Stokes Croft

Mark Barrett marknbarrett at
Wed Oct 27 23:53:41 BST 2010

 A new People's Republic established in Bristol

*The Stokes Croft area of Bristol has been transformed by a local
regeneration movement that’s led by the arts—and has little room for Tesco
in its heart*


*Is this the big society?*

David Cameron has made it one of the cornerstones of coalition rhetoric, yet
no one knows quite what the “big society” is, *writes David Goldblatt*. Is
it a new wave of voluntary service, an expanded role for the third sector—or
local initiatives in health and education, perhaps? In Stokes Croft, the
most rundown area of inner city Bristol—pictured, above—we might find an
unusual and unexpected answer in the form of a radical grassroots
organisation: the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC).

Stokes Croft is wedged between St Paul’s and the city centre. For half a
century, it has been in freefall. Once a smart Edwardian shopping area, it
steadily declined until, by the 1990s, it had become a cluster of massage
parlours and abandoned beautiful buildings, home to Bristol’s cider drinkers
and heroin addicts.

In 2007, however, one man saw beyond the blight and decided to do something.
Chris Chalkley founded PRSC as an urban experiment in grassroots
regeneration. With just his savings to keep him going, he created a
community interest company devoted to transforming Stokes Croft into a
unique cultural quarter. This was, after all, the area where Massive Attack
used to hang out before they made it big, where Bansky painted some of his
earliest works and where the Cube (an arts cinema successfully run on
volunteer labour and without a single penny of public support) was located.
Chalkley declared that Stokes Croft would become the biggest outdoor art
gallery in the world and, with a few pots of paint, began to create
brilliant murals.

Over the last three years, Chalkley has catalysed an amazing, if unfinished,
transformation built on the area’s strengths and existing population.
Alongside the street art, he has led a guerrilla redevelopment scheme,
introducing new and humorous signage, reinventing lost and abandoned space,
establishing an art gallery and a pottery factory and—above all—building a
coalition of like-minded individuals and activists. Today, new cafés and
restaurants have moved in, artists’ studios have appeared and a funny,
innovative Museum of Stokes Croft has been created on a shoestring. A new
model of community based urban redevelopment is being invented.

Property developers, ever alert to the real estate value of successful
bohemianism, are circling. But they will face an almighty fight. Tesco’s
attempts to open a store here have been met by a massive wave of protest and
occupations. This might not be what David Cameron had in mind when mooted
the Big Society. Yet this is exactly what PRSC is: an inspirational example
of what people themselves can do where the state or the market can do
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