London is vast. You would be forgiven for thinking that in one of the largest and most populated cities in the world, where real estate is gobbled up by Eastern tycoons, the idea of ‘community’ may be lacking. However, it could not be further from the truth.
Nestled amongst London’s glittering West End is something that looks much like any other bougie street food market, but Jimmy, one of the operational managers of Street Food Union, assures me this is not the case. “There are some people,” he tells me, “that just want to see profit when they think of street food. We don’t want to be associated with that, we like to build and develop businesses.” And that they have, the market boasts foods from the Yorkshire Burrito – a sunday roast (and other things) rolled up in a yorkshire pudding wrap, to Papelon’s delicious traditional Venezuelan arepas and cachapas, and both come highly recommended by me.
Street Food Union on Rupert Street is their baby, with the support of Westminster and Soho estates they have built something which is more than just food. They have worked with ex-prisoners, and are currently working with overqualified Syrian refugees, helping them to get into something better. Since their arrival in 2013 they have created such a buzz in the area that anti-social behaviour, like drug-dealing and stabbings, have been on the decline. Jimmy says that they, along with other great causes like the Brixton Soup Kitchen are about realising there’s more, helping the disillusioned go further.
They have teamed up with ONBlackheath, setting up a food market at the festival. ONBlackheath is a two day music festival, now in its fifth year, that is entirely child-friendly, early night friendly, and does not require any camping. Sounds perfect! With CBeebies, a zoo, arts and crafts. Tom, the founder, tells me it’s been “ten years, a real labour of love”, and it seems to me that it’s totally worth it. His friend, he says, will be staying from 1pm-6pm in the kids area before using the convenient pick-up point to have the grandparents pick the kids up so they can enjoy the evening.
Today, however, we’re not on Rupert Street just for the food or to talk music, we’re here For Jimmy Mizen. Everybody is here ForJimmy.
Jimmy Mizen “was born on a beautiful, sunny Saturday”, his father tells me. He had a lovely sense of humour, he got along with everyone, adults, babies, even his teachers would make him cups of tea. Jimmy Mizen was the second youngest son of nine children, and on a beautiful, sunny Saturday, he died in the arms of his brother Tommy by the hands of a man locally known for his violent nature. An unprovoked attack in a bakery, in the middle of the day, it was something that nobody could have predicted. Sadly, though Jimmy’s death was a decade ago, the violence in London shows no sign of slowing down. Since then, Margaret and Barry, Jimmy’s parents, have vowed to do all they can to tackle the problem.
The solution does not lie in, Barry tells me, “ever harsher punishment or the threat of ever harsher punishment[…]as a deterrent”. “When we’re talking about the violence among young people particularly, we’re not talking about people thinking rationally or logically, they’re just lashing out in anger. Being threatened with the 20, 30, or 50 year sentence won’t make a difference, so we’re trying to change that sense of thinking. What needs to be done? What can be done? The issues come from within our communities and there’s a responsibility upon each and every one of us, yourself, myself and everybody else, to say ‘what can we do to make our communities safer and more cohesive?’ We live in troubled times and and if ever we needed stronger communities, it’s now.”
The market on Rupert Street gives us but a brief look into how that community comes together. The food vendors are all wearing t-shirts proclaiming “BUILDING SAFER COMMUNITIES FOR JIMMY”. The charity is funded by their own cafes which, far from being just eateries, provide work experience opportunities for young people, and they work with young people with autism.
People have this way of thinking about grief, that one day it’s there and then, eventually, time being the healer, you get over it, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. When Barry and Margaret decided to go the route of compassion and education, rather than punishment and revenge, it was not a lightbulb, epiphany moment. “I think the emotions are still there now,” Barry says, “we’re been invited to schools and prisons to speak, and it was a gradual realisation that what we were doing was right. Yes, the perpetrator was caught, and the system worked, if you like, he is still in prison, serving a life sentence and the fact that he was identified has helped us in a way. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, and you can only imagine the anger that can go with that. Anger, in the end, can be a very, very destructive force. Of course we feel angry about what happened, we all do, you do, it’s just very very natural. What we then do with that is turn that into something positive, and it’s a much better way of managing. It allows us, as a family, to manage. If we went the other way we’d forever be eaten away by bitterness, hatred, and it would destroy all of us.”
The ONBlackheath festival will, once again, be providing a platform for ForJimmy to set up one of their cafes, further raising awareness in the local area for what happened, and what we can do to help. By realising that these issues begin in early childhood, much sooner than the teens, that we need to focus on younger children and talk in schools, and, as Street Food Union believes, show people that there is more to be gained from starting a business, from doing other things. We need to understand what needs to change there, and it is more of a community response than an individual one.
“Someone said to me: if it was all going to happen again would you still do it? I would take 16 years and one day of Jimmy right now, I would take two minutes of Jimmy right now. Unfortunately, I can’t so have to make the best I can out of what I’ve got. For us, that’s the charity.”
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALICIA NICOLE GRAHAM