Chris Chalkley, Chairman of The People's Republic of Stokes Croft.
Chris Chalkley is exactly the kind of guy you want fighting your corner in the bureaucratic world of local politics. Chairman of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC), he’s leading efforts to protect this unique area of Bristol from the creeping gentrification that’s slowly making most of urban Britain look like a paved shopping centre forecourt.
For years, the area has been best known for its derelict buildings, squats and a collection of local charities that serve the homeless. If you’ve read anything about gentrification before, you’ll know that those criteria make it an area primed for investment; it’s an inner city pocket offering cheap rents and a bunch of affordable places to hang out, meaning students and arty people have moved in, giving it the cultural capital that developers can exploit on the billboards for their pricey new penthouses.
"It’s a well-told story that creativity takes place on barren land, and as soon as it gets vaguely sexy, property prices go straight up and people move in," says Chris.
Now that businesses are starting to take an interest, the concern is that the local population and their alternative ways of life will no longer be accommodated for; it’s hard to keep using an abandoned building as a neighbourhood art studio after Costa have bought it out for refurbishment. The PRSC plan to deal with this by setting up a community land trust, which essentially allows locals to pool their money to buy property, then see a return when they rent that property out. That way – and with enough time and investment – the idea is that the group will be able to keep the area how they like it, warding off as much private ownership as possible, while also making a profit for themselves.
The PRSC have plenty of other noble aspirations, like providing spaces for creativity, a commitment to keeping housing affordable and making pledge to protect the cultural fabric of the area. And when local property pops up on the market, they’ll attempt to bring it under community ownership before developers can move in. Currently, they’re fixing up a 6,000 square foot building that had been empty for 15 years and will now be the first space to go into the community property hat.
The PRSC began in 2007 after a couple of strangers walked past Chris while he was spraying graffiti on a fence. Asked him whether he had permission to do so, he replied: “I fucking well think so – it’s my fence."
The Stokes Croft china workshop
He soon started a rant-y blog about bottom-up, grassroots community involvement, encouraging local artists to give derelict buildings a lick of paint and suggesting that locals take an interest in the aesthetics of their neighbourhood. The PRSC now run a china and pottery shop to fund the art projects that have become synonymous with the area. In fact, Chris was in the china and glass industry himself before it was eaten up by globalisation: "I had first hand experience of the likes of Tesco putting people out of business," he tells me.
Regardless of the PRSC and their plans, developers can already expect to face plenty of opposition in the area. In 2011, 93 percent of local residents objected to the opening of a Tesco Express in Stokes Croft. It was a long and arduous battle, but the Tesco eventually opened, prompting a riot from pissed off locals. I ask Chris about this and he says, "I remember having a conversation with a councillor who said we have to back down to Tesco because they will do us over. That’s why we had a riot."
The local uprising ended in the looting and destruction of the store and, subsequently, a police raid on the nearby Telepathic Heights squat. It’s now hard to walk through Stokes Croft without noticing the huge mural that reads: “Think Local, Boycott Tesco”.
Chris believes that the PRSC can become an exemplar organisation to other areas that are facing – or are set to face – the same negative issues that commonly arise out of gentrification. If you’re wondering what those issues could be, Brixton is a pretty illuminating case study. A few years ago, Lambeth council started evicting residents of “short-life” houses who had moved in during the 1970s, created cooperatives and fixed up the previously run-down buildings themselves.
Local groups in Lambeth have campaigned against the evictions, but fighting against the council – and the corporations they’ll eventually be selling the property to for millions of pounds – continues to be an uphill battle. Chris tells me that, "If we don’t want a Primrose Hill scenario in Stokes Croft we have to cherish the wildness of this place."
However, to succeed, the locals will have to start buying up property rapidly before the corporations can move in.
The Carriage Works.
Of course, for some, gentrification has its benefits. A local resident I’d met on a previous trip told me how, not long ago, she’d had to run away from a group of muggers. With more money comes more surveillance, which would help to cut down on crime, but before long the rents would rise and long-time residents – like the woman who avoided the mugging – would be priced out.
Despite all this, convincing people in a post-Thatcher society that community ownership – rather than private ownership – is worth a crack could prove more difficult than Chris anticipates. While it could eventually end up both lining their pockets and keeping house prices down, you have to have enough willing people with the initial capital to invest to really make a community land trust work.
When I mention this, Chris tells me that "this idea of property and the way money works means we’ve ended up with a very curious beast, which isn’t fit for purpose. For me, it’s a big lie that the corporate sector has been selling. We almost forget that things are possible. You have to question everything."
The cynic in me can’t help but feel that it’s going to be impossible for locals to pool enough money to keep the big brands from eventually moving in. But for now – as Chris puts it – he and the PRSC are “at least banging the drum for an alternative”.
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