“When I moved to Bristol to be with my family, this was the first place I went to,” recalls Jenny*, a member of the St Paul’s community in her early 20’s. “I was welcomed by people of my age, my parents’ age, and my grandparents’ age – it’s like I could meet anyone here.”
She is chatting to the Cable at the locked Kuumba Centre on Hepburn Road, next to Stokes Croft, where a multi-ethnic group of people is occupying the well-known space 24 hours a day. It has served the local community for decades, but is now under the threat of eviction by Bristol City Council.
Our visit takes place on Thursday 28 September – the date by which the council had ordered Kuumba’s management board to vacate the building. At a crowded meeting the night before, supporters voted to keep the current board – who have been in charge for 12 years – and agreed that, if necessary, individuals would occupy the building and physically block the bailiffs.
During the meeting, plans were made over bowls of ital soup to sleep in the space and maintain occupation to prevent eviction. As yet, no bailiffs had arrived, and the group – some of whom request anonymity and to be called ‘Friends of Kuumba’ – remain cautious but hopeful. Since then, an uneasy silence has fallen.
‘We want to collaborate’
“There’s a reason so many different shades of people come [here], under a sense of common unity to be in the space, to utilise the space, and to activate in this space,” says another local activist. “There are very few places like that, especially with a board as unique as it is.”
Issues at Kuumba arose after a council health and safety inspection in early 2022. Despite minor aesthetic defects, the space was deemed structurally sound. In October 2022 though, the board received the first of three letters from the council, citing a lease breach.
Despite addressing concerns, a letter in November deemed the Kuumba Project – which has been in charge since the charity previously managing the premises collapsed in 2010 – squatters and trespassers. The centre’s premises licence was revoked, impacting income from late-night events, a major source of funds – and the Kuumba Project was initially asked to hand back the building by 23 May 2023.
Sister Nwani, chair of the current board, who has been involved at Kuumba for many years, claims the council came “with a plan, an intention to actually destroy [the history of the space]”. But she tells the Cable she’s still hoping for a positive resolution.
“I want the council as a whole… the whole cabinet to review this,” she says. “We want to collaborate with you. We don’t want your sympathy. We want your cooperation, we want to get back on track – end of story.”
Originally named Inkworks, Kuumba was transferred to the Inkworks Management Committee in 1974 as a community asset. It was agreed that volunteer builders would convert an abandoned ink factory into a community centre, run by and for the St Paul’s community. It would provide essential social services, skills workshops and a day nursery. Sister Nwani says that the Rasta community in the area have played a leading role in the centre since its formation.
It has since served as a nursery, a late-night music venue, a space for religious gatherings, and a venue for cultural and political events. Its units now house a record label, café, library, and historical archive documenting Bristol’s struggle for Black liberation.
During our visit, stories about the space were exchanged, reminiscing about past events with reggae stars, a Polish neighbour who found solace in the Rastas’ drumming during his terminal illness, the women’s groups that cooked, crafted, and raised children together in the space. Both occupiers and the Cable were shown the drums and rhythms used by Rastas for worship and protest, exemplifying the exchange of cultures that takes place here.
While the centre has acted as a place for people to come together, there are fears that ousting the board could put it at the mercy of forces that have been transforming the local area. St Pauls has been on the frontline of soaring property prices in the last decade, and has lost a number of community spaces – including almost all of its pubs.
Attendees at the meeting on 27 September ranged from activists – including ACORN representatives who shared eviction resistance expertise – to long-term community members, and Kuumba unit holders.
“We are at war on a racial justice front and on a class, and gentrification front,” one community member said.
“When I first came here as a sweet, innocent 26-year-old from Knowle West,” she added light-heartedly, “Kuumba and Malcolm X [Centre] held me. We have lost so much already. We cannot lose another [community space].”
The Kuumba Project board, represented by Sister Nwani, Deborah Benjamin, and Rachel Barclay, stressed their efforts to manage the space and comply with council demands. But generating funds, a large proportion of which came from hiring out the main hall for Dub and Reggae club nights, has been increasingly challenging after losing their premises licence.
The council has said it aims to remove the current board and seek new groups through a tender process, telling them they’ll be replaced with another Black-led group.
“I find it very insulting for them to say they can just take one Black group out and put another Black group in,” said Sister Nwani at the meeting. “The community vote us in, and the community vote us out.”
Others at the meeting also expressed scepticism towards the council’s claims, which have included that current unit holders can stay in place. “These landlords are trying to take this space away from us,” said one former Kuumba shareholder. “They make promises… but then they use lack of paperwork to take spaces off us. Gentrification is affecting our community, and we need to make sure Kuumba stays in the hands of the Black community.”
The board reiterated during the meeting and at our visit that their intention is not to retain control of the centre indefinitely. They desire the opportunity to pass on the space to the next generation, bring new members to the board, and preserve their decades-long knowledge and experience gained from working within the community.
“The generation down, they have a vision,” says Sister Nwani. “They need to carry this forward. We can only carry it so long. The board is very realistic of what our time is here, but we don’t feel we should be pushed out of the building.”
A spokesperson for Bristol City Council said: “Kuumba Project Ltd (KPL) currently occupy a council-owned property on Hepburn Road without a valid lease and without the express consent of the local authority. The council sought an amicable resolution and recently asked KPL to hand back the property by 23 May. This was not done and KPL were served with a notice to vacate the premises by Thursday 28 September.”
The council went on to say that they’ve been informed KPL plans to stay at the premises and therefore possession proceedings will start soon. They’re also seeking a responsible tenant, and a community asset transfer will follow once legal matters are settled.
The notice to vacate was given to Kuumba Project Ltd, but the council says unit holders who rent out the space won’t be asked to leave. The current board states they have been told unit holders will be put under review if a new lease holder is put in place.
Despite the uncertain future and feeling of being under siege, for now life goes on at Kuumba. On Thursday our discussion is interrupted by a capoeira group still holding its regular meetup in the hall, undeterred by the occupation. The battle rages on but the drumbeat of life continues. The community still relies on the space, and the centre is resolute in its commitment to serve that community for as long as it still can.