Working at Hamilton House over the last 12 months has been a turbulent experience, full of uncertainty.
The recent announcements from building owners Connolly and Callaghan (C&C) – declining Coexist’s visionary £5.5m offer, their hesitation to further their own initial vision by bringing the building into community ownership through Coexist, the refusal to renew Coexist’s lease and the latest idea to self-develop part of the building into flats that they can rent out – has forced everyone to batten down the hatches and focus on staying strong as a community. We are having to use all of our creativity and resilience to navigate these choppy waters.
It’s had its impacts. So many of our licensees feel they can’t adequately plan their business strategies; it affects people in their day-to-day work. For the many artists and makers, it must be difficult to focus on their projects – knowing that they may lose their place of work, a hub that incubates small businesses and allows them to grow and flourish.
Our own work at Coexist has also been dramatically affected. Rather than focusing on running outreach projects for emerging artists, or developing workshops for those suffering the consequences of austerity (and we are seeing increasing numbers of homeless and destitute people rely on the kindness of Canteen customers and building users), we have had to manage the constant demands of each new wave of uncertainty caused by the changing outlook of our landlords.
Statements to press, interviews, public meetings, working groups and one-to-one sessions all place an extra demand on the resources we have to offer.
Ultimately, we are interested in best providing for the community – creating spaces and events that strengthen our bonds, expand networks and seek to create positive ecological and social change.
Our Community Kitchen runs cookery workshops with people affected by addiction, as well as classes with young people learning about food and nutrition from around the world. Our internal arts collective, CoResist, run projects for refugees and asylum-seekers through music and dance.
Long-term clients, such as The School for Social Entrepreneurs, hold meetings and plan regional programmes for new socially-focused business and innovators. Our wellbeing department treats clients from diverse backgrounds and runs outreach programmes with some of the most isolated people in Bristol.
All of these projects are under threat. All of our partners and clients are desperate to see a positive resolution for the community that genuinely empowers Coexist to act with their input and on their behalf to safeguard these services and spaces, and to continue with our vision to build a better world.
Many people have reacted strongly to the news that C&C want to develop part of Hamilton House themselves. They see it as an affront on the community and it obviously poses a direct threat to the people located in that part of the building.
But if this genuinely results in the rest of Hamilton House moving into community ownership, it could be a positive landing for this story after a turbulent voyage. We may have to make concessions to capitalism and the big companies and banks that serve them as we move into a post-capitalist world.
Losing part of our building would be a huge blow, but the focus must be on securing as much of it as possible for a genuinely impactful, socially and ecologically-minded future, driven and owned by the community. We are all striving for a world where we are not being dictated to by the transient whims of just a few people, but are evolving our vision with actions that are informed and mandated by the many.
If C&C’s last line on their press statement (dated July 13) is to be believed, and Coexist are genuinely “invited it to make a full and final bid for the building”, then that is what we will do. If the mixed messages of serving Coexist formal notice to give vacant possession of Hamilton House by August 11 are only a formality, then we will require a surge of support from not just the local community, but deep into our networks beyond Bristol and even the borders of the UK.
We must rise up like a tidal wave and make certain that we will not be knocked over by the death-throws of capitalism, gentrification or hierarchies that don’t serve our community. It will mean campaigning, raising money and being resolute in our determination. It will mean the biggest community share-offer on a building ever. And the appetite is there – it’s in the hearts of minds of most of Bristol, and it rolls off the lips and into the ears far and wide.
We are living in changing times. It feels to me as if a positive wave is rising throughout the country in response to the dead weights of Brexit, Trump and the treacherous Tory government.
Around the UK, people have an appetite for change. They are tired of being dictated to by a government that seeks to dismantle the public services that they rely on, and by companies that squirrel away their profits in tax havens and fat-cat pay-outs. People want to be involved in the change and it to be focused on making the world a better place for everyone.
What Coexist have succeeded in doing at Hamilton House is to help regenerate an area with community at its centre, and with the values of inclusion, creativity, diversity, wellbeing and sustainability embodied in everything we do. We’ve done this as a social enterprise, generating our own revenue through the space we manage, without on-going grant funding.
People from all over the world have come to document, study and share with their communities what we have done. The sea change is happening, and everyone needs to be ready to support. If we are successful in our negotiations, then part – or all – of Hamilton House could be safeguarded forever.
The work and learning of everyone will pollinate other projects around the country and a marker – a beacon of hope – to all communities will shine out and show that we can create the future we want to see. As Arundhati Roy famously said: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Daniel Balla is a theatre-maker and has an MA in Social Sculpture. He is the founder of the arts and action collective CoResist and a director at Coexist CIC. He also works as a freelance facilitator and specialises in ecological & social change projects.
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