Stokes Croft is changing, visually, culturally and economically; compared to even to a couple of years ago there is now more street art, more artists and exhibitions, more businesses and punters. So far, the forces of anodyne commercial development have been kept at bay. Tesco’s are winning the legal battle but have yet to open. Westmorland House and the Carriage Works have not been transformed into a monoculture of rabbit hutch flats. The fact that such plans are even contemplated in Stokes Croft is testament to the place’s vibrancy.
This is the paradox that most urban experiments face. Decline, depopulation and deindustrialisation depress property and rental values. This creates the economic and cultural space for new occupants and new lifestyles. If successful, the economic and social vibrancy and thus the cultural capital of the neighbourhood is transformed, which in turn attracts mainstream retailers and property developers. They snap up the property available in an area, install themselves and a new population of richer tenants and owners who economically and culturally displace the first wave of urban migrants. Rarely, if ever, does the community which actually created the neighbourhood and therefore the value that adheres to all these properties, see a slice of the action.
This chain of decline, experiment and suffocating commercial gentrification describes the trajectory of Berlin’s alternative cultures and urban enclaves over the last twenty years. It is a salient story for Stokes Croft. When the Berlin Wall fell, many areas of East Berlin close to the wall and the new city centre were rapidly depopulated; full of enormous old and neglected buildings, their few eastern occupants headed west. The already established artistic and squatting cultures of West Berlin saw and took their chance, flooding into Mitte, Prenzlaeur Berg and Kreuzberg and transforming them.
Over the last decade Mitte and Prenzlaeur Berg have been systematically developed by commercial property operations and are now amongst the most well-heeled districts of the city. Remnants of the old counter culture have taken to acts of violence in protest at this tsunami of gentrification, but most have just left. In a fitting coup de gras , city government and developers been trying to remove the last of the old order. Police have been storming squats and developers and the courts are squeezing the iconic cultural venues the C/O photo gallery and Tacheles. This would complete the theft and then the destruction of the cultural capital and symbolic significance created by the pioneer squatting and arts scenes .
There are a lot of lessons from Berlin, most importantly just how much can be achieved by individuals and communities that are ready to actively transform their cities. But equally, there is a lesson on how an urban experiment can hold on to some of its creations. By the time people have got to Molotov cocktails and car burning the battle is lost. Far more important are the issues of property ownership, useless landlords, rent controls, planning and conservation policy. If Stokes Croft does not want to go the way of Mitte now this is the time to start engaging with these issues and coming up with some collective solutions.
Interestingly, Stokes Croft may be coming up with some of the answers. On Thursday February 3rd the new Bristol Community Land Trust will be making itself available at Hamilton House. CLT’s are one of the ways in which property, land, space and buildings can be brought into forms of social and common ownership and shielded from the aesthetic and commercial imperatives of developers. See you there.