Being a part of the Show: Bristol, UK

Last Saturday was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I spent it watching my first ever Shakespearean play, All’s Well, That Ends Well. Most of the Shakespeare that I had come to know during my time at school were tragedies and I haven’t explored it any further since. However, I think last night was a very good example of why he is often described as having been ‘ahead of his time’, filling his scenes with humour, sex and politics. All in all, a great combination.

Having said that, I have to say I am not a theatre lover. I really enjoy dance and musicals on stage but I find theatre hard to follow. Musicals like the Nutcracker and Billy Elliot keep me on the edge of my seat, wanting to get up and dance along. Whereas with theatre I sometimes find myself fighting with my eyelids, no matter how early it is.

But last night, I was sat in an open space so close to the actors, I felt I was a part of the show (and that’s saying something considering I was sat in the back row).  In fact, I am quite sure that Helena (the main character) consulted with me at one point: how she, a maid, could ever be the wife of such a noble man?!…I think I was nodding along, even if I wasn’t, I was definitely thinking: “I feel ya girl”.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, like the one on Chess, Life and the City, you’ll notice I like to make, possibly somewhat exaggerated, connections between the the dynamics of things like chess or in this case theatre, and how they mirror aspects of life in cities. In this case, I’m not talking about the plot.

What I am referring to, are the dynamics within the theatrical space. The more included I felt, the more I enjoyed the show. Like in cities. The more included people feel, the more they ‘enjoy the show’.

Amanda Burden, New York’s chief city planner, also known for the important role she played in advocating to save the NY High Line from demolition says: “…a successful city is like a fabulous party, people stay because they are having a fabulous time.”

In most cities however, that fabulous time is often exclusive to some. Cities are particularly in risk of becoming exclusive or strengthening their exclusivity if and when experiencing major regeneration for example. The regeneration of cities can either reactivate and produce greater inclusivity in to the fabulous party or make it more exclusive for some.

So, although risky, I believe regeneration can be a great opportunity. So is it worth the risk? For the sake of re-activating spaces that have been abandoned or dispossessed and generating greater inclusivity and integration for local communities? South Bristol, where I watched Helena finally win over her noble man in the Tobacco Factory Theatre, provides yet another example (in addition to those in Bogotá) where a private-sector led initiative has intervened in public life for public life.

Once again I’m back to that uncomfortable position that I don’t like to admit and that I’ve tried to hide a little in previous posts on private interventions in public life (I, II).  That position where I’m kind of liking what the ‘private sector’, or rather what two very specific private-sector-interventions have done to two very specific derelict buildings in the city (in this case, Bristol).

Here is why:

1. The Tobacco Factory

Today, the Tobacco Factory, which also hosts a restaurant, a cafe-bar called Thali Cafe, offices, loft-style apartments and a performing arts school is described as “one of the most exciting theatre venues in the country”; and although that’s a direct quote from its own website, I have actually heard other very good things about it through word of mouth.

Like the NY High Line mentioned earlier, the factory section on Raleigh Road, Ashton, was a derelict space in the city that was just a big burden and a major target for speculation. It was going to be demolished but was bought out by George Ferguson, the now first mayor of Bristol. Its theatre first opened its doors in 1998 and since it has morphed in to a multi-functional space that serves the local community and aims to provide a ‘model’ of exemplary urban regeneration.

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Source: Ray’s Bristol Pages

As I said earlier, when I went to the Tobacco Factory and sat in the theatre, I felt pretty good about it. Although thinking about it properly, I realise that I wasn’t really there for very long. I stood at the bar for about 10 mins before I was immersed in to Helen’s world, somewhere in Italy, in a different era surrounded by ladies wearing corsets and men wearing pouffy jackets. Having said that, during those 10 minutes did I spend in the bar, I was surrounded by a big crowd of happy, excited and very pleasant looking people keen to fill their minds with Shakespeare for the next two hours. So I can’t say much about it as a ‘model regeneration project’ (although the video at the end will) but I can certainly recommend the place for a visit to Bristol and have to say, I liked the use and purpose of the once-derelict and now-activated cultural space.

More contested space…

Another area, which has seen a lot of contestation over regeneration projects is Stokes Croft, heading towards North Bristol. An area that “always had an independent spirit. It’s an area that’s become a beacon of alternative thinking” – says Chris Chalkley from People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (prsc.org) to the BBC.

According to a case study (4) by Portland Works the area of stokes croft is now branded as Bristol’s Cultural Quarter after having been taken up by the PRSC who are described as “…a group dedicated to maintaining the area’s diversity and lack of commercial dominance” (Case study 4, p.2).

Standing at the crossroads and looking around, there is evidence in all directions of a collective struggle by people to have a say in how the area is regenerated.

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93% of people…

 

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Source: BBC

Embedded within this contested ground lies Hamilton House (HH) and the very much loved Canteen.

2. Hamilton House and the Canteen

 

Slide4

Hamilton House

Owned by Coexist (a community interest company whose architect for HH was George Ferguson), Hamilton House is an old – once derelict – office block that was bought in 2009 and transformed in to a multi-functional space. It aims to support local causes through providing a space that is ‘relevant and accessible to all parts of the local community’.

You get a feeling of the kind of place it is once you visit their  home page, where it announces that “Coexist would like to offer free use of spaces to any group that is working with or on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers”.

One review says the Canteen is a place where you can “put the world at rest”. As for me, ever since I arrived in Bristol, second week in and the Canteen was already my favourite place. And I hadn’t even been inside! It was just that feeling I got every time I passed by it, that positive energy, the buzz …the optimism. You can just see the diversity of people, wandering in and out of the bar, playing at the ping pong table, standing outside the door having a smoke and a chat with a stranger or chasing after the toddler whose wandering around visiting the different tables and eating anything it finds.

The live music from the stage livens up its balcony as well as the crossroads outside its doorstep. I’m still only standing outside, but I’m definitely thinking how fabulous this party is looking. The Breakdancing Jesus is definitely having a fabulous time.  breakdancing jesus.jpg

Finally I got a chance to walk in and have a drink on a sunday evening. At 11pm there is still a relaxing buzz, a couple of tables are taken but there is enough space to sit about 6 of us. With the mellow music playing in the background, surrounded by a warm red light from the fairy lights and a gin tonic in hand I’m thinking, on a Sunday night, I want to stay at this party.

Contesting for our space in collective city transformation…

So thinking back to some of my previous experiences with private interventions in public life, I’m coming to believe a little more in the role of the private sector in building our cities. Of course, I am not saying it is all good, these cases are certainly the exception rather than the majority.

But it seems to offer an opportunity for us as city dwellers to take a more direct approach at collective city building.

 

brick project

Since 2011 each separate brick in this wall has been designed and painted by its own individual artist. Each piece of work was improvised from scratch. This is the first wall in this ongoing project. There are other Brick Project walls throughout Bristol. If you would like to see the names of each artist and the titles of their bricks please go to danpetley.co.uk” – Inscription in white brick on the left

Going back to Amanda’s talk, she says that:

“Public spaces need vigilant champions not only to claim them for public use, but to design them for the people that use them, then to maintain them, to make sure they are for everyone…”

I think Stokes Croft and Hamilton House have shown me a little more evidence about the possibility of taking what Amanda says and relating it to the city as a whole. Yes cities need vigilant champions, but we can be those champions. Pushing for inclusive spaces by expressing our desires for them to be so. It seems to me that HH and the Canteen are and exemplary pieces of evidence of how a group of people, a community, is taking ownership over the changes that happen in their area.

Going back further, to the Theatre space at the Tobacco Factory. At the end of the day the more inclusive the space is, the more you can enjoy the show. But the only way we can ensure that such inclusive spaces are designed is if we as ‘spectators’ express our desires and push to be a part of the show.

 

 

More on the Tobacco Factory:

 

 

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To be a Bristolian, or not to be a Bristolian…

One of the great and most difficult things about being a third-culture-kid is that when people ask you ‘where is home for you?’, you rarely know (1) how to answer, and if you’re lucky enough to have an answer, (2) where to start.

What this means is that you are born in one place, your mother is from another place and your father is from yet another. You’ve also, probably, moved around the world a lot. Finally, more often than not, your friends are scattered all over the world, keeping in touch with them depends on your possession of a smartphone, and you could probably never really settle in any place knowing your childhood friends will be there because they will probably have moved by the time you’ve bought the plane ticket and moved out to where they are. Going ‘back home’ is an unfamiliar concept to you.

Everyone will say ‘you’re so lucky! you’re like a true citizen of the world!’ and you will answer, out of politeness ‘yeah, I’ve been very lucky!’. But deep down, you might think to yourself, ‘I’ve been lucky, but I still wish I felt that I had a home’.

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Do you know that saying, ‘home is where the heart is’? Well, good news, recently in my own third-culture-kid life, when I was visiting Mexico, I read something wonderful “Mi casa tiene alas” (my home has wings). Thank you Edward James.

Mi Casa Tiene Alas – Edward James, Xilitla, Mexico

Although what the artist may have meant is very much, open to interpretation. Coming across this thought was in a way, very liberating for me, as I had been struggling for several years to come to terms with my identity and the idea that I may never settle because wherever I am, I am a foreigner. So this phrase spoke to me almost instantly. It marked the moment that I realised I was free from my past and could chose to settle anywhere, any day. Realising this is easier said than done, people tell you all the time, but it takes a lot to pack up your things, leave your past behind you and start afresh.

So now I now wander with a greater sense of freedom than I had before, or at least I’d like to think I do… perhaps that is why I am writing this.

I brought myself to Bristol at the end of last year (not so long ago) and have instantly fallen for it.

I’d like to tell you that I don’t mind the incredibly strong gusts of wind that have almost blown me over on my bike several times… or the fact that I was walking down the street on Sunday and literally experienced about three different weather conditions in the space of about 20 minutes; shining sun, pouring rain and hail. Anyways, I guess that’s English weather for you, in all it’s glory.

On the other hand, one of the first things I came across on my arrival here is the Bristol Cable, a newspaper that is “created and owned by the people in the city”. A media co-operative that you can join and support for £1 a month.

On the back of the paper the Cable explains:

This isn’t a charity appeal. This isn’t a one off campaign. You’re investing your money and getting a return: community ownership, quality journalism and free education. No other city’s media is owned by it’s residents. 

Within the pages of the 6th issue (my first read) you can find reports, discussions, opinions and visuals covering all sorts of topics relevant to defining the quality of life of Bristolians. From questions about sexism and the council, addiction, the city’s historical composition, taxing, the changing role of the media in the city and more. These are topics focused on issues within the city that real people can relate to in their day-to-day experiences.

If you think about it, this is quite refreshing considering the alternative, which are issues on either confusingly irrelevant or overwhelmingly depressing events, both of which you can do little about, except perhaps engage in intense discussions that leads to the even more generally deceptive conclusion that: “Our world is a little more depressing every day… “

As I scanned the pages, smiling at the mere idea of a ‘people’s paper’, I came across an article that made me smile even more, Desde Barcelona a Bristol; Una historia de la migración de España ¿Qué se busca – y que se encuentra- en esta ciudad? (From Barcelona to Bristol: A story of migration from Spain to Bristol: what do people look for here, and what do they find?). Yes, it was written in both Spanish and English.

The article’s title is pretty self explanatory, but in a way its presence in both Spanish and English mirrors a small reality of the city, which is that of a comfortable habitation with diversity.

My initial impression is that the city thrives on its diversity. The people’s paper is for everyone. Much like the city of Bristol, anyone is welcome, can contribute to and be a part of it.

And so I return to my original question…

To be or not to be…

Urban Dictionary tells us…

A Bristolian is someone from the city Bristol in England.  As some people may think that all Bristolians are chavs, they are in fact not ALL chavs. Often known to bring a warm presence into a room unintentionally.

As a constant foreigner, I know the feeling of being foreign. Yet here, in Bristol, that feeling is not so obvious. So I would add to the above definition, a Bristolian is someone who is from or lives in, but also contributes to the city; as the city seems to welcome anyone who will contribute to its thriving culture and energy. It probably takes time and perhaps some practice to be a Bristolian, but it seems like that’s a decision that you get to make as an individual, irrespective of where you were born, who your parents are or what language you speak; which to a third-culture-kid is quite a welcoming feeling.