On Monday, the streets of Stokes Croft suddenly became peopled by 1000 small, orange figures, made of clay. Conspicuous, hidden: clustering, propped up alone against a wall; they grow in number, dotted on the pavement from the Bearpit, along the road, past Lakota, past Lick’n Chick’n, culminating in a crowd at the steps of Hamilton House. The point of these figures is to protest the potential development and sale of the building, which has become an amazingly unique community space, housing artists, charities and social businesses. It is a striking act, for these sentinels, huddling peacefully together, seem to emblematise the name of the organisation that manages Hamilton House: Coexist. And, in long, neon lines, they reach out from the building into the community that the organisation has done so much to help.
If Connolly and Callaghan (C&C), the owners of Hamilton House, get their way in the protracted negotiations with Coexist, block C of the former office building will be developed into residential units to be sold on and rented out, with the artists and businesses that use that space having already been evicted. This would also mean the rent potentially increasing by as much as 400%. Coexist, of course, are resistant to this. Their aim is to shake free of their financial dependency on C&C and ultimately buy the property, in order to maintain the viability of the creative space.
Innovative artistic venue vs. the penthouse sharks of the private rental sector: we have seen this narrative before. In November, Surrey Vaults, a Bristol institution for over 100 years, was forced to close because of the development of luxury flats and the subsequent noise complaints from the curtain-twitching residents. Meanwhile, Thekla, The Brunswick Club and the Fleece have all faced pressure from similar complaints. Artistic spaces are dying out in Bristol; a city that has always left travel brochure writers reaching for dusty superlatives like ‘vibrant’ and ‘exciting,’ unable to adequately express the sense of artistic community which draws people every year, is under threat of becoming a culturally homogenous, sterile hulk of reclaimed concrete, sitting squat somewhere along the River Avon, where people come, pick up their 2:1s and move to London.
Yet, this case is different. C&C are not an uncaring conglomerate, blithely turning the empty shutters and stripped out innards of much-loved music venues into profit. In fact, over the years they have provided Hamilton House with the platform and financial concessions that have helped make it so successful today. They do not specialise in indulgent apartments for businessmen to make their noise complaints from, for the three months of the year they actually spend living there, but aim to make eco-friendly housing, which is ‘as affordable as possible,’ as per their website, on top of providing emergency accommodation for 700 homeless people a night.
Indeed, if there is another crisis facing the City of Bristol at the moment, it is homelessness. There are 456,000 people living in Bristol. There are 2,800 people and rising currently without a home, while luxury flats pop up everywhere. It is clear that affordable housing is desperately needed (followed by an increase in housing benefit that doesn’t go to landlords, an increase in social housing and greater protection for tenants on a national level), or else those “just managing” will soon find themselves on the streets too.
And so we get to the existential problem of the efforts to save Hamilton House, which are emblazoned in yellow, green and orange on posters in every Stokes Croft window. Is resisting this act of so-called gentrification also resisting a change that would have a positive effect for the many people sleeping rough? Without knowing the exact plans of C&C or whatever future owner takes it over, it is impossible to answer this. All that can be said is that the continual closure of music venues and artistic spaces because of luxury flats is a sickening blight on a vibrant and exciting city, while at the same time Bristol’s homelessness problem is worse than an embarrassment for one of the wealthiest cities in the UK, so in all of this, perspective is needed. Perspective when you abruptly evict a load of artists and social businesses from their workplaces, potentially resulting in loss of income, and perspective when you place off-cuts of mal-formed orange clay in the street, as the hallowed faces of Stokes Croft’s homeless look on, fresh from a night gazing up from cold, hard concrete and thinking about how different things could have been with more affordable housing.