LONDON, Aug 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With sequins, spice and Soca, London will celebrate its Afro-Caribbean heritage at this weekend’s Notting Hill carnival but locals worry that Europe’s largest street festival has lost it soul to gentrification.
More than a million people are expected to pour into the ritzy west London neighbourhood of Notting Hill over the long holiday weekend as floats parade the streets in an exuberant show of eye-popping costumes, pulsing music and dance.
Organisers say it is second in size only to Brazil’s world-famous Rio carnival; detractors fear Notting Hill - and its world-famous annual parade - has lost its spirit.
“It’s important that we maintain things like the Notting Hill carnival and the strong cultural aspects of it, because it’s almost like there’s this last little thing that we’re holding onto in this area which is Caribbean,” said Sonya Dyer, a third generation Jamaican who designs costumes for carnival.
Established in 1966, carnival was set up to celebrate Afro-Caribbean culture, which flourished with immigration after World War Two. Confrontation with the far right followed, and race riots erupted in what was a shabby immigrant enclave in 1958.
Now the area is one of London’s richest, lined with elegant stucco houses that are home to bankers, oligarchs and stars.
“(Carnival) is still very much the heart of the community. There’s a lot of talk about the gentrification of Notting Hill as an area but there is very much still a community here, hanging on,” the festival’s organiser, Matthew Phillip, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Yet an average home in the area costs more than a million pounds ($1.28 million), according to real estate agent Foxtons, up from about 392,000 pounds ($500,000) two decades ago.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), income inequality among adults has risen faster in Britain than in any other developed country since 1975, with wealth disparities in London even more pronounced.
Such changes are reflected in the carnival, said Bilal Ibn Fahim, who can hear and smell the carnival from his home.
“It’s got gentrified for sure, you notice much more middle-class, white people coming,” he said.
“They have changed routes,” he said of the parade’s many floats. “As the area has become more gentrified, there’s obviously people who don’t want that kind of thing.”
In 2016, British media reported that the carnival could be moved to Hyde Park or another London location altogether after complaints escalated about noise, crime and disruption.
Locals lampoon the idea.
“It’s called the Notting Hill carnival - so moving it anywhere else would be stupid,” said Ibn Fahim, a 30-year-old who grew up in the area. “That would just be giving into other voices that might not necessarily have lived here for a long time but are pushing their weight around.”
The parade will feature almost 100 bands, sassy street dancing around decorative floats and about 38 sound systems and stages bellowing everything from reggae to house.
Gaz Mayall has been an integral fixture at carnival for 42 years, running a blues sound system with a fancy-dress theme.
Not this year. For the first time since 1975, Mayall said he would not take part, telling the Thomson Reuters Foundation he felt pushed out and put off by the high costs and bureaucracy.
“There is an element in the authorities that rather than encouraging and supporting it, they want to do everything they can to nobble it, and conquer it, and make it harder and harder for anyone to be able to afford to be involved,” he said.
“All we feel is pressure and pressure and pressure to the point where it squeezes everybody out,” he said.
Despite the carnival attracting millions of people and putting the area on the tourist map, it also contributes an estimated 93 million pounds ($118 million)to London’s economy, according to the mayor’s office.
But Mayall said its future was under threat if locals like him dropped out. “Carnival will always be a community-led event and we will always support it,” local council leader Elizabeth Campbell told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But her team is already facing criticism for a devastating fire in the borough at Grenfell Tower flats, which killed at least 71 people and highlighted the gap between rich and poor.
Even as organisers acknowledged the area and carnival had both grown and changed, Phillip said the party would go on.
"Carnival will always be here," he said. ($1 = 0.7841 pounds) (Reporting by Adela Suliman; editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)