talking to people on the ground, who run walking tours, curate exhibitions and set up museums and other projects. We want to collect all this experience together and help others to learn from it.”

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