Today the Notting Hill area in London contains some of the most expensive and desired properties in the capital and has become world-famous for its annual Carnival. But 60 years ago, it was a cesspit of racist violence. The transformation has been little short of miraculous.
The streets of Notting Hill are quiet now. It is possible to walk from one end of the neighbourhood to the other without experiencing any issues.
Since the release of the film of the same name, in 1999, Notting Hill has acquired a reputation for calm gentility. That may not apply quite so formally to those streets in which the black population predominates - namely, that part of the borough where gentrified redevelopment has not been applied with the same vigour--but it is still a place in which the residents are proud to live.
It wasn't always that way because to an older generation, the term Notting Hill carried overtones of sub-standard housing, social and moral deprivation, personal anonymity and the worst race riots the United Kingdom has experienced in living memory. That happened in the sweltering final days of 1958--that is, 60 years ago this coming month.
Aggressive white youths, the now almost mythologised Teddy Boys, egged on by extreme rightwing agitators, hunted down the black people in their midst. When the latter defended themselves, violence ensued on both sides.
The escalation of tension culminated in the murder of Kelso Cochrane, a carpenter/student born in Antigua, stabbed fatally by white 'yobs' on 17 May 1959. Incidentally, 'yobs' signifies lay-about youths ('yob' is 'boy' spelt backwards), perceived as having less than average intelligence, and prone to violence. For Cochrane's funeral procession on 6 June 1959, the neighbourhood turned out en masse, or so it seemed, local people of all races swelled by many well-wishers from outside, to mourn his passing (and the passing, too, of their own innocence).
That is where the renaissance, the regeneration, started. Rather, it was one of several landmark events which came together to bring about that renaissance--from which Notting Hill has become accepted as the cultural nursery of the country's African and West Indian communities, and, ironically, a symbol of inter-racial cultural harmony.
The steps leading to this transition are marked by blue plaques in memory of those citizens who played prominent roles in that development and sited at locations most relevant to the cause. (A blue plaque is a...