Category Archives: activism

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.

Urban Farms in London

I wrote a guest post for the wonderful Polis blog last week, please support me and take a look on their site! A small taste is below:

Recently I’ve noticed that London embraces urban farming in a way I haven’t seen in other cities. Last month I attended the Oxford-Cambridge Goat Race at Spitalfields City Farm in East London, a popular annual event that raises money for the farm. It is housed on a side street off the trendy and boisterous Brick Lane, and like many other city farms in London, offers a study in how to effectively utilise small amounts of urban space.

Spitalfields City Farm resides alongside a small park and a residential area, including council flats and primary schools. Ever present is the sound of the Overground as trains rush past, visible behind the small playground and vegetable patches. It is a farm that is connected to its community and surroundings. Contained within the farm is a small menagerie of rare breeds, a weekend community market as well as allotments and a greenhouse. Throughout the week, people can easily buy a range of eggs, plants and compost, as well as other locally made goods. Most of the other urban farms around London follow this same template, acting as hubs of community activity and knowledge exchange across central and greater London.

For the rest of the article, please go to Polis blog.

Protect Brick Lane

Taken from Wikipedia

If you are a Londoner or have ever paid a visit to Brick Lane, please sign this petition to stop Tower Hamlets from tarmacking Brick Lane for the Olympics. I really hate how the Olympics have provided impetus  for various councils and companies to dismantle parts of London, disrupt people’s lives and create harmful/unnecessary measures that we as taxpayers have to pay for. I dislike this idea of coming together for one sports event whilst entire communities are being harmed and destroyed by forced austerity measures.  I know that protecting Brick Lane is a small thing, but it is indicative of a greater lack of care and respect for areas that are historically (and presently) significant, especially to marginalised communities. Please take a minute of your time to sign the petition. Here is my comment:

The Olympics will only be in London for a finite period, but Brick Lane will still remain once it’s gone.  Homogenising such a historic and important part of London for the Olympics would be a terrible idea. If you want to smarten up Brick Lane, help support more local businesses, organisations and initiatives in order to ensure that it remains a thriving area that fosters creativity and new opportunities for Tower Hamlet residents, Londoners and tourists. Please respect an important part of London heritage and leave Brick Lane alone.

Panic on the Streets of London

I remember as a student listening to speakers at the anniversary of  Lewisham 77. The idea of  people seriously taking to the street to fight injustice, riots and fighting police seemed more like recent history to me than anything else. The LA riots of 1992 were still in my memory, but they were distant and obscured by the fact that I was a child when it happened. The Seattle riots of 1999 ignited my teenage activist sensibilities, but they were tied to the greater anti-corporatist globalisation/culture jamming movement  and so seemed another platform of all the activism that was occurring at the time. Riots happen more in England, but to me after the 70s and the ruinous Thatcherite years, they always felt vaguely anachronistic, as if they were reenactments of different times.  This weekend saw the return of rioting to my vision,  in places that were deeply familiar and hardly known. London has finally erupted in a year of savage cuts, corruption and constant uncertainty after the tipping point, the killing of a man by Metropolitan Police last Thursday.

I am uncertain how to feel about the riots. The rage is understandable, the riots originated in places that are economically deprived and hard hit by the cuts. Being ignored by the police about a possibly unlawful killing was the catalyst to areas  constantly ignored by local authorities (though I must say that the family of the man killed condemn everything that has happened over the weekend). But much like the LA riots, the destruction of neighborhood businesses, places which gave people jobs, community  and livelihoods, just felt ugly and left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Destroying your own neighbourhood is counterproductive when trying to express anger at how the government has treated you. It just gives them ammunition when denying you even more funding and assistance. The brazenness of looters and total negligence of police forces to handle the situation also put a lot of innocent residents, including those who were pregnant and ill in harm’s way, since there was no way for them to seek help safely.

I am a strong believer in political protest and taking to the streets. The Arab Spring has shown the world that rioting can be an effective short term solution to forcing social change that benefits the oppressed and voiceless.  But this wasn’t political. People have a right to feel furious at the circumstances that have led to a economy and society that feels like a step back to the early 1980s, complete with idiotic white nationalists and soaring unemployment.  We should all be angry at what is happening  due to government and corporate corruption.  But taking this anger and twisting it into something as self serving as looting the place where you live is idiotic at best and dangerous at its worst.  Fight back, but do it in a smart way, in a way that unites communities and actually forces our governments to listen to us and our needs. Stealing a pair of trainers and destroying historical buildings is just feeding in to what Conservatives already think you are. We shouldn’t give them that pleasure.