With Filwood Community Centre threatened with closure, Knowle West residents reflect on the neighbourhood’s past, present and future.
Photo credit: Alec Saelens
Illustration credit: Kyle Von Brown
“He was a naughty kid,” says June McNeill, who runs the Filwood Community Centre in Knowle West and has known local man, Jamie Horsman, since he was young. “But he is a likeable rogue. Look at what he’s doing now; he’s changed his way of thinking.”
From being a heroin addict and repeat criminal offender, Jamie has become a respected figure in Knowle West. For the past two years he has been teaching Jiu Jitsu at the centre to members of the local community every week.
Jamie aspires to tackle the issues of drug use and anti-social behaviour that continue to affect the area and hopes the martial art training can bring purpose to some young people feeling disenfranchised in one of the most deprived areas of the country. “I was always part of the problem but now I’m trying to give something back,” he says.
Round the corner from the community centre on Filwood Broadway, where there used to be a cinema and swimming pool, most shops now appear permanently shut. “If you look out there, everything is an eyesore,” says Jamie. But, he adds, “It’s the people who we need to look after, then the place will get better.”
An uncertain future
It’s not just the local economy that’s hit hard times though. On the morning the Cable visited, between welcoming a stream of elderly residents into the main hall and picking up calls from two different phones, June explains that the future of the community centre is in jeopardy.
This isn’t the first time it’s been at risk. Eight years ago residents believed the council, who owns the building, was letting it fall into disrepair. Unhappy with the prospect of losing the centre, a community-led organization was formed and took on a lease to manage the centre. Its activities, led by people like Jamie and other groups, help keep the place alive and generate the small amount of income necessary to keep it ticking over.
The decay of the building, decline in funding from the council, competition from other venues in neighbouring areas and the closure of the social club are all contributing factors threatening it with closure after the lease runs out next year. After almost a decade in charge of maintaining and running the centre, and despite members of the community putting in energy to keep it alive, June is feeling the strain.
Not everyone treats the centre with respect. One local resident recounts the latest incident of anti-social behaviour that’s affected the building: a group of youths were messing around in the car park, banging on windows and doors and throwing rocks.
For June this highlights the lack of infrastructure and opportunities for young people in the neighbourhood. Many are not in education, employment or training and she points to the lack of a secondary school and established youth clubs as further sources of the problems.
Despite all these current pressures though, the community centre – which has been used for community purposes since it was built in the 1930s – remains one of the main, as well as one of the last, social hubs in the neighbourhood. Between the café, meeting groups for elderly people and a range of arts and sports lessons geared towards young people, there are many reasons why people feel the centre must stay open.
Supporting the vulnerable
In recent years, it’s been the services for vulnerable people operating from the centre that attract the most people. Since the arrival of the NHS’s mental health unit and the Bristol Drugs Project’s support services a few years ago, June has never seen as many people walk through the doors.
As a lifetime local resident, she believes this is a symptom of the deep issues that have affected the area for decades. A resident living a few streets away from the centre says that, from her doorstep, she could point to several houses with people she knows suffering from drug addiction.
Jamie got hooked on heroin when he was still in school, getting caught up in what he calls the “heroin epidemic that destroyed Knowle”. After he developed a habit, a range of drug-related crimes dragged him into the prison system for a decade.
Carol Casey, a local resident who helped Jamie with his addiction, has observed and dealt with drug-related issues in Knowle West since the late 80s, a time when the closure of the tobacco industry triggered high levels of unemployment. According to her, “Because the street dealing was so open, people wouldn’t go to Filwood. They were so afraid. It was a no-go area.”
“It was soul-destroying for families to have kids hooked on these types of drugs,” Carol says. This eventually led to the setting up of Knowle West Alcohol and Drugs Service (KWADS); an organization set up by local residents to support families affected by substance abuse.
In response to the emerging drug problem in the late 80s, Carol was also involved in creating a forum for local agencies to discuss how to handle the impact of drugs on the community. As police raids of houses could often be traumatic for the families of the dealer or the addict, she says they engaged with the police to explain “how we as a community felt the job should be done”.
Other lobbying efforts led to a Health Park opening and a decrease in waiting times to see GPs for people suffering from addiction in the early 2000s. However after the closure of KWADS a few years ago, and in the face of recent council cuts, the future of drug support services in the area hangs in the balance.
Carol, who is a member of the police’s Independent Advisory Group, also warns that cuts will make the police less capable of dealing with the impact of drugs on the community. Operation Beacon, which specifically dealt with drugs issues, was recently scrapped, leaving already overburdened neighbourhood beat officers with more responsibility.
“A lot of the young‘uns are runners,” says a Knowle West resident who wishes to remain anonymous. “I can name loads of dealers, but I’m not going to. I’ve got a family and I’m not that stupid.”
“The situation is getting worse,” says Wayne Church, a local resident who’s also experienced drug-related problems. “Now, people are poorer and the streets are terrible.”
That’s why Wayne, who now swears by a healthy lifestyle and meditation, brings his two children to Jiu Jitsu. Keeping them occupied means they’re “not going to be on the streets of Knowle West when there is no money invested in the area”. He believes Jiu Jitsu is a way to foster discipline and mental strength. “I don’t want them to go the way I went as a child,” he comments.
Meanwhile, Jamie’s daughter Frankie has put Knowle West on the map as a breeding ground for success. Rather than being trapped by problems affecting the area, she’s become an example for her peers by winning her first Jiu Jitsu European Championship last November and follows in the footsteps of her father.
As Knowle West faces ongoing challenges, June, Jamie and Carol are just a few of the people drawing on their experience to improve life in their community. In the face of closure, they see the centre, its activities and services, as a fragile cornerstone to maintain cohesion in the community.