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Black Sky Thinking

Anika On Why Bristol's Stokes Croft Offers A Vision Of A Better Future
The Quietus , 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

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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

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James Holloway
Oct 26, 2010 2:11pm

I haven't been back to Stokes Croft since moving to London in 2006. But even back then the place had its own individual slightly anarchist vibe. The Junction pub, The Croft, national treasures PieMinister were all there then FFS!

Glad to see things happening, but I fear that given the ongoing gentrification of the area around Stokes Croft, what with the hideous Broadmead being usurped with the adjaecent even more grim-in-its-own-way new shopping centre that it looks like a massive massive task.

All the luck I can muster!

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Oct 29, 2010 5:25pm

Chris Chalkey and his ill informed and unwellcome ilk can kiss my arse. Self proclaimed and unwanted 'mayor' of Stokes Croft, utterly devisive and seriously in need of a major ego check. We were all getting along quite well without you thankyou very much!

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Nov 4, 2010 11:43am

While I agree broadly with the piece and the sentiment it portrays, it does need to be said that the PRSC is more about conservation than genuine social renewal. The Tesco store was opposed on the grounds that it would destroy local shops - with no mention made of the fact that local food shops are fucking awful, lack any kind of diversity themselves, and not worth saving by any stretch of the imagination.

This presents a problem: do we, as an inner-Bristol residents, make the arguments that there is more to social enterprise than kneejerk anti-corporate activism, art shows and pottery classes? Or do we accept that the PRSC has done amazing things that enrich the area, and keep our complaints to ourselves?

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Nov 20, 2010 8:30pm

I agree with the above comment; this article really oversimplies the politics around Stokes Croft and PRSC.

Its convenient to present what is going on as grassroots activism versus heavy handed state intervention/ neglect.

I agree that Bristol City Council could be doing more, but its ridiculous to suggest it is a 'forgotten' area, when BCC officers are working with other local community organisations on a daily basis, they are in Stokes Croft seven days a week cleaning the streets, emptying the bins etc. And they remove graffiti - because people who live in the area phone up to complain about it.

If anything is triggering the 'gentrification of Stokes Croft' its the concentration of artists working in the area, rather than a new shopping centre nearby.

There are now plenty of great cafes, venues, some interesting street art which I like about the area; it would be nice to have some decent local food shops that serve the population of the area as well. An effective community organisation could ensure this.

Personally, I'm unconvinced by PRSC - they erroneously claim to have a mandate from the local community and the street art started out ok but has seriously run out of steam over the past 18 months - itd be welcome for someone to do some art that actually brightens up the area rather than this tedious heavy handed sloganeering.

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lee
Mar 19, 2011 12:34pm

It seems this article believes a vision of a "better future" is one where middle-class white people feel safe enough to buy expensive designer handy craft and swill frothy coffee surrounded by pretty graffiti, without the risk of feeling out of place in an area that predominately working class, asian and afro-caribbean .. to avoid looking at anything "scummy" like those poverty stricken locals who are probably gonna "mug" you or are in "gangs".

This article not only reinforces racist geographic stereotypes of the area, but also makes this standpoint out to be some how "Radical", but actually it is just classist, racist and with a big dollop of naivety, just like the brand of "stokes croft cultural quarter" also is.

This is not representation guys, this is gentrification, this is exploiting and cultural profiteering.

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Mar 2, 2012 6:00pm

In reply to lee:

i know this is an old article but followed this from an article about invada ( top label) i lived in montpelier and st pauls and made my daily journey through stokes croft and used to put on gigs at the juntion and the croft - whilst it was a bit rough it wasnt anything as bad as the writer makes it out to be - i lived there from 2003 - 2007 and it already had a good scene with independent shops and cafes like cafe kino and the related gallery ( cant remember ) plus jamaica street studios and also the cube cinema behind stokes croft - never heard of this ex china pot seller chris chalkley - also there were loads of demos around the area such as the stop esso events in the centre - the krust element mixed with Jamaican , indian and pakistani families that had been living there all got on fine - what was needed though was a normal shop for regular folks that didnt charge 2 quid for a fucking onion like the many organic places in the area ( jamils was alright but too small selection and daddy g was always in there reading the days form ! ;) the influx of white middle class ninnys moaning about stuff and clogging up the streets with their double buggies and triple buggies was a nuisance in itself !

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