Opposing landlords’ plans to turn a community hub into luxury flats, workers and local residents held a vibrant protest in the streets and marched on City Hall, reports Ross Maidment
“Whose streets? Our streets! Whose house? Our house!” rang the cries from a jostling crowd and turntabling compere, as a thousand Bristolians arrived post-work on Wednesday to defend Stokes Croft’s Hamilton House. As the protesters' placards noted, profit margins are very publicly at odds with the needs of the community once again in the fast-growing capital of the South West.
The crowd of local residents and the building’s many workers and users - called to action by a social media campaign - gathered below a sound system staged on the second floor window of one of the UK’s most important community and creative hubs. It seems the building could soon be gutted of its crucial meeting and activity spaces and converted into luxury flats.
The demonstration saw a range of speeches and music performances as protesters below spilled out onto the Cheltenham Road during rush hour with pedestrians joining in and passing vehicles beeping in solidarity. The procession, wearing orange as a motif, then marched across the city centre to College Green where a rally was held outside City Hall.
Those attending the march included local resident Grant Marshall (aka Daddy G) founding member of Bristol-based band Massive Attack, who has said plans for the building are “absolutely disgraceful”.
The campaign #saveHamiltonHouse (with its own internet song) has been organised by Coexist, a non-profit social enterprise who are fighting to renew their lease with landlords and developers Connolly & Callaghan in order to secure the use of the space for another ten years.
Hamilton House, under the management of Coexist has provided a mixture of cheap, subsidised, and even free space according to the needs of some 500 artists, social enterprises, charities, and a number of local projects, many of which have tried to fill the gaps left in the public outreach services disappearing under a decade of austerity cuts, as well as providing some 1260 job opportunities.
The current situation sees Coexist being handed a 400% increase in rent prices from Connolly & Callaghan who are looking to force the organisation out in order to press ahead with the construction of lucrative apartments. This showdown takes place less than a month since Bristol’s last residential rehab centre, Chandos House, closed its doors for good after a funding-campaign fell short.
The situation at Hamilton House, home of The Canteen (Stokes Croft’s original trendy cafe and music venue) will undoubtedly draw cynicism from a few who claim that the student cafe culture is as much of the problem of gentrification as the redevelopment itself. However the reality of the building’s usage by the local community over 10 years does not quite follow that story. In a statement released on their website, Coexist write:
'The building is home to The Misfits – an inspiring theatre company and social group led by people with learning difficulties; The Coexist Community Kitchen – which provides learning, community-building and nurture through cooking and sharing food with some of the people who are most marginalised by our society; the extremely popular and celebrated In Alignment Studios run by DMAC; and The Bristol Bike Project – an award winning social enterprise providing vital services to a cross section of groups in Bristol, including those suffering from mental health problems, recovering from substance addiction as well as people in supported/sheltered housing.
This is to name but a few of the organisations and partners that will be dangerously affected by C&C’s decision.'
Almost all of Bristol’s progressive and radical left wing groups and campaigns have been accommodated with use of the affordable event space at some stage, if not regularly. Notably this year, when a full range of activists from different campaigns across the left came to the table to help organise the anti-Trump demonstrations in Bristol and London. According to organisers I’ve spoken to, they are constantly impressed with how the building draws a vibrant crowd and the helpfulness of the staff.
On flyers handed out at Wednesday’s demonstration, Coexist announced plans to launch a community share initiative to buy a second site, with shareholders being allocated a single vote on how the building is used, no matter how big or small their share. For now, people making use of the building will be looking hard for an alternative.
Beneath Banksy’s famous ‘Mild Mild West’ mural on the side of Hamilton House reads the campaign slogan: ‘Value Not Profit’ - summarising a problem that goes well beyond Bristol.
Protest photo gallery
All photos: Jack Hazeldine
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