Anika On Why Bristol's Stokes Croft Offers A Vision Of A Better Future
, October 26th, 2010 08:40
Invada Records artist Anika is also a political journalist who divides her time between Berlin and Bristol. Here she writes about how community action in Bristol gives the lie to ideas of an apathetic Britain
The British have a tendency to complain a lot about the general state of things but few actually do anything about it. It was a shame that on the rare occasion the country did unite, politicians seemed to dismiss their actions (Anti-war 2003). For this reason the activities of a fairly unpublicised grassroots movement in Bristol is worth turning your head for. More commonly known for Banksy and 90s trip-hop, Bristol saw hundreds take to the streets over the opening of a Tesco, in a little known area called Stokes Croft; a movement instigated by the PRSC, led by Chris Chalkley.
Based in the armpit of Bristol, independent group, the Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC) have been taking the law into their own hands, to bring up an area long forgotten by the local council. Reminiscent of the 1940s film Passport to Pimlico, their mission is to fend off commercialisation in the city, and bring back community and individualism. A social construction, made up of Bristol's scummiest parts, Stokes Croft is more commonly associated with gangs, derelict buildings, homelessness and muggings.
This is exactly the stereotype the social enterprise are looking to eradicate, already making a fair bit of headway, considering the movement is only in its fourth year. What's different is that they draw upon what culture already exists. They do not simply resort to using helvetica to solve the problem of poor branding, they build upon existing features, involving the residents already there, as opposed to seeing them as the problem and moving them on.
Instigator of the movement and now chairman, Chris Chalkley, moved to the area in 2006 following the collapse of his china and glass business based just up the road in Montpellier. In the Yard of the Jamaica Street studios, he explained how he began to observe the council's approach to what was considered "the biggest shit hole on the planet" and now his new home. "I actually realised it was the best place" he said grinning.
The ex-economics and philosophy student, and self-confessed poacher turned gamekeeper, told me how the "the social fabric of the area had been shockingly neglected". Countless times he would pass the police or council spending valuable time and money painting over fresh graffiti. "It became apparent that what we needed to do was find a way forward, that harnessed the skills and beauty inherent in the area, and in the people who lived here", he told me.
In the last 10 years, when money was aplenty, the government had a tendency to spend large amounts on urban renewal schemes. The problem was, this would often involve leaving a troubled area until it was in an irretrievable state, bringing in the bulldozers and replacing it with new flats, on the market for a price far beyond the reach of any of the residents previously frequenting the area. This is exactly what the PRSC DON'T want to do.
Most renowned for their 'No Tesco, Stokes Croft' campaign, few are aware of the true extent of their work. Often tarred with the raving, fluorescent jacket wearing brush, the group are in fact extremely intelligent in the way they plan for the area's future. Slowly acquiring more property and local partners to help build an infrastructure, their main projects include: the manufacture of locally designed produce (at present chinaware and furniture restoration), where possible involving and teaching struggling addicts, or those at risk of social exclusion; legal graffiti, where local artists are given the time to carefully and thoughtfully create a piece, with the permission of the wall owner; an art gallery showcasing local artists, providing artists and the social enterprise with revenue to plough back into future projects; and local public work projects, including gardening, street sweeping and general maintenance, again involving the homeless, unemployed and those with addictions.
Two buzzwords bandied around the walls of Whitehall in recent weeks have been 'progressive' and 'sustainable' and this is exactly what the PRSC appear to be. They are certainly self-sufficient, running the various projects on a tight budget and always ensuring they pay for themselves. According to Chalkley: "For four years, the whole thing has cost about 70 or 80 thousand pounds, which is bugger all in council terms when you consider that the foyer for the Colston Hall cost 20 million." The current funding freeze and disbandment of a number of quangos has hit funding-reliant organisations hard but the PRSC never relied on such funding, Chalkley tells me. Their plans are based around a small business model and in this, Chalkley argues "lies real independence".
Small businesses are exactly what the PRSC see as the future, trying to reverse the mantra that 'globalisation is the only way forward'. "We have seen the decimation of local industry and also people's ability to determine their own future", Chalkley explains, which is why PRSC's first board that was painted said "We make our own future."
For this reason, when multi-billion pound corporation Tesco was granted planning permission to build a store in Stokes Croft, an official conservation area, which in theory should promote local businesses, local residents united with the PRSC to try and get the permission revoked.
Unfortunately, the local stand did not stop the store going ahead but Chalkley by no means sees this as a failure: "It's a slow boat to turn. In the process we have mobilised a community." They also received police backing in preventing Tesco from obtaining an alcohol licence; a huge step towards getting the authorities on board. He hopes that it may have wider ramifications too: "We're raising issues in council and in wider circles about the nature of globalisation and the way it's destroying our local areas."
It appears their efforts have not fallen on deaf ears, with a recent request from the regeneration manager at Stoke City Council to come and discuss their strategies. "If we can succeed in drawing together the people that live here and harness the strengths of the local community, then that could develop into a model that could be used elsewhere", Chalkley believes.
Their plans may have flaws but the group certainly has some very intelligent and progressive strategies not to be sneered at, that more of Britain's councils should be taking note of. Sustainability needs to be taken seriously and the next step Chalkley says, is getting rid of some of those geraniums in your back garden and replacing them with potatoes. Better get your spade out.
Anika's debut LP Anika is out now. For more information and tasty purchase options, visit the Invada shop