A look back at a vanished landmark, by local artist Object…
As an empty shell, for decades Westmoreland House was a cypher for whatever people hoped Stokes Croft would be, even empty and crumbling as it was for so long. When the Burning Candy crew painted their massive Sweet Toof skull and Rowdy crocodile the building became iconic again, and as so often with graffiti the interpretation was divisive – whilst some saw the adornment as evidence of continued decline and neglect, to many others it announced the rebellious spirit of the Croft for all to see.
Dreams of Westmoreland’s potential as a community space and arts centre: Stokes Croft Centre for the Arts inspired the development of Hamilton House into the thriving community arts space it was. It’s massive presence on the street has been used as a canvas (especially after the PRSC installed boards in all the windows, making them frames for artworks), and to promote the NHS, fight (the now defunct) TTIP, and a huge ‘Free Palestine’ piece. Even when it was derelict people lived, skated, painted, partied, loved, and yes, died in there. Over all those years of neglect it still represented potential to many of the people passing by, and now it’s gone, fenced off, in development, the potential has collapsed into another developer’s dream, where they’ve paid too much for the site to allow normal people to live there.
When Westmoreland was finally pulled down in November of 2018 the PRSC produced a print ‘In Loving Memory’ of the icon, followed by a mug of the same design, and filled the image with depictions of the building’s various uses and murals.
It shows the half-pipe people skated on the second floor; Filthy Luker’s inflatable tentacles which once emerged from the windows; memorials to Rafa and Punk Paul; the pigeons, the protest banners and the murals. Each hand pulled screen-print has a hand painted background in pink or green (skull or crock!), a gold foil embossed ‘community’ sigil, and is signed and numbered by object… the artist. The creation and sale of this print not only celebrates an icon, but all profits made go towards making the SCLT project happen.
As the gentrification of Stokes Croft and St Pauls continues apace, looking at the gap in the high street makes me wonder where the symbols of resistance and underground culture will be allowed to survive.
The might of capital to shape our cities is difficult to resist, especially given the collusion and vision shared by the mayor and council. If we want to keep a city that is creative, alternative and has it’s own thriving culture then investment must be in the people and culture, and developments represent this, built around community housing and activity.
This need is the reason behind the founding of Stokes Croft Land Trust – the PRSC has set it up to buy our own building out from under us, with the intention that it is just the first. With the leverage of property ownership the SCLT should be able to buy up some of the other sites where the arts are created and shared, and community can be formed.
The new Westmoreland/Carriageworks plan contains another of those strange privately owned public spaces at it’s heart, after massive pressure from the public, but as a privately owned space, the community and culture which can happen there is dictated by the owners, rather than the participants.
With publicly accessible, shared cultural spaces (like the Bearpit) disappearing, communal culture is dictated more and more by the wealthy and powerful. The dissatisfaction and conflict around public space and how it should be used is obvious all around us, in tagging (often a conscious resistance to gentrification) and council installed blocks to stop skaters from using public squares.
SCLT is intended to carve out a sanctuary in the city centre for culture, arts and community, which cannot be sold out from under us, where we can come together, create the alternative, and form an effective long-term resistance.
You can search for, and comment on development plans in your neighbourhood here: https://planningonline.bristol.gov.uk/online-applications/search.do?action=simple
UPDATE: this Bristol Live article lays out the current public plans for the development: https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/businesses-ground-floor-new-carriageworks-4165957 – space on the ground floor for small independent businesses (as the local community has insisted upon for over a decade) and 112 new flats, of which 10 will be “affordable”