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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 July, 2003, 10:02 GMT 11:02 UK
Changing the guard with black tourism
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Brixton market: Hubbub of activity
Tourism is about more than the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, say those behind a plan to promote London as a multicultural world city.

Peering out of Brixton tube station, it makes an unlikely tourist destination. On one side there's a drunkard hassling commuters.

On the other, a street preacher harangues all who pour forth. And in the background there's the thought of the 1981 Brixton riots that poisoned its reputation for a generation.

But business leaders have launched a tourism plan to develop London as a destination for "black tourism", starting with Brixton.

The city's first ever black visitors' guide is on the streets, promoting the past and present of the city's many different communities.

Windrush Square, named after the first ship to bring Caribbean workers to the UK in 1948
Brixton: Epicentre of Afro-Caribbean Britain
Visit London, the capital's tourism authority, has already been selling the city as a destination for gay visitors.

It is planning a website to promote London's status as a "world city" to help develop community-led tourism away from the tour bus routes.

"Our history and pageantry is very important," says Wendy Neville of Visit London.

"But over 50% of our visitors have been here before. They want different experiences and we need to promote these.

Nana Ocran with the Black London guide
Black Cultural Archive
Mr Jerk restaurant
Africa Centre, Covent Garden
Grant & Cutler bookshop
Brixton Market
As recommended by Nana Ocran
"Brixton may be considered miles away from what we think London tourism to be - but it is only eight minutes away from Buckingham Palace by Underground."

If Harlem in New York is anything to go by, then London could be on to a winner.

Harlem, like Brixton, has suffered with an image problem for years.

Neal Shoemaker founded Harlem Heritage Tours (see internet links) in 1998 and tapped a huge demand.

"People would come into Harlem with a perception formed through the media," he says.

"I wanted visitors to see Harlem through the eyes of the people who live and work here."

Mr Shoemaker's tours are on everything from jazz history through to the stories of black Americans who helped shape modern New York. What advice does he have for British black tourism?

"The tour buses that go past Big Ben are fine. But the people of Brixton have to run tours themselves because they have the passion to tell the story of where they live."

Touring Brixton

Jay Brown, founder of Brixton Tours, has brought this idea of community-led tourism back to the UK.

Jay Brown of Brixton tours
Jay Brown: First tour guide for Brixton
Her hour-long walk through Brixton takes in Britain's first electrically-lit street, (made famous by Reggae star Eddie Grant's 'Electric Avenue'), the 'Frontline' of the 1981 riots, one of Europe's largest Caribbean markets, food tastings and the diverse music and arts scene.

She says Harlem shows community-led tourism can also help shake off a negative past.

"Brixton has so much to offer from its history through to the diversity of what is here now," says Jay. "You won't find in the West End what you find here."

"In Harlem they are already way ahead of the UK in promoting this kind of tourism."

Nana Ocran, author of the black London guide, believes this is just the start.

"This is not about making a political statement," says Nana. "But there's been a real stop-and-start approach to how we promote black culture.

"One of the strangest comments I heard was that a 'black guide' would alienate white people. All I'm doing is completing the picture."

A political issue?

Spookily on cue, a man asks her about the guidebook he has just been handed as part of the promotion.

You can throw a dart at any area of London and find a black contribution to its history
Steve Martin, historian
"I'm not sure about all this," he says. "Brixton has got, well, a bad reputation already."

"How do you mean?" asks Nana. "It's not just about Brixton."

"Well, I look at this book and think it's for ethnics only," he replies, walking off. "Not sure if this is the right thing for London."

This mixture of culture and politics is a sore point for some historians.

Steve Martin, author of Britain's Slave Trade, already runs tours of what he describes as "London's other history".

On an open-top bus tour through the West End, Steve points out hidden history.

"You can throw a dart at any area and find a black contribution to its history," says Steve.

"At Trafalgar Square, you don't see the frieze at eye level with a black marine holding a musket. But this history is there to be seen."

This debate culminates every October in black history month, an idea half-heartedly borrowed from America.

"We have a very narrow attitude of history," says Steve. "Shakespeare alluded to a multicultural London. But then we got an empire. And with that came a model of history that supported the idea of racial purity.

"What is most shocking is how little is taught in schools. Children know more about black American history than the heritage of people walking in their own streets."

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