Meanwhile Spaces and Reclaiming Community Space

I went to a great conference last month that was organised by Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield of This is not a Gateway. It was at times very moving (one of the discussions featured the lovely and quietly inspiring Sylvia McAdam of Idle No More), radical, thought provoking and horrifying. Throughout the conference was the question of what space is for, can it ever be neutral, and the uneasy relationship between institutions, government and the people who occupy these governed spaces.

After going to a great discussion about ‘meanwhile’ temporary spaces in Berlin, and the history of these usually radical/activist spaces (as typified by squatting in the 1970s/80s), the speakers talked about their frustration of how meanwhile spaces have been replicated globally, including London. Temporary spaces in Berlin are unique because after numerous clashes and arrests early on with squatters, the city government quickly consented to these alternative uses of space, and in many cases, funded and regulated them, allowing them to flourish in certain neighbourhoods around the city. This occurred because they realised that the congregation of young people and ‘creatives’ could help regenerate a still-developing city.

Such regulations -such as cheap rent or no rent in lieu of work/experience and long contracts with landlords/ city officials to use unused spaces and buildings- allowed a thriving music and art scene to develop in the 90s. Spaces were also created that tried to serve local communities, through kindergartens for children. The problems that occur when this model is transposed to other countries is that the underlying philosophical/political impetus to civic/urban improvement and activism through reclamation of space  is exchanged for a more corporate, neo-liberal model of consumerism and (immediate) gentrification. Leases are short-term, projects are sponsored by corporate entities, spaces tend to just house art/clothing instead of community spaces and in many cases the spaces are privitised and unavailable to the majority through pricing, location and general exclusivity.

I wonder, if in times of severe and damaging cuts by a government bent on austerity, how radical true meanwhile spaces could be in Britain. Spaces such as Bar25 in Berlin (according to the speakers) mediated between community services and conspicuous consumption through luxury nightlife and lifestyle services.  While I think cultural differences (and health and safety) would make such a pairing difficult here, having gone to a variety of feminist and activist events in the past few years, I am always amazed by the continuing histories of radical liberal spaces in London and how they continue to be used for diverse populations. Maybe in London’s case, the key to meanwhile spaces is in the past, using old institutions, libraries and working class halls to continue to encourage and nourish new forms of creativity and activism. To reuse community sites abandoned by local and national governments in order to join up communities and activists groups. It’s happened with urban farms, volunteer libraries, charity property companies and idea schools born out of squatting and activist circles. To create modern alternative spaces, there needs to be reclamation of unused public structures.

In Liverpool, the council has reached the radical decision to sell off derelict homes for £1 to residents who want to get on the property ladder. They have to agree to live in the property for at least five years and make the homes liveable. It is meant to be a more nuanced, community-based attempt at regeneration, a way to revitalise the city without gentrifying the area and the increased marginalisation of its poor. Could this work in London as well, selling off properties for a tuppence, with the agreement that the properties will be used specifically for the community? What types of spaces could be created with such an agreements- nurseries, community centres, advice drop-ins, community food centres and skills training spaces for young people? The more I think about it, the more excited I feel about the possibilities inherent in such non-permanent, shifting spaces and how we can redefine what it means to occupy urban environments.

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