Mention the name Stokes Croft to anybody in Bristol, and you’ll get an immediate reaction. Some see it as a cultural hub, but others are less enthusiastic, seeing it as a graffiti-ridden area full of drugs, crime and homelessness.
The Stokes Croft world is a very different one to mine – but it’s changing, and I think now is as good a time as any to find out more about the area known locally as The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft.
Stokes Croft, for those who don’t know it, is a relatively short stretch of road that forms part of the A38 trunk road from Gloucester as it comes into Bristol city centre, but to most Bristolians it also includes a small number of streets on either side of it.
Sandwiched between the relatively affluent Kingsdown and the African-Caribbean community of St Pauls, the area does not have an official boundary, but the map below shows what’s included within the ‘Cultural Boundary’ as featured on the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC) website.
The problem with anywhere that sits on a boundary line is that it has no official identity of its own.
The area doesn’t have any significant history to speak of, and when it was badly damaged during WWII, it was at the back of the queue where investment was concerned.
As is often the case in these situations, it attracted people who preferred an alternative lifestyle – and those who had no lifestyle at all.
The 1980s saw Bristol become a hotspot for music and Wall Art (or graffiti if you prefer), with bands like Massive Attack and artists like Banksy becoming internationally known: Nowhere was more influential than Stokes Croft to nurture this talent.
This mix of unorthodox lifestyles eventually became difficult to control. It was ok if you didn’t mind clubbing, spray-painting, or not doing anything much at all, but it was a different ball game for people who didn’t care where their next drink or fix came from, because they didn’t have anywhere to go home to anyway.
Places that had been left derelict for years like Westmoreland House and the adjacent Carriageworks became squats. They may have been places where people lived, but they were dangerous, and also became places where they died.
The council, with an ever-decreasing budget and unwillingness to step in, allowed the void to be filled by charities and organisations such as the PRSC to implement a form of self-determination. Out went capitalist ideas, and in came ‘activism’.
For some of the community at least, this probably seemed a good idea, but anyone who’s been to Christiania in Copenhagen will know that communes like this are far from perfect.
In 2011 for example, Stokes Croft hit the national headlines for all the wrong reasons when riots erupted over plans to open a Tesco store. Not a big deal to most people, but it was to some members of the ‘Republic’.
The irony is of course, that while the bohemian section of the community saw fit to take up battle against a supermarket, there were others who would have been happy just to have been able to afford to shop in there.
The appearance to the wider Bristol public that Stokes Croft was becoming somewhere that was above the law meant that at some point the council would have to step in and do something about it, which after years of inaction wasn’t going to be easy.
Their policy appears to be one of gradual gentrification, which has been met with the obvious opposition that they no doubt would have been expecting.
Hamilton House is a good example of how difficult the transition was going to be. What had become a derelict office block was rented out to Coexist, a social enterprise group, which opened its doors to the local community to run as a cultural and social hub. Used by artists who have helped to make Stokes Croft famous for its wall art, they have now moved out, as the owners want their building back. Coexist have been kicked out and the owners are now handing over the running of the building to a private company who ostensibly will run it in a similar fashion, but with changes!
At the heart of Hamilton House is The Canteen, a café bar with an outside terrace where you can have a coffee or something stronger while looking up at one of Banksy’s most famous Bristol artworks – The Mild, Mild West, and on the opposite wall is a mural of Jesus breakdancing called The Mission by Cosmo Sarson. Gentrification maybe easier on the eye to most people, but it doesn’t have the cutting edge that artworks like these can have.
The Mission mural is painted on a wall that belongs to next door – the ‘Best Supermarket’, which sells all types of alcohol 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year – all under a licence approved by the council, which seems a strange thing to allow considering the problems they’ve had down at The Bearpit.
I wrote a blog about The Bearpit a few weeks which you can read here, but things have taken a twist since then. After one incident too many, the Mayor of Bristol cordoned off the whole area, evicted the rough sleepers, and sent in the removal men to clean the whole place up once and for all.
Some of Stokes Crofts legendary music clubs are also on death row. Those of us not involved with the music scene, will take a look at places such as the Blue Mountain and Lakota and think that they won’t be any great loss, at least from an architectural point of view, but to people who danced their nights away during the 1990s the demolition of these venues will probably be seen as vandalism equivalent to the Cavern Club’s demise in Liverpool during the 1970s.
Knocking all these buildings down will be good news to some, and bad news to others, but the fact that they’re likely to be replaced by student accommodation won’t be lost on some people. Students, like everyone, obviously need somewhere to live, but it seems somewhat ironical that there are already plenty of people around here now that could do with somewhere decent to live.
As an outsider looking in so to speak, I couldn’t possibly recount the recent history of Stokes Croft in a way that someone who’s lived through it can, but it’s been good to try and get to understand it more, even if it’s only a tiny bit.
I’ve been following an excellent blog by Scooj called Natural adventures, who has enlightened me on how wall art/graffiti/spray painting in Stokes Croft (and elsewhere) appears to his eyes, and very interesting it is too. I might not know a Kid Crayon from a Rezwonk, but I do see some of this stuff in a different light now.
As gentrification gathers pace it’s difficult not to bring politics into the equation, but as usual there are no easy answers.
I like music, but probably not the stuff that was blasted out in the Lakota; I like good wall art, but not the meaningless graffiti that’s sometimes scrawled across it; I like the laid back alternative lifestyle of Bohemians, but don’t want to be short of cash, but what affected me the most about re-visiting Stokes Croft was the plight of the drinking/drug taking/homeless people that will no doubt have to find somewhere else to exist when they’re forced to move out.
All of us in society have a part to play in getting issues like this resolved, but without serious help and some joined-up thinking from central government that can be passed down to local councils, charity groups and volunteers, then nothing will change: It will probably only get worse. Gentrification doesn’t solve a problem; it just moves it on to somewhere else.