Last October, without prior discussion of any kind, Bristol City council served legal papers on The Bearpit Improvement Group (BIG) and Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC) for removal of all assets (including the bear sculpture, performance space, and community facilities) from the Bearpit by the 19th of January 2019.
A petition was immediately produced calling on the council to “SAVE OUR BEAR“. The sculpture has become an important symbol, well loved by the City’s residents. The petition received over 4000 signatures and has forced a full council debate on whether to go ahead with the eviction, or to refer the decision back to Mayor Marvin Rees for reconsideration.
The debate will be held at City Hall on Tuesday January 15th at 2pm. At the same meeting the council will also debate the petition submitted by Coexist requesting that they make a Compulsory Purchase Order of Hamilton House to guarantee its future as a community and cultural resource.
Support the fight to protect Bristol’s cultural and community spaces from the forces of corporate greed.
Come out and join us on College Green on Tuesday!
A performance of ‘Things We Do Not Know’ at the Bearpit Open Air Theatre in June 2017.
While the statue is clearly a significant artwork, the ideas that the Bear represents are crucially important. These ideas must be regarded as vital to the wellbeing of a city that likes to think of itself as progressive.
The Bearpit as Community Action Zone
In 2011, the Bearpit was declared a “Community Action Zone”. Council officers were instructed to help the newly formed Bearpit Improvement Group to revitalise a public space that had been moribund and regarded as ‘difficult’ for decades. These were exciting times!
Over the years that followed, the Bearpit lived an extraordinary story. It became a cultural hotspot, with people coming from all over to see at first hand the experiment that was taking place.
Academics wrote papers about this bottom up, low cost community experiment in common public space. Several major exhibitions were curated in the Bearpit, and BIG and PRSC continued to design and build infrastructure in this location to bring a truly alternative vision to fruition.
Tom Miller artwork in one of the Bearpit tunnels.
Installing panels in the Bearpit tunnels.
Trade over Community
However, not everyone liked this approach. The traders, Council officers and others in the Mayor’s office created a narrative whereby the Bearpit was unfairly characterised as dangerous and lawless, with the suggestion being made that encouraging grafitti and political expression somehow increased drug use and violence.
PRSC believe that any increase in antisocial behaviour in the Bearpit has been caused by an increase in homelessness; the spice epidemic; cuts in police numbers; cuts to drug, homeless, and mental heath services; and an active policy of stopping the PRSC and BIG from running community activities in the Bearpit.
The most shocking part of this saga came in autumn 2017 when the PRSC installed a plaque in the Bearpit in memory of Paul Larner, a much loved local man who had been living on the streets of Stokes Croft, and helping others to survive there for many years, and who had died in the Bearpit of a spice overdose in October. As Paul’s grieving friends and loved ones gathered to show their respect, the traders insisted upon the removal of the plaque saying that it encouraged the congregation of homeless people in the area.
Over the last decades, the Bearpit had always been the last refuge of street people, one of the city’s forgotten areas where the homeless would congregate, and this continued to be the case. Where else can they go?
Simultaneously, the community group BIG was starved of funds by the Traders’ unwillingness to pay any rent for the units they occupied. Units which were built and provided by PRSC and BIG volunteers with the vision of generating a small income to fund other community and cultural activities in the space.
The BIG and PRSC were then blamed for lack of upkeep of the Bearpit. This looked like a deliberate plot to squeeze out the Bearpit Group.
As the growing effects of austerity caused increasing desperation, homelessness and drug addiction, and as Bristol Waste refused to be involved in maintaining and cleaning the Bearpit, it was clearly unfair to lay the blame for the messiness of the site on these underfunded and unsupported community groups.
In reality, the Bearpit experiment had been extraordinary, amazing and of rare vitality, and with a little support, it could still continue to be a truly groundbreaking cultural space. Our beautiuful uncommon commons!
A view on the ladies’ toilet block, with the Cube sculpture perched on top. The Cube was removed without any communication or planning enforcement notice by Bristol Waste.
What Happened to the Cube?
In May 2018, once again with no prior warning or consultation, Bristol City Council ordered Bristol Waste to remove and destroy Bristol’s only non-commercial billboard, the cube in the Bearpit. The cube was displaying a warning from Friends of the Earth about the illegally high levels of air pollution in Bristol City Centre.
The cube was destroyed on the Friday evening of the Whitsun bank-holiday weekend leaving PRSC, Greenpeace, and BIG to discover it’s removal on the Tuesday.
Listen to deputy Mayor Asher Craig justify this move, and other moves by Bristol City Council to drive PRSC and BIG out of the Bearpit, on Tony Gosling’s political radio show on BCFM last August:
Bearpit discussion on BCFM August 2nd
Fast forward to today: In October 2018, some people at Bristol City Council who have declined to reveal their identity have attempted to serve legal papers on the now-defunct Bearpit Improvement Group and PRSC requiring them to remove all their assets from the Bearpit.
This includes the Bear sculpture, a perfectly serviceable theatre/community space which is ready to go, storage for market trading and all of the art panels in the tunnels.
By any standards, this is an appalling way to treat community groups BIG and also PRSC. Both groups have given seven years of their time on this project for no financial gain. There has been no discussion, no phone call, none of the behaviour one might hope for from our Council. PRSC has been forced to seek legal advice at considerable cost to discover what our legal rights might be in the face of such unwarranted vindictiveness.
Call to Action
If you support our efforts to create a unique cultural, community run space in the heart of the city. Please add your voice to the campaign…
1 – share this story – tell people what’s happening to the Bearpit
3 – join our Banner Making Session in the PRSC yard on Monday January 14th at 3pm
4 – come to College Green on Tuesday and add your voice to the crowd on Tuesday 15th at 2pm
Together we can protect this Uncommon Commons!