It wasn’t just council homes auctioned off last week: Chris Hope reflects on the loss of an artistic institution
Photo: Koel Mukherjee
Bristol’s renowned artistic and ‘cultural quarter’ Stokes Croft and neighbouring St Pauls took another step towards change on April 20th, when a swathe of social housing stock was auctioned off to the highest bidder, alongside a long-term squatted arts and gardens space which has been at the heart of the area’s creative community for a decade.
For the past ten years, an evolving group of talented dreamers and doers has occupied a former Salvation Army charity shop on the corner of Ashley Road and Picton Street, widely known and loved throughout Bristol, and further afield across the country and the continent, as ‘the Magpie’.
Walk around Stokes Croft today and you will easily find art and artists, musicians and music, campaigners, crafters and clothes-makers, sculptors, up-cyclers and metalworkers, complimentary therapists and cultural curators. Many of them have been supported in one way or another by the Magpie and its creative residents, who have a long-standing commitment to helping local people find empowering solutions to environmental, housing, workplace and community concerns.
Since occupying the derelict building, a long line of these people have stopped it from falling into further disrepair, saving the owner tens of thousands of pounds in business rates, and preventing its potential demise into a drug den. They have built a community which embodies everything that this area is about.
Years before Stokes Croft became fashionable and desirable, it was already becoming a home to marginalised people, including bands of squatters and anarchists, low-paid manual workers and struggling artists.
Overshadowed by wealthier Kingsdown and Redland up the hill, it sits at the mouth of Ashley Vale and the Frome Valley, near to where the river Frome meets the tidal river Avon. Topographically, it’s an area that encourages the swirling melting pot of buildings, people, demographics, and culture. An overlap of rural and urban, of wealth and poverty. These conditions have bred creativity and community.
In the midst of Thatcher’s early 1980s onslaught against manufacturing and trade unions, Stokes Croft, like scores of other once-prosperous inner city areas, was left to fend for itself. Buildings became disused and derelict, until a resurgence of D.I.Y. community activism emerged.
In exactly this spirit, the Magpie has always been self-funded. The project is run on solar power, donations and the efforts of countless people, who continue to give time, money, and useful things, creating a unique and vibrant multi-project community space.
The current residents, like all who came before, host and facilitate numerous projects and workshops. These currently include bicycle repairs, pop-up vegan cafes, band practices, drumming circles, gardening and wild food workshops, painting, sculpture and metalwork. In addition, a garden built on raised beds on the roof is home to more than 110 species of plants, and increasingly diverse local fauna.
“There is a desire to defend these free and valuable urban treasures.”
The future of these projects, and of the residents of the Magpie, is now in the hands of its new owners.
The recent auction at Hollis Morgan in Clifton drew entrepreneurs encouraged by the policies of Mayor George Ferguson, and by the new-found economic potential of an area rich in valuable social capital – the currency of community.
Within that local community, there is a desire to defend these free and valuable urban treasures. After all, they help define these unique inner-city areas. Today’s Stokes Croft only looks and feels like it does because of the last 30 years of counter-culture and mutually supported independence, of social co-operation and artistic creativity, and because of its strong anarchist, communist and direct action politics. An attempt by locals to crowdfund enough to buy the Magpie and develop it for the community raised more than £200,000 in four days; however the group was outbid at auction, and the building was sold for £300,000.
The future is uncertain, but in the worst case scenario, a characterless, intensive housing development will soon spring up where the Magpie has stood, opposite the proposed new carriageworks. Take away the heart of the area and transplant it with something similar-looking but shinier and, in another tear to social cohesion, we may all soon be living in a soulless Bristol version of Islington.
If those perimeter walls along Ashley Road and Picton Street are indeed, as has been suggested, the original boundaries of the local manor house, then you could say the site of the Magpie has always been both on the edge of society, and essential to its well-being. How many crops would have been produced here only two hundred or so years ago? How many people employed, supported, nurtured? It is a legacy Stokes Croft, and Bristol itself, could be about to lose.
The garden at the Magpie is often open to the public – come and say hello.