Nour, a local cash and carry, has been a fixture of Brixton life for 20 years. It’s affectionately nicknamed ‘the tunnel shop’ as it connects Electric Avenue with Brixton Market. When the markets were bought by a Texan multi-millionaire property developer, and he served them within a Section 28 eviction notice, I became part of the team that helped them stay.
I grew up in Brixton, but had drifted away from it in recent years. I had thrown parties in pubs, clubs and railway arches in my early 20s, but all this had changed over the past decade. Network Rail closed the railway arches, developers shut many of the pubs, and the price for a small terraced house went well over a million pounds. So I moved out. As did most of my friends.
This is a common occurrence in London. Places change. But the hyper-gentrification of Brixton was bewildering to observe.
The community watched as Network Rail evicted 150-year-old beloved businesses from the heart of Brixton with empty promises of returning. The ‘Save The Arches’ campaign was powerful but unsuccessful. Suddenly Brixton Splash (Brixton’s equivalent of Notting Hill Carnival) was deemed too dangerous, and Lambeth Country Show had a massive perimeter fence around it. Graffiti appeared on the railway bridge: ‘Clapham That Way, You 2D Flat White Tepid Colonialist Yuppy Wanker’.
I have a very clear memory of protesting outside Brixton Library when Lambeth Council wanted to close it and turn it into a gym. I stood and watched, as the new, well-heeled Brixton residents scurried past us, all while steadfastly ignoring us. I didn’t mind new people, but I wanted them to care about the community they had moved to. The demographic had shifted, and that shift was uncomfortable. It gets exhausting when you are constantly trying to save things. #SaveTheArches #SaveLambethLibraries #SaveCressinghamEstate #SaveTheGrosvenor.
The final ‘nail in the coffin’ moment for me was when Brixton’s longest running club, Club 414, was evicted in 2018. It had a 24-hour license and was a big part of the trance scene in London. Tony and Louise ran the club for 30 years and lived above it. I was upset to hear that it was closing at the time. I’d put on lots of parties there. I signed a petition and lodged an objection with the council but didn’t think much more of it. It was yet another business closing due to faceless developers. I felt powerless to stop it.
So, this brings me to Nour. It was served with a Section 28 eviction notice in January this year, and customers had rallied around to protest against this. A group of local activists knew that the owner of Brixton Market was Taylor McWilliams, who had bought Brixton Market for £37.3 million, through his company Hondo Enterprises. He is also part of a tech house DJ group called Housekeeping, which is run with other insanely privileged DJs. One of his partners is called Jacobi Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe. (DJ name: Jacobi.)
The campaign organised some online activity during lockdown, as demonstrations would be impossible. Housekeeping was taking part in an online DJ set, organised by Pacha. It featured other big-name DJs like Pete Tong. The activists ‘crashed the Zoom’ and held up signs asking Taylor why he was evicting his tenants during a pandemic. You could see him dancing in a kimono and suddenly clocking that things hadn’t gone quite as planned. It was a glorious moment of someone realising you cannot keep your two worlds separate: your tech-house career and your property developer career.
This was when I got involved. I saw tweets by Jay Rayner, who had spelt out how Hondo wanted to replace the shop with an electric power station, backed up by dubious claims of power cuts. I found out via local news site Brixton Buzz that Taylor had also evicted Club 414 and I felt so angry. Angry for Nour at their treatment, angry for Tony and Louise of 414, angry at the realisation he had also applied to build a 21-story office building in the heart of Brixton. And I was surprised by my anger: it felt odd to feel so protective about an area I’d drifted away from. At this point, the faceless developer who was hiking rents and evicting businesses suddenly had a face and a name.
I asked who was involved in the campaign and joined a weekly Zoom call, and many, many WhatsApp groups. The group was a fascinating mix of radical housing activists, local Labour members and loyal customers of all ages and professions. The campaign Twitter account was managed by activists who were well versed in local politics. I offered to email as many DJs and musicians I could think who might be interested in lending their voices and sharing the petition, given what had already happened to Brixton’s longest running nightclub.
We set up an Instagram account and started emailing London music people: Jessie Ware, Clara Amfo, Moxie, Gaika, Oneman, Joy Orbison, Phonox, Trilogy Tapes, Boiler Room. There were so many people who got involved. I pestered journalists at DJ Mag, Mixmag and The Guardian. We started to get traction.
But the shop was really the heart of the campaign. We spoke to people who travelled to Nour from Peterborough, to customers who shipped Nour’s products to Jamaica. Influential foodies were outraged. The shop is a big favourite with local chefs. A big win was when Yottam Ottolenghi posted the campaign to his 1.2 million Instagram followers. He said so many people had sent him the petition, as the shop is the only place in Brixton to find many ingredients used in his recipes. And that’s the thing: Nour is totally unique. It sells affordable food items that you can’t buy at any high street shop, while also being a community hub for many diaspora communities.
We started to look into everything in more detail. The proposal for the new 21-story building that Taylor wanted to build had a mock-up of the new look market. It featured a white person selling yams to another white person, with a Jamaican flag plonked on top. There clearly wasn’t anyone at Hondo who could recognise how tone deaf this was. The proposal also featured a local chef competition that my ex-boyfriend’s brother had judged. We emailed him and he swiftly posted a U-turn on Instagram in solidarity with Nour. Social media became a vital tool, alongside talking to other traders and pressuring the council. The campaign realised how vulnerable Taylor was to negative press, given that he was actively promoting his DJ career, with its hedonistic Ibiza lifestyle, while evicting tenants. Not your average tech-house DJ.
I learnt a lot from the other campaigners; from small structural things (hosting Zoom calls in a non-hierarchical fashion) to drafting letters and effective debating strategy. It was inspiring but bordered on overwhelming once the word started to spread. The Instagram account gained almost 15,000 followers; the petition reached over 58,000 signatures. We reached out to Wiley on Twitter as he shared the same management as Housekeeping. He gladly shared the campaign video.
We watched as the voices grew more eclectic: Joe Lycett, Mary Portas, Neneh Cherry, even Little Mix. Each one felt like a result. At one point, Housekeeping asked high-profile DJs who were getting involved to please stop as only one member of Housekeeping was involved in Hondo. In other words, could you please fuck off. This message rang hollow after we did some online digging and found out that Housekeeping Events Limited had received two loans from Hondo Enterprises. One was to the tune of £59,924; the other was for £154,062. They even set up a Twitter account called ‘Truth of Brixton’ to promote Hondo’s press statements. Which was pretty weird.
So we kept on pushing and the story kept getting bigger. And on 19th June, the Shaheen family, who run Nour, reached an agreement with Hondo Enterprises that they could stay. They have secured a long-term lease at an affordable rent. It was a wonderful feeling but bittersweet for me. I thought of Tony and Louise of Club 414, booted out of their home. But people were happy to celebrate a happy ending in what had been an unrelenting negative news cycle during lockdown. We are committed to helping other tenants in the future.
And yet, Taylor still owns Brixton Market and businesses are still under threat. There are many other grassroots community campaigns in London battling with hundreds of privileged speculators like Taylor. But I reckon none of those developers play tech-house.