Writers, artists and other community members are coming together to save London’s valuable public spaces from privatisation
On a chilly Friday evening last week, local people of all ages gathered at the Granville Centre in South Kilburn for a reading with internationally acclaimed author Zadie Smith. But this was no ordinary reading to the local community: it was an event entitled ‘Saving the Granville with Zadie Smith’. Organised by Dhelia Snoussi and myself, the night was arranged to mobilise support for a campaign to save a community centre which is under threat of demolition from Brent Council to accommodate for unaffordable housing.
The Granville and Carlton Centres in South Kilburn have existed for over 100 years and have hosted everything from weddings to wakes. The council cited that the building as it exists today does not adequately use up all the space available to it. This reasoning was used despite Brent Council’s cuts to youth services in March, and for a space that functioned to serve young people’s activities. Leslie Barson and Deirdre Woods, who run the Save Granville campaign, still run a whole host of activities at the centre. The Otherwise Club, for instance, provides a home and supplementary schooling service with a free community meal every Friday. (Deirdre was also recently awarded the title of BBC Cook of the Year 2016.)
The destruction of public spaces such as this is not unique to Kilburn. The campaign to save the North Kensington Library building in Ladbroke Grove aims to stop the 100-year-old historical site from becoming a private school. Across London, public areas and community assets are becoming contested spaces and being auctioned off by cash-strapped councils. The resulting action often means that valuable public spaces are replaced by private properties, or repurposed as yet more unaffordable housing.
Zadie Smith premised her reading by discussing German architect Patrik Schumacher’s vision for cities like London – cities people are clambering to live in at the expense of the poorest already living there. Smith described Schumacher’s vision as “a complete privatisation of all public spaces – ideas like destroying Hyde Park and filling it with condos and private flats, burying all public housing and asking the people who live there, who he considered of no value, to move out of the cities to let ‘productive people’ (as he put it) live in these spaces.” She concluded that, “These public spaces need to be protected more fiercely than they were before.”
When she was asked by the brilliant chair of the event, Teju Adeleye, why these spaces are so essential to the community, Zadie replied: “It’s a sense of cohesion in a community, so you’re not just isolated families living in these separate spaces. Your social imagination is made so you get to meet people who are not like you, class-wise, faith-wise and race-wise, and taking that knowledge into your social and political life is important. It makes us a little more patient with each other, hopefully so that we make decisions on each others’ behalf that aren’t as brutal as the ones being made now.”
Someone from the audience asked, “How do we as individuals make a difference, how do we save community spaces like this?” This is an important and necessary question when gentrification and redevelopment is framed as inevitable by the media. Often, attempts at fighting back through local activism can feel a perilous and powerless pursuit against powerful organisations, such as councils and developers, where millions of pounds are involved.
“Because they live so much on media approval, that humiliation was a great threat to them,” said Zadie. “The closures are so obviously shameful, so you have to keep that part of them in front of people. If you confront people with the reality of what could be lost, there is no moral case really, there is only the case of profit.”
This was exactly what the Save the Granville campaign aimed to do when the event was organised. For the campaign, that shame was highlighted by the support of someone local to North West London who also happens to be an internationally renowned writer. Confronted by the true value of the Granville and Carlton Centres, the community responded in kind. This was reflected in the diverse, inter-generational audience in attendance.
Later that evening, local poet Zia Ahmed shared his wonderfully witty insights into identity from his perspective as a British Asian growing up in North West London. R&B duo J-Unity, who also live locally, shared a solemn rendition of a track dedicated to the space. Finally, Young Poet Laureate for London Caleb Femi shared his piece ‘Coconut Oil’. The poem was an apt end to a beautiful display of a community reclaiming their space:
“I’ve always wondered, if a town like this begins to lose all of its hair, does it mean the people who live there were cancer? Is gentrification another word for chemotherapy?”
There is hope on the horizon. Communities can be victorious, as the Shepherds Bush Market’s Tenants’ Association showed with their landmark victory to stop £150 million flats being built in the market. But these struggles to save vital public spaces, social housing and community areas will continue. From the Seven Sisters Indoor Market (Pueblito Paisa) in Tottenham to the Brixton Arches, these spaces are of immense value and key to what makes London such a diverse city.
Please sign the petition to support the #SaveGranville campaign in maintaining pressure on Brent Council to keep the centres.
Photos: Mohamed-Zain Dada
Featured photo: IndieWire
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