North Kensington has a rich and varied history with the arts. Much of its creativity stems from the economic hardship of the area – in the 1950s and 1960s, a vast proportion of housing was in extremely poor condition, often likened to ‘slums’. The draw of cheap accommodation meant that many migrant populations, those on low incomes, and artists and bohemians, moved to the area. From the squats in Frestonia, to the support provided by social housing associations (such as Notting Hill Housing Trust), North Kensington provided a space where people could express their creativity and grew a reputation of underground and alternative culture.
The many pubs traditionally provided venues where the artistic community could perform or convene. But over the years, other meeting places for the increasingly diverse community, also opened. In 1968 the Mangrove Restaurant was founded and served West Indian and English feasts to locals, as well as the likes of Sammy Davis Junior, Marvin Gaye, and Nina Simone, to name just a few of its more famous visitors. In the 1970s, The Tabernacle – formerly a church – was saved from demolition by community protests. In 1973 it was occupied by ‘hippy types’ for its first community gig and by the late seventies and into the eighties it became a focal point for local music, especially that of the black community. In addition, Portobello Market, like many others, started by selling local produce, but by the 1980s, the fashion and arts scene had exploded and it became a place for designers and artists to sell their work.
Then of course, there is Notting Hill Carnival – possibly the most famous example of the area’s artistic expression. Coming from the African Caribbean community, who mainly settled in the 1950s, it began in the sixties with live music, hand-made costumes, masquerade bands and steel pan. The 1970s saw the addition of hand-built sound systems, particularly famous in Jamaican music culture. These systems were – and still are – capable of lighting up an entire street with sound. The Carnival, which has grown to be the largest street festival in Europe, celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2016.
Music labels in the area are probably most famous for spearheading the sounds of reggae and punk rock, two perhaps unlikely companions, but both hugely influential sounds. In fact, the bringing together of two camps to form new and exciting creations is a hallmark of the North Kensington music scene. The area is known for visits from the likes of soul superstar Marvin Gaye; reggae superstar Bob Marley; and rock superstar Jimi Hendrix, who lived in a Notting Hill flat and died in a Notting Hill hotel. The area’s punk heritage status is secured with its connection to the birth of The Clash.
On the alternative visual front, North Kensington has long been home to graffiti of all forms. From the super-colourful, sometimes extremely complex New York-inspired styles, to basic paint-brushed political slogans or cultural observations, the area is famed for producing some of the best graffiti crews in Europe. Its walls even include a handful of – although some long painted over – examples from street artist, Banksy.
Undeniably, the migrant populations and whoever happened to be the working class population of the time have generated much of the art in North Kensington. However, due to the gentrification of the area; the ever-increasing housing prices; the demise in affordable studio spaces; and the continual closures of community and artistic venues, the very thing and people, who have made North Kensington a world famous place, are increasingly under threat…