A tale of two business improvement districts

Brixton and Harlem are 3,400 miles and an ocean away from each other. But the team at Brixton Business Improvement District realised that there was more in common between the two districts than you might first think – and it was this insight that led to the development of an award-winning twinning between the two districts.

The Brixton X Harlem festival reached across continents to celebrate shared stories and weave together the rich tapestries of two iconic neighbourhoods that are deeply rooted in the African and Caribbean diaspora. And crucially, it gave Brixton residents and businesses the opportunity to rediscover their own connection to the district. We sat down with Gianluca Rizzo, Managing Director, and Jessica Dyer, Cultural Manager at Brixton BID, to understand how they put community at the heart of this placemaking initiative and what it took to make the twinning partnership successful.

Congratulations on being the first ever winner of the City Nation Place Award for Best Placemaking Initiative! Can you tell us a little bit about what kickstarted the idea to twin with Harlem 125th Street Business Improvement District in the first place, and what the vision was for your partnership?

Well, we already knew Barbara Askin, President and CEO of Harlem’s 125th Street BID, through the BID industry. Back in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent global Black Lives Matter movement, Barbara and the team in Harlem created Canvas for Change walls as a message of reassurance to the local community. Canvas for Change entailed the transformation of the boarded-up shop fronts into spaces for the community to share sorrow, hopes, and dreams for the future.

Inspired by this, we connected with Barbara to discuss the challenges that our communities share across the two locations. In Brixton, we then created a campaign with key messages of support and celebration of our community. Over 30 lamppost banners were installed around Brixton. These campaigns by both BIDs highlighted the similarities between the two places: both have a long and rich history of being the epicentres of a convergence of diversity, with large Black communities, representing various parts of the diaspora. They also share a number of common traits beyond the socio-demographical makeup of their neighbourhoods. These two communities share similar history, social issues, and in recent years, both have experienced a rapid socio-economic transformation, which some refer to as gentrification.

Furthermore, the two BIDs are forged out of almost identical principles and values such as equality, diversity, inclusivity and social justice. This led to the first of its kind BID to BID and neighbourhood twinning with the mission of improving the quality of life for residents of respective communities by improving the economic health and well-being of the community, and by creating programs that reflect the vibrancy and history of the people and the neighbourhood.

In what way did the twinning partnership shape your approach to placemaking?

Our place values and celebrating our community have always been at the forefront of our work. Being able to take our place values and look at them with a global lens has been an exciting new way to explore and learn from the work they undertake in Harlem.

What’s the key to making a trans-Atlantic, place-to-place partnership work successfully?

Communication, dreaming bigger, and visiting your twin! We had the opportunity to visit Harlem on a research trip before the festival which transformed how we thought about the twinning. While the concept and online conversations before this were fruitful, it was walking around the streets of Harlem with a group of business leaders from Brixton that we could feel the connections between the two places outside of theoretical similarities. During the festival we were able to fund a group of delegates from Harlem and introduce them to our communities in Brixton, and again, this was an opportunity to bring the twinning to life for those involved and to experience the similarities between these two iconic neighbourhoods.

Is there an aspect of the partnership that you’re most proud of?

Our first festival, hosted in Brixton in August 2022 was a fantastic free community focused event. We were able to bring together partners working in music, arts, culture, heritage, craft, and business. Through conversations, workshops, performances, over food and drink, people were able to connect. Across the five-day festival we addressed the twinning within five key themes: Business & Industry; Arts & Culture; Music; Food & Drink; and Heritage.

The programme included conversations between Brixton and Harlem representatives on Twinning, the two neighbourhoods and Cultural Capital. We hosted pop-up kitchens with Harlem chefs; musicians; heritage tours; exhibitions and installations. The festival enabled both places to reframe our own histories, businesses, and communities, to understand them anew with the reflection of our twin.

This work has connected businesses owners in Harlem with contemporaries in Brixton with the facilities to work on projects. Through the twinning we were able to connect Harlem Brewing Co. with Brixton Brewery, the two teams created a base recipe and added to it favours reflective of each area. The first brew, created in Brixton, was launched during the festival, and started a long-term relationship.

We were able to connect The Studio Museum, Harlem with Black Cultural Archies, Brixton, this relationship allowed for an online panel conversation during the festival and has developed an ongoing programme of collaboration. And we commissioned a local design agency to create a flexible but distinctive brand for the twinning, cementing a visual language for this initiative and producing a strong identity for the project.

The project has caught the imaginations of industry, universities, filmmakers, creatives, and businesses; bringing us together to think global in new ways.

We’re increasingly seeing more Business Improvement Districts stepping up and taking a more active role in the development of their place. What would be your advice to another BID that was looking to evolve their own purpose?

Dream bigger. Business Improvement Districts know their area inside out, from business owners to local government representatives, to residents. You are perfectly placed to celebrate the identity of an area, staying true to their values while exploring them in new and exciting ways.

Is there anything exciting in the pipeline for your partnership with Harlem following your early successes?

With two Brixton-based festivals behind us, we are looking at ways we can have a year-round approach to our twinning. We are excited to see how Brixton can be represented in Harlem and work on more business-to-business twinnings which create special bonds between the two places.

Looking forward to seeing more from Brixton then!


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